The Fight for Thuringia Is a Test for German Democracy

Head of the Alternative für Deutschland’s state branch in Thuringia, Björn Höcke is one of the far-right party's most extreme leaders. He just got fined for using a Nazi slogan — but it might not hurt his chances of winning this fall’s Thuringia state election.

Björn Höcke during his trial for using a banned Nazi-era slogan on May 14, 2024, in Halle, Germany. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

It was April 17, and three days had passed since the annual commemoration of the liberation of Buchenwald. The wreaths laid during the public ceremony still lay in what was once the “Appellplatz,” the place where this concentration camp’s inmates were forced to stand twice a day for counting, and also the site of many public hangings. Between 1937 and 1945, around fifty-six thousand prisoners died at Buchenwald, from political prisoners to Jews, Sinti and Roma, gay people, and — mostly Soviet — prisoners of war.

Among the wreaths in the “Appellplatz,” it was possible to see those presented by all the parties with representation in the regional Thuringian parliament. All parties but one, that is: the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It has been forbidden from attending public events at Buchenwald since 2017, although members can visit the site in a personal capacity.

Faced with this ban, the radical-right party has presented itself as a victim of undemocratic exclusion. However, a quick appraisal of the public statements of the AfD’s leader in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, should suffice to understand why the party is not welcome here. In a speech in Dresden in 2017, Höcke, who is also a powerbroker within the AfD’s national leadership, referred to Berlin’s monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, claiming that “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital.” He called for a 180-degree turn in Germany’s remembrance culture.

These were the words that led the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation to change its policy regarding the AfD. Meanwhile, research conducted by the German sociologist Andreas Kemper found striking parallels between Höcke’s public statements and various articles that appeared under the pseudonym Landolf Ladig in neo-Nazi publications over a decade ago. In one of these articles, the author argued that Germany was forced both in 1914 and 1939 into ideological and economic “preventive wars.” Höcke, who has filed numerous lawsuits in the past, has never contested Kemper’s findings.

Against this backdrop, Mario Voigt, the regional leader of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and candidate for president of Thuringia in September’s elections, decided to debate Höcke face-to-face. The debate took place this April 11, the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Buchenwald by US troops. Voigt argued that the date was appropriate because it underlined the consequences of right-wing radicalism left unchallenged. The regional CDU leader also remarked that Höcke had to be confronted “on substance” and denied that the debate could legitimize his radicalism.

The International Auschwitz Committee, the parties in the Thuringian government, the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation, and some of his party colleagues criticized Voigt’s decision to debate Höcke. The organization Speaking Past, created in the Thuringian city of Jena in 2007 to raise awareness about Nazi history and the modern right-wing extremist threat, told me that debating Höcke on such a date “means a violation of the due respect for the victims of Nazi violence in Buchenwald.”

The debate between Voigt and Höcke had echoes across Germany, in a context where one of the most prominent political discussions is whether the AfD should be banned. In January 2024, the independent investigative platform Correctiv reported that two middle-ranking AfD members attended a secret conference that discussed the potential deportation of millions of asylum seekers, migrants, and descendants of migrants. The revelations led to massive demonstrations against the AfD — and a growing number of politicians and civil society organizations called for a ban on the party. The German parliament could demand this, but there is currently no majority for it and the final decision would ultimately be taken by the German Constitutional Court.

This week, a court in Münster approved the decision taken by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) to consider AfD a “suspected” far-right extremist organization. The move by the BfV should allow them to better monitor and surveil AfD activities. In another judicial decision this week, a court in Halle sentenced Thuringia AfD leader Höcke to pay a fine of €13,000 for having used the slogan “Alles für Deutschland” (Everything for Germany). The phrase was employed by the SA, the paramilitary Nazi group. Höcke, a former history teacher, claimed that he did not know its origins.

But these judicial setbacks for the AfD do not solve the most important discussion — how the party should be confronted, both socially and politically.

No No-Platform

For Voigt, the AfD’s vast lead in the polls ahead of the Thuringia elections shows that the current strategy against the AfD is not working — and a new approach is needed. This is hardly disputable (the AfD is today set to gather 30 percent of the votes and close to one-third of seats). But it does not make debating Höcke a good idea.

During the head-to-head meeting, Voigt sought to portray the coming elections as a two-man race between himself, the self-styled moderate conservative, and the radical Höcke. But several points in the debate belied this clear-cut differentiation. Most notably, Voigt boasted that it was a member of his party, not of the AfD, who had first introduced the obligation for refugees to work in a Thuringian municipality. Christian Herrgott, the local CDU politician who takes pride in paying refugees 80 cents per hour for their work, this January won a runoff against the AfD candidate after receiving other parties’ support.

Both the CDU and the AfD have spent the last ten years on the opposition benches of the Thuringian parliament. Voigt, who has led the CDU in Thuringia since 2020, is far less known than Höcke or the current president, Bodo Ramelow, from the left-wing Die Linke. The debate with Höcke, organized by the conservative-leaning private channel Welt TV, gave Voigt an opportunity to claim the spotlight. Although Die Linke is four points behind the CDU in the polls, Ramelow is the preferred president for almost half of Thuringians.

