Björn Höcke, the extremist leader of the AfD in Thuringia.

Björn Höcke, the extremist leader of the AfD in Thuringia.

Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa

The Success of the AfD Why Is the Right Wing So Strong in Eastern Germany?

The right-wing radical party AfD emerged from last Sunday's election as the strongest political force in the eastern German states of Saxony and Thuringia. What did the mainstream parties do wrong?

There are some questions that have been facing humanity for centuries. Like: What is wrong with eastern Germany? Friedrich Nietzsche posited an answer to that question in 1886. "The most dangerous region of Germany was Saxony and Thuringia,” he wrote. "Nowhere else was there more intellectual activity and knowledge of human nature, together with free-spiritedness, and yet it was all so modestly concealed by the ugly dialect of the populace.” You hardly noticed, he continued, "that what you were dealing with was the intellectual sergeant-majors of Germany and its instructors in good and evil.”

Since last Sunday’s general election, the old question is once again relevant, and the free-spiritedness that some eastern German states displayed in that vote went far beyond what many would consider acceptable. On the political map of Germany, large chunks of Saxony and Thuringia have taken on the light-blue hue associated with the right-wing radical party Alternative for Germany (AfD). In both states, the AfD – which is suspected of right-wing extremist proclivities by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency – received more votes than any other party. It won 24.6 percent of the vote in Saxony and 24 percent in Thuringia. The center-right Christian Democrats, who held a tight grip on political power in the two states for years, were left in the dust.

And as often happens after a general election or following an eastern German state election, the rest of the country is left clenching its teeth and wondering what can be done.

DER SPIEGEL 40/2021

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 40/2021 (October 2nd, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

It is the same reflex that has been around since German reunification in 1990. In 1998, when the right-wing extremist party DVU won seats in the Saxony-Anhalt state parliament with 12.9 percent of the vote, senior Bavarian politician Wilfried Scharnagl warned in the newspaper Bayernkurier that Germany was going to the dogs because of the ungratefulness of eastern Germans. The former Social Democratic (SPD) governor of Saxony-Anhalt, Reinhard Höppner, accused western Germans of writing off the east, and thus "fertilizing the swampy soil in which the poisonous blossoms of radicalism can thrive.”

The AfD's lead candidates, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla

The AfD's lead candidates, Alice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla

Foto: Sebastian Kahnert / dpa-Zentralbild / dpa

The names of the parties have changed over the years, but the soil has remained fertile. In 2004, the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) sent delegates to the state parliament of Saxony, where they remained for 10 years. These days, the AfD has delegates in state parliaments across the region and has become something of a big-tent party in eastern Germany.

But it is also true that the overwhelming majority of eastern German voters did not vote for the AfD last Sunday. The right-wingers in Saxony did win a number of seats in parliament behind the leadership of lead candidate Tino Chrupalla, but over all they lost votes compared to the last general election. AfD blue has only rolled over the election maps of the region because the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Left Party both lost significant amounts of support.

All of which meant that the Dresden-based political scientist Hans Vorländer has had a lot to do this week. The 67-year-old from the western German city of Wuppertal came to the Dresden Technical University in 1993 and since then has frequently found himself explaining the behavior of eastern German voters to his western German compatriots. On the Monday after the election, he had interviews lined up in 15-minute blocks with radio stations, TV channels and newspapers. He even received requests from France.

In those interviews, Vorländer emphasizes that eastern Germany is far from homogenous. The northern part of former East Germany votes differently than the south. The right-wing, for example, is more concentrated in the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge) of Saxony, a state of affairs for which Vorländer recently found even more evidence in a study on the coronavirus. The region, he says, is more likely to support the AfD and more likely to adhere to conspiracy theories. Indeed, it is a stronghold of anti-vaxxers. "They are rather particular mentalities with a high degree of rebelliousness, intransigence and defiance.”

The narrow valleys of the Ore Mountains are home to this specifically Saxon brand of obstinacy, and has been for a very long time, as regional literature attests to. Furthermore, the region is relatively intact, having suffered less from demographic challenges and brain drain than other parts of eastern Germany. "But there are hermetically sealed communities that function like bubbles,” Vorländer says. Normal political voices hardly ever make an appearance.

