Far-Right AfD Germany's Populist Party Embraces Its Extremist Wing

The far-right fringe of Germany's populist Alternative for Germany party is gaining ground. Politicians in the party who once opposed the wing and its leader, Björn Höcke, have abandoned their resistance and are taking steps to embrace the extremists.
Björn Höcke and Alice Weidel at an AfD party conference in Hannover, Germany

Björn Höcke and Alice Weidel at an AfD party conference in Hannover, Germany

Foto: HC Plambeck

It was the video that proved decisive. Four minutes of images of Björn Höcke, the leader of the far-right nationalist wing of the right-wing populist AfD party, the so-called "Flügel." It showed him jogging through the golden autumn leaves of his village, shaking the hands of workers and women, feeding sheep and then firing people up in a speech. "When you celebrate me, I feel the passion," Höcke says in the video. "I bow my head in humility for your efforts."

A few days after Höcke's image video was presented at the Flügel's annual "Kyffhäusertreffen," a yearly meeting of the far-right wing in the eastern German state of Thuringia, he combined the video with a combative speech against the arbitration tribunals and the federal executive committee of his party and the more than 100 AfD members who wrote an open letter appealing for the rejection of Höcke. In the letter, more moderate members of the party lambasted his "excessive cult of personality" and rejected his "divisive criticism" of internal party opponents. The letter also made clear that, "The AfD is not and will not become a Björn Höcke Party!"

Was the aim of the letter to spark a revolt within the party? Would the signatories of the appeal, who were conservative, but more mainstream, finally take a stand against the racist völkisch tirades made by Höcke, the party's boss in the state of Thuringia, who is known for peppering his speeches with the language of the National Socialists, and other radical forces within the party?

Such an offensive is already overdue, because even though the party is currently being threatened with official observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the far-right wing of the party has been allowed to go on with its work recently largely unhindered by the rest of the party.

Non-Aggression Pact

It's also hard to imagine that the latest appeal against Höcke will do much to change the situation given that top AfD officials, who are supposedly mainstream, like Alice Weidel, who heads the the parliamentary group in the parliament, the Bundestag, have long since come to terms with the far-right wing and with Höcke. Behind the scenes, Weidel has even forged a non-aggression pact with Höcke, a man she wanted to throw out of the party only a few years ago. For the first time, leading representatives of Höcke's wing of the party and friends of the politician, like the far-right intellectual Götz Kubitschek, are talking about how they can turn Weidel into an ally -- and what they can expect from it.

By doing so, party group leader Weidel is embarking on a dangerous path toward political extremism -- one that AfD party leaders Jörg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland have already taken. Indeed, the Flügel is anything but marginalized in the AfD -- it has been established within the party's mainstream for some time now.

That's even obvious in the open letter. Among more than 100 signatories -- according to the party's own statements, it has a total of 36,000 registered members -- there are almost exclusively representatives of the middle functionary level of western Germany. There are no prominent politicians among the signatories, and only 11 of them hold one of AfD's 91 seats in the Bundestag. That's not what a broad alliance looks like.

Overtures to the Right-Wing Extremists

Weidel began making overtures to the far-right wing about a year ago. Earlier, she been a declared opponent of Höcke, and had even tried to initiate proceedings to have him excluded from the party. But now she took the initiative and sought contact with Höcke through intermediaries. Since then, there have been several meetings, mostly in Berlin -- at times just with Höcke and his friend and mentor, the New Right publisher Kubitschek. And at times there have been slightly bigger meetings with people like Kubitschek's wife Ellen Kositza and AfD party head Gauland.

The fact that Kubitschek has been mediating is indicative of how serious the far-right wing is about gaining footing within the party mainstream. Höcke and Andreas Kalbitz, the 46-year-old from the eastern state of Brandenburg who is pulling the strings within the far-right wing, are closely associated with the publisher and follow his advice when coming up with their policies. Previously, he had tried to make it seem as though he had a slight distance from the party, but it is now clear that he both has and indeed wants to have influence on the party.

"Several meetings took place in a very positive, open atmosphere," Kubitschek said of his meetups with Weidel. He said the meetings hadn't been about individual issues, but about "behavioral teachings and attempts at mediation," very fundamental questions of strategy. Things like: "Where does the AfD stand in the political arena? How can they work together to preserve party unity? How can external pressure be fended off? How can the party base be encouraged and how can the process of finding consensus be institutionalized?"

