The 52 men and women meeting in a conference room at the Hotel Maritim in Berlin's Tiergarten district were determined to remain undisturbed. No one else was privy to the location and time of the meeting, in a deliberate attempt to prevent protestors and journalists from showing up at the scene. The only outsider present was Daniel Pipes, an American author, critic of Islam and advisor to former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who happened to be in the city.
The Hotel Maritim is on Stauffenbergstrasse, near the Memorial to the German Resistance. It is an historic point of reference that the 52 attendees would likely have drawn encouragement from. Like would-be Hitler assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, after whom the street is named, they too hope to protect Germany against what they perceive to be pending disaster. The group drafted a set of bylaws and discussed a 77-page party platform, which includes such statements as: "We will do everything in our power to oppose the Islamization of our country."
They gave their party a grand name, a name worth fighting for: "Die Freiheit" (Freedom).
The 52 men and women chose as their party chairman an unprepossessing man with a short haircut and melancholy eyes, the 45-year-old manager of a company specializing in alarm systems and security technology and a member of the Berlin state parliament, René Stadtkewitz.
A few weeks later, Stadtkewitz, a former member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), is sitting at the wheel of his BMW 5 Series. It is a cold November morning as the Berlin skyline gradually fades away in the rear-view mirror. At first, Stadtkewitz's most noticeable feature is his voice, the kind of warm, rich bass often found among radio announcers on classical music stations. But despite his appealing voice, the words coming out of his mouth lose their weight due to their strangeness.
"If we don't get things right demographically, we'll have Algeria in Berlin before long. Islam has always been a religion of conquest," Stadtkewitz says in his throaty bass, the voice of a smoker who fills his lungs with cigarette smoke every two hours. It's about a 550-kilometer (344-mile) trip to Wetzlar in the western state of Hesse, but Stadtkewitz plans to return to Berlin that evening. His day will consist of more than 1,000 kilometers on the road, with political meetings and a press conference sandwiched in between the two legs of his trip.
Stadtkewitz speeds down the autobahn.
"There is a press conference, isn't there, Marc?" Stadtkewitz asks.
The question is directed at the man sitting in the back. Marc Doll, 33, is a teacher who has been a vegetarian for the last 15 years. Doll, who has an honest face and keeps his hair parted neatly on the side, is the deputy party chairman.
"Yes, René, as far as I know," says Doll.
Stadtkewitz nods in satisfaction. The event in Wetzlar sounds promising. A few members of the local chapter of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) intend to join the Freedom Party. Stadtkewitz doesn't know these people and has only communicated with them by e-mail and phone, but if FDP members are indeed defecting to his new party, it will be a coup that "will cause a lot of hype in Hesse, even in the media," says Stadtkewitz.
'Geert Wilders Is a Great Democrat and Liberal'
It's the kind of hype that can't be bad for a new, virtually unknown party, particularly as its chairman, Stadtkewitz, is also virtually unknown: a former member of the CDU from Berlin who never made much of an impression as a politician, never held any significant positions and produced few headlines. Stadtkewitz is the classic second-tier politician. His only media exposure consists of a few stories in Berlin newspapers that have generally described Stadtkewitz as a right-wing populist.
But what does that mean?
"Well, what exactly is that supposed to be, a right-wing populist?" Stadtkewitz asks, scratching his head.
Perhaps someone like Dutch politician Geert Wilders?
"That's nonsense. Right-wing populist. Geert Wilders is a great democrat and liberal. I know him well."
But Wilders says that the Koran should be banned, just as Hitler's "Mein Kampf" was banned.
"Well, Wilders does exaggerate sometimes," says Stadtkewitz. "But you have to be able to bring things to a head sometimes. The internal rejection of Islam has long been a majority view in Germany. You can see it in the Sarrazin debate."
For Stadtkewitz the debate that broke out after Thilo Sarrazin, the former member of the board of the German Central Bank, published a book claiming that Muslims would soon outnumber ethnic Germans and that they were dumbing down the country, went something like this: After reading Sarrazin's book, shortly after it was published, Stadtkewitz realized that he liked what he was reading. He felt validated and encouraged.
By the time he had finished reading the book, it had already set off a heated debate in Germany, first about the book itself and eventually about the broader issue of integration. The vehemence of that debate surprised him at first, says Stadtkewitz.
Another German Integration Debate
The book is thick and full of numbers, not exactly the classic formula for a bestseller. Nevertheless, it seems to expose a hidden undercurrent of threat and loss in the German psyche.
There have been similar debates in the past. Indeed, the German integration debate is a ritual that appears with the regularity of an outbreak of herpes. This time, however, the debate has been centered around a clear bogeyman: Muslims.