The current three-party minority government, led by Die Linke with the participation of the Social Democrats and the Greens, is highly unlikely to regain the majority it won in 2014. In this context — absent a seismic change in the polls — the CDU will be forced to break its promise of reaching out to neither Die Linke nor the AfD after the elections. Still, Voigt was at pains to maintain this rhetorical equidistance when recently invited onto a popular political talk show.

Cordon Sanitaire?

There are strong reasons for doubts about the CDU’s pledge not to discuss the formation of a government with the AfD in Thuringia. In September 2023, the CDU voted together with the AfD in the regional parliament for a reduction of taxes. Moreover, the CDU has voted in favor of motions put forward by the AfD in several subregional parliaments in eastern Germany.

But above all, there is the moment that will be in everyone’s minds after Thuringians vote in September. In the last regional elections in October 2019, the tripartite government led by Die Linke’s Ramelow failed to renew its parliamentary majority. Negotiations for the formation of a new government dragged on for months before the Thuringia parliament voted on the election of the new regional president. After deciding not to put forward their own candidate, the CDU backed Thomas Kemmerich, the leader of the neoliberal Free Democrats, which had entered parliament by a margin of just seventy-three votes.

The CDU’s support for Kemmerich was supposed to be inconsequential, as the government coalition had proposed left-winger Ramelow and the AfD was sponsoring an unknown mayor of a small Thuringian village. The vote, however, was secret, and the AfD had long planned to shun their own candidate in the third and last vote, in which a simple majority was needed. Hence, the AfD gave their votes to Kemmerich. The Free Democrats’ regional leader was visibly surprised, but accepted the presidency — elected thanks to the far right.

The CDU most likely did not willingly participate in the AfD’s show. But following Kemmerich’s election, scenes of rejoicing could be seen in the parliament’s floor where both the CDU and the AfD have their offices, with some members of the two parties congratulating each other. The celebration, with champagne, took place separately, explains the journalist Martin Debes in his book about Kemmerich’s election.

Among CDU ranks, the joy of having forced the left-wing Ramelow out of the regional government was certainly greater than any concern about having voted alongside the AfD. The election of Kemmerich, who soon resigned under increasing pressure, generated a national scandal. Eventually, the CDU leadership in Berlin convinced the regional party to grant the secret votes Ramelow needed to be reelected head of a minority government.

Exactly one week after his debate against Voigt, AfD right-winger Höcke had to appear for the first time in the court in Halle that would finally force him to pay a fine.

In front of the court in the opening day of the proceedings, a journalist for an international TV channel was telling her audience that Höcke could be punished for his words because Nazi slogans such as “Heil Hitler” are forbidden in Germany. A man leaving the building, probably unaware of the reason for all the media attention, turned back in surprise when hearing the Nazi phrase. For a long time, Höcke and his AfD colleagues have been working on the normalization of terms and slogans with close connections to Nazism. In other words, the idea is to progressively numb that feeling of surprise experienced by the man leaving the court in Halle.

This is not possible with a phrase such as “Heil Hitler,” but “Alles für Deutschland” is a more calculated slogan. The AfD is playing the long game in its efforts to change Germany’s political language. Meanwhile, they have made many advances in shifting the national debate on different topics, migration politics being a prominent one. For instance, CDU leader Friedrich Merz, leader of the main opposition party, recently called for Germany to accept a maximum of one hundred thousand refugees per year.

Such a measure would be a frontal assault on the right to asylum, which is not only enshrined in multiple international conventions signed by Germany but also in the country’s constitution. The German government, made up of the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats, has also recently harshened its migration and asylum policies.

More Than Resistance

Back in Thuringia, the AfD regional spokesperson has said his party will change the director of the Buchenwald Memorial Foundation, Jens-Christian Wagner, if it comes to power. He says that Thuringians have little need for a western German such as Wagner to tell them how to think and behave. There are well-grounded concerns about the meager institutional representation of people born in eastern Germany. However, what the AfD finds annoying about Wagner, who has a decades-long trajectory as a historian and director of different memorial sites, is his commitment to a remembrance culture that the party wants to discard. The AfD in Thuringia has sought to exploit the East-West divide to its advantage but has no problem being led by Höcke, born and educated in western Germany.

In a recent interview, Stephan J. Kramer, the head of the office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia and former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, explained that he has decided to leave Germany if the AfD ever wins regional power. If Höcke and his AfD can dictate the political future of Thuringia, Germany will become a less diverse country as a result.

There is still time to avert this happening, as the AfD appears to have lost support in Thuringia and at the national level during recent months. A similar change has taken place in the polls for the regional elections in Saxony and Brandenburg, also to be held in September. However, if the AfD is denied the role of kingmaker in Thuringia after September, the lesson will not be that debating with fascists is the way to go, nor that increasingly adopting their discursive framework neutralizes them. Instead, we should learn that the politics of reacting to a threat can only take us so far. Being always on the defensive is sure to be a losing strategy: it’s more important than ever to offer alternative political visions, instead of just holding back the monsters.