Some political groups have sought to take advantage, such as the Free Saxons. The party was founded early this year in the Ore Mountains town of Schwarzenberg. State security officials consider it to be a right-wing extremist group. Ostensibly, officials say, the party is primarily focused on corona protests and "fighting for freedom,” but in reality, its main message is disdain for the state. According to Vorländer, self-reaffirming sociotopes have developed.

"Laschet hates and despises us Saxons!”

A message from the Free Saxons on their Telegram channel

The Free Saxons operate a Telegram channel with around 60,000 followers. Ahead of the election, a message sent out on the channel read: "Laschet hates and despises us Saxons!” – a reference to the CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. He hates "all eastern Germans.” It was up to the voters to ensure a "total collapse” for the CDU, "no matter how friendly the grin of the local candidate on his posters.” The channel also included a survey asking readers who they planned to vote for. The result: 56 percent AfD and 11 percent for "Die Basis,” a group born out of the "Querdenker” movement of corona truthers and anti-vaxxers.

One citizen of Saxony in particular found himself in the crosshairs of right-wing hate ahead of the vote: Marco Wanderwitz, the federal government’s liaison with eastern Germany and a CDU parliamentarian from the Ore Mountains. Wanderwitz is a favorite target of the Free Saxons, in part because of his comment in May that some people in eastern Germany "were socialized in a dictatorship and even after 30 years of living in a democracy, still haven’t arrived.” One can only place one’s hopes, he said, "in the next generation.”

Right-wingers were quick to mobilize against him, and Wanderwitz had to cancel some of his planned appearances for security reasons. Ultimately, he lost his re-election bid to a largely unknown car mechanic from the AfD.

The case is telling for what it says about the problems the CDU is facing in eastern Germany. No matter what it does, voters are turning their backs on the center-right party. Wanderwitz tried to draw a clear line between himself and the far-right, and was punished for doing so. In southern Thuringia, by contrast, Hans-Georg Maassen ran for the CDU, a man who is on the far-right wing of the party and who Thuringia’s extremist AfD chapter head Björn Höcke has praised for having "a lot in common” with the AfD. But Maassen’s candidacy went nowhere. Not only did he lose to the SPD candidate, but the local AfD candidate hardly lost any votes at all to Maassen, despite the CDU candidate’s extremely high name recognition after spending years as the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

There are patterns that can be discerned in the voting behavior of eastern Germans. Vorländer says there is a widespread desire for an authoritative figure at the top. And for many years after the collapse of communism, many states in the region had governors who met that need – fatherly politicians who protected their constituents from the vagaries of the market economy.

An AfD campaign event in Thuringia

An AfD campaign event in Thuringia

Foto: Bodo Schackow / dpa-Zentralbild / dpa

Comparatively younger politicians, like the 46-year-old governor of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer of the CDU, are unable to fill that need. And neither, apparently, is CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet. Indeed, many local CDU chapters would rather have seen Markus Söder, the center-right governor of Bavaria, as the center-right candidate for chancellor. His brash style is far more suited to the state.

But not all of the blame falls on Laschet’s shoulders. Vorländer says that the CDU has been losing supporters in the region since 1994. "First, they became non-voters, then NPD voters … and now they cast their ballots for the AfD.” The right-wing party, he says, has unified the region’s widespread animosity toward Berlin, with the refugee crisis having functioned as an accelerant. The AfD, he says, have become "properly established” in eastern Germany.

Still, there are reasons to believe that the AfD has hit the ceiling of its potential in Saxony. As such, the most pressing question is how the other parties can return to the strength they enjoyed previously in the region. Vorländer believes the CDU needs new faces and more local involvement.

That, though, is something the party has tried before. In the last four years, Kretschmer has held almost 90 events of different formats, all of which were aimed at establishing a more direct line of communication with voters. They included state cabinet members, regional leaders and mayors. The effort, though, didn’t seem to help much in the voting booth and Kretschmer constantly found himself confronted with significant resistance. In Freiberg, for example, he and his retinue were besieged by a group of Free Saxons – to the point that they ran over the foot of a female police officer during their hasty escape.

Still, Vorländer believes that Kretschmer’s strategy was ultimately the correct one. He believes the CDU should make sure they are present throughout the region and invest heavily in meeting voters’ needs for a fatherly figure at the top. You have to go to the places "where it hurts,” he says.

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