Book buyers and not politicians are the people who dominate today's integration debate. The mere act of buying the book constitutes a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that Sarrazin is right.
The fact that hundreds of thousands of people were buying the book encouraged Stadtkewitz in his belief that his fledgling party could be a success. He recognized that there was a certain mood in the country, and that all he had to do was to channel it into a political movement.
Within a few weeks of its establishment, the Freedom Party had already received about 6,000 membership inquiries. Stadtkewitz and his team were overwhelmed and hardly able to respond to all of the inquiries.
In a poll commissioned by the left-leaning newspaper Berliner Zeitung, 24 percent of Berlin residents stated that they could imagine voting for a "party directed against Islam." And a survey conducted by the Emnid opinion research firm concluded that 18 percent of Germans would vote for a Sarrazin party.
A Sarrazin party doesn't even exist.
But now there is one lead by René Stadtkewitz, a small business owner from Berlin's Karow district.
'I've Always Been Underestimated'
Stadtkewitz is surprised at how quickly the project -- the party to go with the book, as it were -- is gathering steam. The membership inquiries have come from all quarters, not just from FDP members in Wetzlar, but also from members of the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), as well as the many voters with no political affiliation, the citizens who feel disappointed, angry and afraid. All Stadtkewitz has to do is to gather them together under one umbrella.
"I've always been underestimated," says Stadtkewitz, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of his BMW. "In the CDU, they thought: Oh, he'll never do that. That was their attitude when I left the party, when we had the Wilders event and, now, with the establishment of our party."
Michael Braun, the CDU's deputy floor leader in the Berlin city assembly, says that there was a point at which Stadtkewitz became unreachable. "He closed his mind when it came to the issue of Islam. There was some sort of an inner radicalization going on there," says Braun.
Kurt Wansner, the CDU's integration policy spokesman in Berlin, says: "In the end, René was only interested in the negative aspects of the integration issue. But those who now place him in the right-wing corner are doing him a complete injustice."
Stadtkewitz says that it was all a slow process, one that took years of searching for answers "to questions that no one could or wanted to answer."
Stadtkewitz grew up in East Berlin, where Islam was nonexistent at the time. After finishing high school, he worked in an East Berlin firm, assembling industrial robots. Stadtkewitz left East Germany in September 1989 and fled to the West via Hungary, taking his wife and their two-year-old son along. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, he returned to the city and, in 1995, joined the CDU, motivated primarily by then Chancellor and CDU Chairman Helmut Kohl and a sense of gratitude for his role in German reunification.
Protests Against Pankow Mosque
Stadtkewitz became the CDU district chairman in Berlin's Pankow neighborhood and was later elected to the Berlin city state parliament. He had a reputation as a reserved, diligent politician. While in the assembly, Stadtkewitz focused on construction and urban development, until 2005, when Islam suddenly became a hot-button issue.
There were plans to build a mosque, the first in the eastern part of the city, in Stadtkewitz's Pankow district. But Pankow residents strongly opposed the mosque, staging protests, collecting signatures and holding candlelight vigils. Germany's democratic, freedom-oriented basic order seemed to have become embroiled in a battle against Islamization on the outskirts of Berlin. Stadtkewitz became the leader of the protest movement.
The mosque construction, he says, triggered a change in his life, dividing it into two parts, just as Germany is shaped by the periods before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Stadtkewitz buried himself in books. He read the Koran and concluded that it contained "more than 200 calls for the murder of non-believers." He read books critical of Islam by such authors as Necla Kelek and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Udo Ulfkotte's "The War in Our Cities," and many others. To this day, he says, he has read at least 50 books critical of Islam, and the deeper he penetrates into the material, the greater his fears become.
Stadtkewitz made several outings to the city's immigrant neighborhoods, places like Neukölln and Wedding, where he would walk into teahouses and introduce himself by saying: "Hello, my name is René Stadtkewitz, and I am a member of the state parliament for the CDU."
What did he hope to accomplish?
"I wanted to compare the image painted in the books to reality," says Stadtkewitz. "I wanted to discuss Islam and integration with Muslims in their environment."
It must have been an interesting situation: the Muslims and the Islam critic, sparring in the midst of a parallel society. "Most of them weren't particularly interested in talking to me," says Stadtkewitz. "It was as if I were entering a foreign territory."
What had he expected?
Stadtkewitz shrugs his shoulders and says: "Answers."
