After months of political gridlock, on February 5, Die Linke’s only minister president, Bodo Ramelow, was ousted as head of Thuringia’s state government. He was replaced — for all of twenty-four hours — by Thomas Kemmerich of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). That Kemmerich’s party received 5 percent of the vote in October’s election and he nonetheless managed to weasel his way into this role itself raised eyebrows — surely going against the spirit, if not the law, of parliamentary democracy.
Cause for much more alarm, however, is the way that the FDP pulled off this parliamentary coup. It was engineered with the tacit support of not just its traditional allies, the Christian Democrats (CDU), but the right-populist and increasingly far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In Thuringia, the party is led by Björn Höcke, the closest thing German politics has to an open neo-Nazi.
Kemmerich managed to stay in office for only twenty-four hours before public outrage forced him to resign. But regardless of how things play out, his election — and the fact that both the FDP and CDU initially went along with the plan — represents a new degree of normalization of the far right in Germany, and it says a lot about the neoliberal center in the country. Faced with a choice between a moderate center-left administration and a return to conservatism on the backs of far-right nationalists, it appears that a large chunk of the center preferred this latter option.
This attitude was exemplified by the reaction of the former head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, CDU man Hans-Georg Maaßen. He described the vote in Thuringia as a “spectacular success” and explained that “most importantly, the socialists are gone.” Maaßen was himself forced to step down from this counter-extremism watchdog after various comments that appeared to downplay the danger posed by the far right. Yet this was part of a long German tradition of ignoring the fascist threat — while fixating on the dangers posed by socialists.
Lesser-Evilism From the Right
Thomas Kemmerich is not a fascist. Indeed, one of the bald politician’s slogans in last year’s state election was “Finally, a skinhead who paid attention in history class.” He does not want to purge Germany of immigrants, impose racial purity tests, or erect border walls. Just because he accepted the votes of the far right for tactical reasons does not mean he is himself a man of the far right. What he is, however, is an opportunist, through and through.
West German by birth, Kemmerich moved to the eastern state of Thuringia immediately following reunification and, like so many entrepreneurs, he took advantage of the economic chaos and vulnerable labor market. Here, he took a state-owned cosmetics company into private control and turned it into a successful chain of hair salons. Since turning to politics in the mid-2000s, he has marketed himself as an independently minded moderate with “business competency,” regularly donning cowboy boots to emphasize his maverick qualities.
His decision to curry favor from the far right — a move that German media reports was preapproved by national-level party chair Christian Lindner — had little to do with any desire of his to turn Germany into a white ethno-state, but rather represented (in his eyes) a pragmatic way to sideline Bodo Ramelow and kick Die Linke out of office. Immediately after winning the election, he announced his desire to form a “government of the center” excluding Die Linke and the AfD. That plan has now backfired, perhaps dooming his career. But can you really blame a guy for acting in the best interests of his class?
The Road to Hell Is Paved With Opportunism
It’s too soon to say what the long-term implications of yesterday’s coup will be. In the immediate future, it looks like the backlash is going to be much worse than the FDP expected. The heads of all of major German parties have called for snap elections, and chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the move as “unforgivable” this morning. The gamble may even mean the end of Kemmerich’s career, not to mention that of Christian Lindner, who has proposed holding a vote of confidence concerning his position in the party executive. At least for now, it appears that the center continues to hold.
Thuringia does, nonetheless, serve as a reminder of how fascism comes to power. Rarely does it seize the state in a dramatic March on Rome (or, in this case, March on Erfurt), rather, it ekes its way into government through compromises and dalliances with other, more moderate right-wing forces.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party never managed to win a majority in a national election; instead, it was helped into office by conservatives who were more terrified of real socialism than they were of Hitler’s “national socialism.” Surely none of them could have anticipated the depths of cruelty to which the Nazis would eventually stoop, but they had little problem with curtailing democracy and repressing the Left if it guaranteed their hold on economic power.
Historical analogies are necessarily oversimplified, and the AfD in 2020 is light-years away from the Nazi Party in 1930. Nevertheless, with Germany’s parties of the Left declining in the polls and the AfD currently doing an excellent job portraying itself as the true party of the opposition, yesterday marked a worrying omen of what could become the new normal in Germany in the years to come.
Every move to normalize the AfD as a democratic party, however small, helps them to gain a foothold in the mainstream. Every inch they gain in state government in turn serves as a springboard to make the leap nationally. It is thus in some ways appropriate that this would begin in Thuringia, where the Nazis first entered a state government in 1930 and began testing strategies to eventually absorb the German polity whole without firing a single shot. Thankfully, at least for now, bourgeois democracy in Germany appears to be more resilient than it was ninety years ago.