Kubitshek's conclusion is that "all participants agree that pacifying the party is one of the most important tasks of all." He said he experienced Weidel as a smart, open-minded and well-read woman. "I think she understands what Höcke means and wants," he said.

A mail from Weidel in 2013, before she joined the AfD, made public by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, indicates that Weidel and right-wing radical Höcke hold similar views. In it, Weidel's tone sounds a lot like Höcke's. At the time, she was already railing against "culturally alien peoples such as Arabs and Sinti and Roma" and against politicians she described as being "puppets" of the powers that won World War II. In parliament, she would later agitate against "headscarf girls, knife-wielding men on welfare and other good-for-nothings."

A Strategic Shift

Since Weidel's strategic shift in the AfD, she has enjoyed the support of the far-right wing. When her party donations scandal  came to light at the end of 2018, few activists on the far-right spoke negatively about Weidel and almost no one called for her resignation. If her former opponents hadn't maintained their silence, she probably would have lost her position.

Conversely, Weidel remains silent when there is criticism of the far-right wing. The recent appeal against Höcke obviously didn't include her signature. The best you can get out of her when she comments on Höcke's video is that she finds the staging "irritating" and parts of his speech "dispensable," while also arguing that mudslinging "needs to be prevented."

Representatives of the Flügel wing prefer to speak of a "learning curve" rather than any kind of pact. "She has long known that the party can't shake off Björn Höcke and his network without incurring damage," said Kubitschek. "And that Höcke plays a necessary instrument in the AfD concert." For her part, Weidel is always ready to overcome prejudices she has, said a source close to Höcke. The message is clear: The far-right wing of the party can no longer be defeated.

In the past, Kubitschek likely would have rejected Weidel as being too willing to adapt. But now, she's even allowed to give a lecture at his next "Summer Academy" in Schnellroda, a village in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. "Her lecture ought to be perceived as a gesture within the party: That they have more common than what separates them," Kubitschek said. Weidel has voluntarily entered into this hostile embrace and it is unlikely she will ever be able to untangle herself from it. When she makes her appearance in Schnellroda -- an event whose organizer, Kubitschek, tries to give an intellectual spin to right-wing extremist messages -- Weidel's entry into the Flügel world will be sealed.

Weidel's spokesman confirmed that she has held three meetings with Höcke since the last parliamentary election. But he said that the claim his boss had entered into a pact with Höcke was nothing "but an insinuation." And Weidel herself said, "As parliamentary group leader, I am rightly being asked to respect a certain principle of neutrality." She added that she has attempted to be an "integrating force" in her parliamentary group, with success. And that just talking to someone doesn't mean that one is adopting their opinion.

But it does clearly show that nothing is being done to hinder the other camp, no matter its beliefs.

Government Monitoring Increasingly Likely

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution has been monitoring the Flügel since the beginning of the year . The government is focusing on Höcke and the cult of personality surrounding him, and the intelligence agency also kept an eye on this year's Kyffhäusertreffen meeting. A decision issued by the agency this week can be interpreted as a warning shot. The domestic intelligence service says it considers it proven fact that the Identitarian Movement violates the principles of the German constitution. Several activists with the movement, which is fashioned as more modern version of right-wing extremism, are associated with the AfD, especially within the Flügel, despite the fact that the party has formally distanced itself from the Identitarians.

If Höcke and his followers gain the upper hand, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the Office for the Protection of the Constitution wouldn't place the entire party under formal monitoring for extremist, anti-constitutional activity. That's what makes it so astounding to see the Flügel moving toward the center of the party -- or the rest of the party moving toward the far-right extremist wing.

It has helped the far-right wing that every previous attempt to hold it down has failed spectacularly. The crash of former AfD party heads Bernd Lucke and Frauke Petry as well as the unsuccessful proceedings to kick Höcke out of the party have had a deterrent effect.

Highly Professional, Tightly Organized

But the success of the far-right wing is also attributable to the fact that it has become highly professionalized, tightly organized and has shifted its strategic direction. Members of the Flügel no longer aspire to join the top ranks of the AfD and instead prefer to operate in the background, avoiding public conflicts. That gives critics fewer opportunities to attack. More moderate members of the party even seemed to have developed a certain nonchalance about the possibility of being officially monitored. At the beginning of his speeches, party leader Meuthen is even fond of mockingly addressing the "dear informants who are present," after all, "I have a very big heart."