'I Have Nothing Against Muslims'
His fellow CDU members soon became irritated with his theories on Islam, while Stadtkewitz felt misunderstood and marginalized. He was critical of the party's shift to the left under Chancellor Angela Merkel, and when the CDU cancelled an event critical of Islam that Stadtkewitz had organized, he left the party, though he remained a member of its Berlin parliamentary group. Then he met Dutch politician Geert Wilders in The Hague.
Stadtkewitz, impressed by Wilders' approach, his political stance and his assessment of Islam as a dangerous ideology, finally felt understood. He invited Wilders to attend an event in Berlin, and Wilders accepted the invitation. Back in Berlin, the head of the CDU state organization gave Stadtkewitz an ultimatum: He could either disinvite Wilders or expect to be ejected from the CDU parliamentary group in the city parliament. Since then, Stadtkewitz has been an independent representative, with no attachment to any parliamentary group.
"I have nothing against Muslims. I make a distinction among Muslims, the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islam. The ideology is dangerous," says Stadtkewitz.
When Stadtkewitz stops at a rest stop on his trip to Wetzlar, he is already pulling a cigarette out of his red packet of Pall Malls by the time he pulls into the parking lot. Despite having had a stroke some time ago, Stadtkewitz has been unable to break the smoking habit.
Inside the rest stop, he drinks a cup of coffee from a machine while Doll eats a cheese sandwich, looking dissatisfied. Doll, who is from Heidelberg in western Germany, has been living in Berlin for a few years, where he was also a CDU member until recently. In addition to being a non-smoker and vegetarian, he is also a member of the raw food movement. He wrote the section on internal security and a short section on health policy for the party program -- probably because he was the only one interested in the subject.
"I have a doctor who wants to join our party," says Doll, chewing his cheese sandwich.
"What kind of a doctor?" Stadtkewitz asks.
"Just a normal doctor. An orthodox practitioner," says Doll. "But sometimes he does these events."
"Events?" Stadtkewitz asks.
"Well, like a barefoot run, for example. To address foot health. Shoes are bad for our feet, René."
"A barefoot run, Marc?" Stadtkewitz asks, staring into his coffee.
Then they continue their journey, the smoker and the raw foodist, through the states of Thuringia and Hesse. They arrive in Wetzlar at noon, where Sabine Merkelbach and Jörg Bader greet them at the Hotel Blankenfeld, in a room with turquoise-colored walls.
Merkelbach is a petite, tomboyish woman, and Bader is a man with black hair that looks dyed. Merkelbach chaired the local FDP organization and once ran for a seat in the German parliament, the Bundestag, while Bader was the deputy head of the FDP's district organization. Now Merkelbach and Bader are sitting on one side of a conference table, facing Stadtkewitz and Doll. It almost seems as if the two FDP defectors are auditioning for roles in Stadtkewitz's new party.
"We are frustrated," Merkelbach says. "Very frustrated," Bader agrees.
The two politicians talk about their reasons for leaving the FDP. They rattle off a long list of reasons and political disappointments: the tax abatement for hotel owners, the fatal election for the presidential post, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, the Greek bailout and, most of all, the betrayal of "all liberal principles."
Stadtkewitz nods thoughtfully, as if he had already anticipated everything they were going to say.
"I have the feeling that, in general, things just aren't right in Germany anymore," says Merkelbach. "All we do is tweak ailing systems," Bader adds. "Things are festering everywhere. We have to figure out what our values are," says Merkelbach. "We have to get back to thinking of ourselves first," Bader says.
Merkelbach and Bader seem to be staring into an abyss into which they could fall at any moment -- and the entire country, along with them. Their words reflect German attitudes towards life in the 21st century, in which the future is uncertain, and there is a perception that things are going downhill.
"There is a certain yearning within the population," says Bader.
A certain yearning.
For what, exactly?
"We have to take countermeasures now," says Stadtkewitz, quickly jumping into the conversation and presenting the basic elements of his party program: the introduction of direct democracy based on the "Swiss model," a uniform national school system, community work instead of the Hartz IV welfare reform program, lower taxes, a new integration policy and a freeze on immigration.
For Bader, everything Stadtkewitz is saying is "very, very good," while Merkelbach seems overjoyed to conclude that she agrees with "95 percent" of his arguments. Suddenly, in this small hotel room with its turquoise-colored walls, Stadtkewitz seems to grow in stature.
Making Xenophobia Respectable
Merkelbach and Bader look at Stadtkewitz as if he were their great white hope, a cowboy who will ride back to Berlin and put an end to the murky minutiae of politics, the divide between politicians and citizens and the shady machinations of political parties. Most of all, they see Stadtkewitz, not unlike the white-haired Sarrazin, as someone who can make xenophobia respectable.
