Anti-Democratic Tendencies Germany Considers Monitoring Right-Wing AfD
Germany's domestic intelligence agency is wary of officially monitoring the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party. But there is plenty of cause for concern. Extremist ideas are present at all levels within the AfD. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
The dossier is 79 pages long. It was prepared for the national leadership of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), and it provides strong evidence that a local party chapter in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, in a place called Börde, has alarmingly anti-democratic tendencies.
The document meticulously describes a "rapid increase of far-right extremist content" in the Facebook posts of AfD party members in Börde. These range from anti-Semitic grumblings ("America and the Jews are Germany's biggest enemy") to fantasies of killing refugees or leading Social Democrats such as ex-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, ("Filthy pigs like him used to be killed"). There were even appeals to an even more extremist group, the National Democratic Party of Germany ("NPD, do something already!").
The AfD's federal leadership now intends to take action, but that intention comes rather late. The right-wing extremist activities in Börde, tolerated and concealed by local AfD leaders, has been known to national AfD leaders for the last year. In late 2017, the Börde chapter was to be dissolved, but as is so often the case, an internal party arbitration board blocked the move. Now, though, federal party leaders are on the case. They intend to dissolve the chapter and kick the ringleaders out of the party.
AfD leaders have been late to recognize that the fight against the party's extremist elements is vital to its survival. And the functionaries are under pressure from Germany's security apparatus like never before. Five years after the party was founded, both political scientists and politicians themselves are calling for the AfD to be monitored by German security officials. If the same criteria were applied as in the 1990s decision to monitor the right-wing Republikaner party, such monitoring would long-since have begun.
After all, the AfD doesn't just have a right-wing extremist problem in small eastern German chapters. Some extremists have advanced to leadership positions within the party. Leading functionaries either turn a blind eye or actively facilitate the party's radicalization. It has become increasingly evident that some of the party's most prominent personalities have turned their backs on democracy altogether.
The party's co-leader Alexander Gauland muses publicly about a "system change" in Germany and has said he wants to "banish from power" anyone who supports Chancellor Angela Merkel. The head of the AfD's state chapter in Brandenburg, Andreas Kalbitz, is an old hand in far-right circles and enjoys electrifying crowds with neo-Nazi-style provocations ("Those who don't love Germany should leave!").
But the most prominent far-right extremist in the party is Björn Höcke, head of the AfD's state chapter in Thuringia, who has denigrated Merkel as a "dictator" and wrote a book in which he foretold a new start for Germany under strongman leadership. With people like Höcke as role models, it's no wonder that the AfD's base doesn't feel particularly inclined to moderate its rhetoric. The only question is why the authorities have hesitated for so long.
Left-wing politicians have long called for the AfD to be placed under official surveillance. Ever since the party's functionaries were seen marching through the eastern German cities of Chemnitz and Köthen alongside far-right extremists, hooligans and Lutz Bachmann, a convicted criminal who founded the xenophobic Pegida protests in Dresden, such calls for surveillance have even begun emanating from the initially reserved Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "The AfD is evolving toward far-right extremism," says Thomas Strobl, interior minister of the German state of Baden-Württemberg. The unity among extremists that was on display in Chemnitz showed "that we are faced with a challenge."
Strobl notes that a decision about whether to place the AfD under surveillance must ultimately come from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), as the country's domestic intelligence agency is officially known. But: "If the prerequisites for monitoring are met, something must be done, and quickly." For Armin Schuster, a domestic policy expert with the CDU, it has become increasingly obvious that the AfD deserves to be monitored by the authorities. "The party's rhetoric is seditious," he says.
The AfD presents a unique problem to the BfV. What began as a bourgeois party founded by a group of euro-skeptic professors has gradually turned into an anti-Islam, anti-immigrant umbrella organization that attracts well-behaved citizens and far-right radicals alike. Soon, the party will control seats in every state parliament in addition to being the strongest opposition party in federal parliament in Berlin. Just on Sunday, it won 10 percent of the vote in Bavarian state elections.
'The Good Ol' Days'
Prior to that vote, AfD co-leader Alice Weidel spent weeks campaigning in Bavaria. At a speech last Wednesday in the town of Höchstadt an der Aisch, she talked about her days as an economics major in the nearby university city of Bayreuth. "Those were the good ol' days," she said to cheers from the roughly 60 AfD supporters who had gathered.
Shortly before appearing in Höchstadt, she had sat on a stage in Bad Aibling as the local candidate for state parliament denounced the "negroes" in the area, saying he was afraid of being "coughed on" by them because they're known to carry diseases like AIDS, scabies and tuberculosis. The AfD's own video of the event showed Weidel smiling during the speech. Later, she would claim to not have heard
the racist assertions.In Höchstadt, Weidel was introduced as the "hopefully future chancellor candidate." A good half hour later, as she rattled off her party's platform, she kept coming back to the BfV, particularly when discussing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to Berlin, where fans of the autocrat were seen performing the salute of the ultra-right nationalist Turkish group Gray Wolves. "They're being monitored by the intelligence service!" Weidel said excitedly.
What she didn't mention is that elements of her own AfD are likewise in the agency's crosshairs. On the contrary: She announced that her party had recently filed an official complaint against Interior Minister Horst Seehofer for calling the AfD "destructive for Germany."
With Hans-Georg Maassen in charge of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution for the last several years -- before he was removed recently after being accused of pandering to the far-right -- the agency tended to drag its feet when it came to the AfD. Some state intelligence services have long implored their federal counterpart to do more to cast light on the party's connections to far-right groups. The agency is now conducting an official review. A decision is expected by the end of the year about whether the AfD should be placed under complete surveillance, partial surveillance or none at all.