In 2016, Meuthen became one of the first people from the more moderate AfD camp to open up to Höcke and to attend meetings held by the far-right Flügel. Internally, he has always been considered a weak party leader, and later, he struggled as a result of a campaign donation scandal. The fact that Meuthen was able to become the party's leading candidate in recent elections for the European Parliament is also in part due to the fact that he has withheld from criticizing the far-right in his party. In return, Flügel operative Kalbitz personally made phone calls and sent out text messages in support of Meuthen's candidacy.

Of course, Meuthen views the situation differently. "There has never been such a pact," he said. He claims that Kalbitz only promoted him because he thought he was the right candidate. "Just as I have promoted Kalbitz in the election to the state parliament." He then added, "If the Flügel is reasonable and clearly demarcates itself from extreme positions, I see no reason to take action against it." He said there had been "positive changes" in that wing of the party.

There are also other prominent opponents of Höcke and his wing who have recently grown conspicuously quiet. One example is Beatrix von Storch. One senior member of the Flügel mockingly says she just has "fine instincts" and that she's surely thinking about elections for the national executive committee at the end of November. Storch did not want to comment for this story.

'Compromises on all Sides'

Publisher Götz Kubitschek has growing influence on the AfD party.

Publisher Götz Kubitschek has growing influence on the AfD party.

Foto: Frank Rumpenhorst/ dpa

Kubitschek, who is in constant contact with Höcke and Kalbitz, is the main person behind the party's strategic reorientation. The publisher views the Flügel as an "indispensable and trend-setting current" in the party. But the wing does not embody the entire AfD, so it "is necessary that it work together with other camps in the party," Kubitschek said. "This can only be done with compromises on all sides." Fortunately, he said, Weidel has recognized this.

According to Kubitschek, there is only one way forward for the future of the party in its entirety. "In the long run, it must be possible to bring the AfD into a form in which it can conduct negotiations and make policy." For that to happen, he said, the party must be pacified internally.

In the long run, he said the "Flügel as a political platform within the AfD will be too small, anyway." Kubitschek believes it cannot replace the new alliances between "reconciliatory professionals" in the party that are needed. He said that Höcke's role in the party also needs to change -- that he needs to become "one leadership figure among others, one who operates without a cult of personality and works together in ways that mobilize" people.

A Normal Part of the AfD?

With that, the goal has been set: Höcke and his backers are to become a normal part of the AfD. Now, it's up to Thuringian state chapter leader Höcke to assume that more modest role. Although he has been more reserved recently, making few appearances on the national stage, time and time again, he acts out during major appearances, as he did recently at the Kyffhäusertreffen meeting.

This time the anger in the party over his ego trip was so great that Höcke apparently tried to do damage control behind the scenes. He texted Meuthen, for instance. At the same time, his people spread the word that there was no chance of Höcke entering into the ring and running to become the party's leader.

Andreas Kalbitz, who has been said to have aspirations for the party chairmanship, issued a similar commitment. "I won't be running for the position of party head at the national party conference at the end of the year," he said. He then offered his reasoning. "I believe the current situation within the party requires a candidate who is perceived as being more neutral and balancing than I seem to be for some at the moment." He said his utmost concern is party cohesion and unity for common success.

The men inside the Flügel also have a better candidate lined up. If everything goes well between now and the party conference at the end of November, Tino Chrupalla will become party leader. The politician, from the eastern state of Saxony, landed a seat in the federal parliament by direct vote and is considered Gauland's favorite to succeed him. The 44-year-old has the ability to connect with all the different camps within the party. He's not a member of the right-wing extremist Flügel, but he did travel to the Kyffhäusertreffen. "I just wanted to take a look," Chrupalla said, emphasizing that he remained seated during the ovations for Höcke. "That's not my style," he said. But even he doesn't go any further than criticizing Höcke's actions. To the contrary. "I don't have a problem with the Flügel, I don't see any differences in content between myself or Andreas Kalbitz -- I just sometimes express myself somewhat differently.

This is exactly how the "conciliatory professionals" -- the ones Kubitschek says will make up the AfD in future -- sound. It's no coincidence. Chrupalla is familiar with Kubitschek's strategic ideas. "We've talked a lot these past few days," said Chrupalla. And: "He's very good at judging things."

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