Stadtkewitz is a local politician, which is likely to help his cause, because every good populist, on either side of the political spectrum, sees himself as a representative of ordinary citizens, of people opposed to the elites and the politicians who are depriving them of their rights, prosperity, values and identity.
"We've talked about the immigration freeze you propose. But what do we do with the immigrants who are already here?" Merkelbach asks cautiously.
"The Russlanddeutsche (ethnic Germans from Russia) are a problem here," says Bader. "They've practically developed a ghetto in Wetzlar."
Stadtkewitz looks surprised. Islam is his subject. He hadn't expected to be talking about Russlanddeutsche and ghettoes in Wetzlar.
"I could imagine that in cases where there is no integration, we simply refuse to extend residency permits," Stadtkewitz finally replies.
"But we can't get rid of some of them, because they have German passports," Merkelbach says quietly. "Like the Kazakhs."
Stadtkewitz doesn't have a solution for the Kazakh issue, so they move on to other subjects: Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union, which have to be stopped, and renewable energy, which could eliminate Germany's dependence on Arab oil. Then Stadtkewitz says that he's hungry, and they all drive to a Burger King together. Stadtkewitz orders a Whopper and Doll a vegetarian burger.
Turning Germany Into a Switzerland With Fewer Mountains
In the afternoon, back at the hotel, Bader and Merkelbach push together tables to form a podium for the press conference.
The one reporter who shows up is with an agency that, as he says, "covers the Giessen area." Stadtkewitz solemnly announces that Merkelbach and Bader are now on board with the Freedom Party and that he has asked them to form a state organization in Hesse.
"What exactly does your party stand for?," the reporter asks.
"We intend to cover the entire non-extremist spectrum," says Doll.
"We want to address the major issues of the day," says Stadtkewitz.
When Stadtkewitz discusses his party program, it seems clear that he wants to see Germany turned into something resembling Switzerland -- just with fewer mountains. He advocates strict immigration laws, expedited deportation, a ban on minaret construction and direct democracy through referendums. He is critical of the EU and envisions a country that is oriented toward Christianity and the West, largely free of Muslims, patriotic, safe and rich, and with limited government. He wants to seal off the country, arguing that the things coming from beyond Germany's borders, things like European bureaucracy, globalization, Islamists and foreigners taking advantage of the German social welfare system, are rarely good.
It is dark by the time Stadtkewitz's BMW is on the road to make the 550-kilometer trip back to Berlin. Stadtkewitz says that he thought long and hard about whether to take it upon himself to found a party. After all there had already been a right-populist party in Germany: the Law and Order Offensive Party, nicknamed the Schill Party after its founder Ronald Schill, the Hamburg judge who founded it in 2000. Things seemed to be going well for the party initially but eventually the project failed. Experts and political scientists now say that populist parties can only succeed in Germany under a charismatic leader.
Bid to Attract Voters from Political Center
Stadtkewitz may lack Schill's cold personality but he is also more focused. Stadtkewitz is calm, thoughtful and not a neo-Nazi. These character traits alone could be sufficient to attract voters from the political center unwilling to be associated with the far right.
Stadtkewitz really would have preferred to operate and run the party from behind the scenes, in keeping with his original plan.
"I wanted to build the party in collaboration with Kirsten Heisig. She was supposed to be the face of the party and I would be the organizer. We met when I left the CDU, and she said to me: 'René, I won't say no if you want to develop something of your own.' We moved forward with the project, had meetings and started planning," says Stadtkewitz. "But then there was that tragic event." In early July, the body of Heisig, a judge in a Berlin juvenile court, was found hanging from a tree in Tegel Forest. She had committed suicide. Her book, "Das Ende der Geduld" (The End of Patience), published posthumously, became a bestseller.
"Someone like Kirsten Heisig doesn't come along very often," says Stadtkewitz.
He has tried to meet with Sarrazin. It seemed promising at first, but now a meeting seems unlikely to happen. "Sarrazin doesn't want to talk, for now," says Stadtkewitz.
That leaves Marc Doll, who is dozing on the back seat, and a few loyal supporters in Berlin.
Berlin State Elections the 'Deciding Moment'
The party is still small, but it is growing, particularly in Berlin and the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It welcomed its 1,000th member in December. There are plans to form state organizations in the coming months, and a central party office is in the works. Stadtkewitz would like to see his party headquarters located in downtown Berlin, in its political center, but for now the party meets in Reinickendorf, an outlying district in the city's northwest.
The party's future will be shaped next year, when Berlin holds its parliamentary elections. "That will be the deciding moment. If we don't manage to get into the parliament, the party will be all but dead," says Stadtkewitz. But he also says that he expects to capture "significantly more than five percent of the vote."