The state intelligence services were supposed to have sent the results of their own investigations to the federal agency's headquarters by the end of the first week of October and all but three delivered, though the quality of the dossiers varied. Most states submitted tens of pages, some hundreds. And while some states offered evidence of connections between the AfD and far-right extremist groups, others did not.
Of all states, Saxony hasn't bothered to file a report at all -- despite the fact that the AfD polls at 25 percent there, that party functionaries are closely allied with the Islamophobic group Pegida and that members of an alleged far-right terrorist cell known as "Revolution Chemnitz" attended a now-infamous "funeral march" organized by the AfD.
A High Bar?
For the AfD to merit surveillance, the law says "there must be real evidence of efforts against the liberal democratic order." Suspicions aren't enough. Also, anti-democratic mutterings can't only come from a few rogue members. For the government to monitor a political party, extremists must have a "controlling influence."
That may sound like a high bar, but in the past, the agency went after another far-right extremist group known as the Republikaner, or the Republicans, for similar transgressions. "Their functionaries speak of a flood of foreigners" that will lead to a "gradual de-Germanification of Germany," reads one of the domestic intelligence agency's reports from 1994. It continues: "Vilifying and racist statements" underscore far-right extremist ideologies that can be traced "all the way up to the party's leadership." The report also said the party attackes "institutions and representatives of liberal democracy" in a "disparaging way."
The same could be said about the AfD today. Its leaders have warned against an "Umvolkung" in Germany, a word which refers to the forced change of the population's ethnic composition. They have characterized refugees as "invaders," the German government as a "regime" and the Third Reich as nothing but a "speck of bird shit" on German history.
Image shared by AfD youth group: "Fastest asylum hearing in Germany. Rejects up to 1,400 asylum applications per minute!"
"The authorities have let the AfD do what it likes for too long," says Steffen Kailitz, an extremism researcher at the Hannah Arendt Institute in Dresden. An early intervention could have possibly slowed the most radical elements of the party. "Today, nearly all local chapters in eastern Germany have ties with far-right extremism," Kailitz says.
The worldview of the AfD's most conservative wing is indistinguishable from that of far-right extremist groups like the Identitarian Movement. Both strive for "ethnic-cultural purity" of the German people, according to Kailitz, a notion for which there is no room in the German constitution.
Respected constitutional law experts agree. "Parts of the party are in pursuit of goals that would justify putting them under observation," says the Leipzig-based legal scholar Christoph Degenhart. Christoph Möllers, a law professor in Berlin who was involved in efforts to ban the NPD, views Höcke's chapter in Thuringia as a clear-cut case that merits observation. "When the leader of a state chapter spreads nationalist ideology like Höcke does, it definitely justifies observation," Möllers says.
'Based On the Facts'
And yet domestic intelligence officials are hesitant. There's nothing they fear more than an AfD appeal against being put under observation, especially since the German Constitutional Court has placed high hurdles in the way of monitoring elected officials. If the AfD were to win a legal challenge, it would be extremely damaging to the BfV.
"The Office for the Protection of the Constitution does not choose whom it deals with," says Torsten Voss, who heads the state intelligence agency in Hamburg in addition to coordinating the work of all state-level domestic intelligence agencies around the country. Those decisions, he says, "cannot be politically motivated, but must always be well-informed and based on the facts."
The state agency in Thuringia has been weighing whether to monitor Höcke's chapter -- explicitly based on his increasingly seditious public appearances. During an event in June, Höcke told his supporters that the "time of the wolf" had arrived in Germany. He also urged police officers to disobey their superiors, otherwise they would be held accountable after the people took back power.
Nevertheless, Höcke was chosen this weekend as the AfD's lead candidate for state elections in 2019. In his speech, Höcke went after Stephan Kramer, the head of Thuringia's state intelligence agency, accusing him of abusing his office. "One Stasi was enough," Höcke said, referring to the notorious East German secret police. "We don't want that ever again."
Kramer, for his part, said last week: "If the AfD taps Björn Höcke to be its lead candidate, it endorses what he says. With that, the party would make unambiguously clear where it stands."
The AfD's youth wing, the Junge Alternative (JA), is already under observation in the states of Bremen and Lower Saxony, where links between the JA and neo-Nazis or the Identitarian Movement are particularly evident. Bremen's interior senator, Ulrich Mäurer, accuses the youth organization of "pure racism." The situation in Lower Saxony is hardly better. DER SPIEGEL is in possession of screenshots from a WhatsApp group in which JA functionaries questioned the Holocaust: "It didn't happen the way people claim." One participant voiced interest in founding a "Horst Wesel fighting community," named after a prominent leader of the Nazi Party's stormtroopers. Someone else expressed longing for a "final solution to the Muslim question." There were no protestations.
Dana Guth, the head of the AfD in Lower Saxony, said she was "appalled" when asked about the WhatsApp messages. She said her state chapter consistently cracked down on far-right radicalism in the party. But how credible is that statement?
After the contemptible demonstration in Chemnitz, the AfD felt compelled to act. The party was being accused of harboring neo-Nazis and the government was considering whether to place it under official surveillance. So it put together a five-person commission.
The group's mandate, however, was not to root out far-right extremist elements within the party. Instead, its aim was simple: Come up with a strategy to get the authorities off its back.
By Melanie Amann, Jörg Diehl, Hubert Gude, Martin Knobbe, Timo Lehmann, Ralf Neukirch and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt