Germany’s Far Right Is Laying Down Roots, Despite Protests

Leaks from a secret meeting on “remigration” have prompted a wave of protests against the Alternative für Deutschland. But as Germany’s debate on immigration harshens, this far-right party is becoming a powerful electoral threat.

Supporter of AfD at the state party conference in Saxony-Anhalt, Magdeburg, March 3, 2024. (Photo by Peter Gercke / picture alliance via Getty Images)

When Martin Sellner visited Chemnitz, eastern Germany, on February 23, around three hundred demonstrators summoned by the Nazi-Free Chemnitz group ensured the Austrian agitator knew he was unwelcome. Sellner, former spokesperson of the radical-right Identitarian Movement Austria, has become infamous in Germany in recent weeks.

In January, independent investigative platform Correctiv reported that Sellner had presented his racist theses during a secret meeting organized by two businessmen in Potsdam. In attendance were members of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The CDU attendees were low-ranking figures, and the party is working on their expulsion. But the AfD participants included Roland Hartwig — at that time a personal aide to party coleader Alice Weidel, until the Correctiv revelations forced them to part ways — and Ulrich Siegmund, who is the AfD parliamentary leader in Saxony-Anhalt state.

Sellner’s presentation in Potsdam revolved around the concept of “remigration.” The term is not new but became ominously specific in the Potsdam meeting. According to the Austrian anti-immigration campaigner, a far-right government in Germany should plan the deportation of asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights, and “non-assimilated” German citizens. The Correctiv revelations have led to massive demonstrations in Germany against the far right. In the protest against Sellner in Chemnitz, one chant specifically countered his plan: “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”

According to polling conducted soon after the Correctiv revelations, the AfD slipped from 22 percent of the vote to 19 percent in a month. This still placed it in a comfortable second place nationally, trailing the CDU alone — and above all three parties in the current federal government. The ruling coalition, made up of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the neoliberal hawks of the Free Democrats, is deeply unpopular.

I spoke to Dr Johannes Kiess, a sociologist and deputy director of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik-Institute at the University of Leipzig, which researches antidemocratic movements. He noted that parts of German civil society needed a moment such as the Correctiv revelations to further mobilize against the far right. The sociologist added that the news about the Potsdam meeting represents a good starting point for a campaign against the AfD. A different question is whether such a campaign should include a call for a ban on the AfD by the German constitutional court. This topic has been hotly debated in recent weeks, with positions for and against a ban cutting across party lines. According to Kiess, one argument in favor of proscribing the AfD is that it would send a strong message to the CDU that reaching any agreement with the far-right party is unacceptable.

State Power

Such a message would be particularly important in the current context. As concerning as polls for the next German federal elections are, they won’t be held until late 2025. The more immediate danger is this September’s elections in the states of Saxony, Thuringia, and Brandenburg. In the three eastern Länder, the AfD is polling in first place, at around or above 30 percent support. The CDU’s official position is that it will not enter any coalition government with either the AfD or the left-wing Die Linke. Although this could be possible in Saxony and Brandenburg with the repetition of the current “Kenya” coalitions (named after the respective party colors of the CDU, Social Democrats, and the Greens), things are different in Thuringia.

There, Die Linke is stronger — it has held the presidency of the region almost uninterruptedly since 2014, with Bodo Ramelow at the helm. Although Die Linke is now polling third-placed in Thuringia, absent a major change before September the CDU will be faced with the dilemma of aligning itself with either the AfD or Die Linke. There are strong reasons to doubt that the CDU will choose the left-wing option. In the Thuringian parliament, the CDU has already voted together with the AfD, and the same applies to many subregional parliaments in the Eastern Länder.

The AfD in Thuringia is particularly extreme. Its leader, Björn Höcke, has openly used Nazi terms such as “racial suicide,” “Lebensraum” (living space), and “cultural Bolshevism.” He has, moreover, been a key factor in the general radicalization of this party at various tipping points, such as the party congresses of 2015 and 2017 and the election of candidates for the regional elections in eastern Germany in 2019. Höcke achieved this through Der Flügel (The Wing), a grouping within the AfD that formally dissolved in 2020 but which is in truth increasingly powerful. Höcke and his allies, like the former AfD member and party leader in Brandenburg state Andreas Kalbitz, have managed to move the AfD even further to the Right while rising in the polls.

It was also Höcke’s Flügel, explains journalist Eva Kienholz in her book Ihr Kampf (Their Struggle), that cemented close contacts with the Identitarian Movement Germany, i.e., this country’s branch of Sellner’s organization in Austria. In 2017, members of the German Identitarians, together with other right-wing extremists from France and Italy, hired a ship to prevent NGOs in the Mediterranean from helping boats in distress. After running into technical problems, the racist agitators had to be helped by Sea Eye, a German NGO they had previously demonized.