He would like to have a strong figure to lead the campaign, a prominent face. But he will probably end up having to assume that role himself. Stadtkewitz wants to hire a coach to show him how to write statements, how to get into the news and how to score points as a guest on talk shows. "I have to become tougher, clearer and more trenchant. I also have to provoke. Just like Wilders."
Geert Wilders, the hero of the European anti-Islam movement, is Stadtkewitz's role model, even though he would never admit it. Nevertheless, he is already benefiting from Wilders' contacts. Stadtkewitz is now part of a European movement. In December, it took him to Israel, together with Heinz-Christian Strache, the chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Belgian politician Filip Dewinter of the similarly oriented Flemish nationalist Vlaams Belang Party, and Kent Ekeroth of the national and anti-Islamic Sweden Democrats. The group met with Jewish settlers in the West Bank, visited the city of Ashkelon in the Gaza Strip, discussed "strategies against Islamic terror" and visited the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. The delegation's Israeli contact was Ariel Shomer, the head of the cabinet of former President Ezer Weizman.
The 'Jerusalem Declaration'
It wasn't entirely clear what the conservative Israelis expected from Stadtkewitz and the other party leaders, but perhaps they were simply united in their fear of Islam.
During the trip, the delegation issued the "Jerusalem Declaration," a manifesto of sorts. "Now that the totalitarian systems of the 20th century have been overcome," the document reads, "mankind currently sees itself exposed to a new, worldwide totalitarian threat: fundamentalist Islam. We see ourselves as part of the worldwide struggle by the defenders of democracy and human rights against all totalitarian system and their accomplices."
Stadtkewitz is beginning to attract attention, not just in Israel but also in the faraway United States. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin sent her best wishes to Stadtkewitz and his delegation in Israel, and he could be visiting New York, the center of the world, soon. Nothing is set in stone yet, says Stadtkewitz, but last year Wilders spoke in New York on the ninth anniversary of 9/11, at the invitation of the organization Stop Islamization of America. This year, on the 10th anniversary, the group is thinking about inviting Stadtkewitz.
The German Geert.
Stadtkewitz is working on his transformation into a German version of the Dutch politician. On a clear, icy morning, he is standing on the outer deck of a ferry as it slowly makes its way from Rostock in northern Germany to Denmark. Stadtkewitz is headed for Copenhagen to attend the international conference of the Free Press Society, a group critical of Islam.
Stadtkewitz disembarks in the Danish ferry port of Gedser and drives his BMW along a snow-covered highway to Copenhagen. He is late by the time he reaches the Danish parliament building, and when he finally walks into a beautiful old chamber on the second floor, the conference has already begun.
He takes a seat near the back of the room. His English is poor, but Doll translates for him. Suddenly he hears his name, as the chairman welcomes him with the words: "Hello Mr. Stadtkewitz from Germany!"
Stadtkewitz stands up and waves briefly, as if he were a visiting dignitary, to a roar of applause from the approximately 200 attendees. Here in Copenhagen, he is a fellow soldier, their man from Germany.
'We Are Pinning Our Hopes on You'
Peter Skaarup of the Danish People's Party is standing at the podium. "Political Islam will undoubtedly be the new totalitarianism of the 21st century," says Skaarup. The Danish People's Party is the third-strongest party in Denmark.
Later Jimmie Akesson of the Sweden Democrats, a party that has recently entered the Swedish parliament, steps up to the microphone. "Islam just hides behind religion. It is a political ideology," says Akesson. He tells the group that pork is no longer on the menu in some Swedish schools, and he talks about demographic change. "By 2060, the real, ethnic English will be in the minority in England."
A woman in the audience proposes a law that would permit all Muslims in Sweden to have only two children.
The conference continues in the same vein. Everyone in the room -- the speakers, the parties, Stadtkewitz -- subscribes to the worldview of a parallel society marked by fear and a defensive posture. And yet they believe that what they are fighting for is good: freedom, modernity and the values of the West. They see themselves as combatants against the dark threat from the East. This makes their Islamophobia more palatable for many fearful voters.
Stadtkewitz is standing at the window, looking out at Copenhagen under a blanket of snow. A short man in a black suit taps him on the shoulder: Chaim Muehlstein from Israel.
"We are pinning our hopes on you, here in Europe," says Muehlstein, "you and the other parties."
Stadtkewitz smiles, looking inspired.
"They're further along politically in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands than we are in Germany. They're a parliamentary force," Stadtkewitz concludes, somewhat dejectedly, when the conference comes to an end. It's time for him to catch up. His goal, quite simply, is to capture the votes of Berliners.