Instruments of Discrimination

Although the AfD bears a major responsibility for the portrayal of migrants and asylum seekers as threats, the problem runs deeper. In a late 2023 poll for the public broadcaster, Germans were asked to name the two most important problems their country is facing. An astonishing 44 percent mentioned migration — as much as climate change, social inequality, or the economy added together. Germany has recently experienced a considerable increase in the number of migrants and asylum seekers arriving, and the number of asylum applications reached 334,000 in 2023. Although the absolute numbers are high, per capita applications are far lower than in countries like Cyprus or Greece, and only a bit higher than in Spain. None of these countries is nearly as wealthy as Germany.

Regional and local governments in Germany have expressed reasonable concerns about their difficulties in managing the new arrivals, and the federal government has gone some way into addressing the issue. The zeitgeist at the different levels of governance, however, is not one of improving the conditions for people reaching Germany. In January, the German government approved measures to facilitate the incorporation of new arrivals into the workforce — but it will also accelerate the deportation of unsuccessful asylum seekers. The police will be allowed to carry out searches in the residences of migrants or deport them without prior notice.

The current trend is toward making Germany less attractive for noncitizens, in the rather questionable belief that this will reduce numbers arriving. This is the motivation behind the introduction of a paying card for asylum seekers, who will soon receive only a fraction of their monthly allowance in cash. The rest will have to be spent in the shops near their place of residence, where payment with a card will be allowed. In Germany, especially in rural areas, payment via credit card is often not possible. The independent organization Pro Asyl describes the payment card as an “instrument of discrimination” that will only complicate asylum seekers’ lives.

Furthermore, the CDU is advocating for a so-called Rwanda Plan to prevent migrants from reaching Germany in the first place. The idea, modeled after the British project to fly irregular migrants to Rwanda right after their arrival and process asylum requests in the African country, contradicts the most basic human rights legislation. The UK Supreme Court also saw things this way when it felled the proposal made by Rishi Sunak’s government. Austria and Denmark have also been toying with the idea.

In Germany, the possibility of processing asylum requests in African countries is not only an idea among the right-wing opposition; indeed, the Interior Ministry is reportedly studying similar options. As in many European countries, in Germany there is a widespread call for controlled migration flows, often focused on the need for migrants to fill jobs as the German population ages. This can be seen in many business leaders’ support for the anti-AfD demonstrations, as well as in the citizenship law recently approved in parliament.

The new legislation speeds up the citizenship process for people with a migration background, provided that they do not rely on social welfare. Yet, the process is now more complicated for those who do need state support and for those who cannot work full-time because they have disabilities or are raising children by themselves. There are theoretical provisions for hardship cases, but it’s not clear how they would work in practice.

Hostile Climate

When I spoke with two members of Nazi-Free Chemnitz, which organized the protest against Martin Sellner, they told me about the increasingly hostile climate for migrants and asylum seekers in Germany. They explained that the current migration debate is utterly at odds with reality — describing how new arrivals are often accused of not being willing to work, when it is actually legal hurdles that prevent them from doing so. As for the complicated path to German citizenship for people reliant on social welfare, the activists note that “people should not have to earn their right to be treated as human beings.”

The Nazi-Free Chemnitz group’s activism against the far right is no easy task in a city where the AfD captured 21.6 percent of the votes already in the last federal elections in fall 2021 — twice the party’s national average, at the time. But the situation, they explain, is even more complicated in rural areas, where activism for human rights and democracy meets with serious threats. In the electoral district that includes the towns surrounding Chemnitz, the AfD received more than a quarter of all votes in 2021.

As if the presence of the AfD and the Identitarian Movement in Chemnitz was not enough, the region also features two other far-right movements, Free Saxony and Pro Chemnitz. The latter organized the protests, also joined by AfD members, that led in August 2018 to massive attacks against people with a migration background in Chemnitz. The scenes of violence followed the death of a Cuban German in a fight with two migrants in the city center. Faced with the passivity of police, who are generally more concerned to investigate nonviolent left-wing groups than right-wing extremists, attacks against people perceived as foreigners went on for two days.

In eastern Germany, the AfD and other radical-right movements have a stronger presence than in other parts of the country, and this is most likely to be reflected in the regional elections next September. This notwithstanding, eastern Germany also has a civil society that has long known about the dangers of letting right-wing radicalism grow, and which takes to the streets in the same towns where the stakes are highest. Even faced with difficult odds, this seems more urgent than ever.