Thursday, February 22

Germans Push Back as Far Right’s Influence Grows

Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protest against the far-right party Alternative for Germany, known as AfD, in recent days. Legal scholars are discussing whether the party can be banned. Political leaders are warning of a fundamental threat to society.

“I will say it clearly and harshly: Right-wing extremists are attacking our democracy,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his weekly video message to Germans on Friday. “They want to destroy our cohesion.”

While it is not uncommon for German politicians to warn against the far right, the alarm has taken on new urgency since it was revealed that far-right leaders had held a secret meeting late last year to discuss mass deportations — not just of illegal migrants, but even of German citizens who immigrated to the country, who they do not consider to be fully assimilated.

“It’s the famous straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Matthias Quent, a sociologist who has spent years studying the far right. “It was a trigger for something and it’s not only about the meeting, but the strengthening of the AfD, which frightens many people.”

The AfD has enjoyed a surge in polls for months as discontent has grown with Germany’s cumbersome three-party government, along with fear of uncontrolled immigration. While only 10 percent of Germans voted for the AfD during the last nationwide election in 2020, the party is currently polling at record levels — just under 25 percent nationwide, and well above 30 percent in eastern states, which will hold elections later this year.

Fear of an ascending AfD has turned nearly to panic since Correctiv, a small crowd-funded investigative news site, revealed last week the private meeting of far-fight politicians, businessmen and several neo-Nazis at the end of November.

The main speaker at the event was an Austrian extreme-right proponent, Martin Sellner, who uses the term “remigration,” a buzzword in the extremist scene that denotes long-term deportation strategies.

Mr. Sellner confirmed that he was part of the meeting, but denied that he spoke of deporting German citizens — despite the fact that he has publicly called for exactly that.

Correctiv documented the meeting using hidden cameras, witness accounts and one undercover reporter, who checked in to the hotel where the meeting took place under an assumed name.

Organized by a right-wing dentist and a businessman who is behind a successful self-serve bakery chain, the meeting brought together roughly two dozen participants who were asked to donate 5,000 euros. The gathering took place in an elegant country hotel near Potsdam, Germany, not far from the villa where, more than eight decades ago, Nazi officers planned the “final solution,” their terrible plan to kill European Jews.

“The vocabulary is no different, the place is no different — the only difference is that we have been there before,” said Andrea Römmele, a professor at the Hertie School in Berlin.

News of the meeting has reverberated through the country. On Wednesday night, theaters across the country broadcast professional actors performing an interpretive reading of Correctiv’s report.

The reaction by the AfD, which tries to distance itself from the extreme right, has been mixed. Roland Hartwig, who had attended the meeting, was forced to step down as the personal adviser to Alice Weidel, one of the two leaders of the party. Ms. Weidel, for her part, has accused Correctiv of using “Secret Service methods.”

René Springer, a far-right member of Parliament from Brandenburg, the state in which the meeting took place, wrote on X: “We will deport foreigners back to their home countries. Millions of them. This is not a secret plan. It’s a promise.”

The AfD is being monitored by the country’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution as a suspected extremist group, a designation that gives intelligence services more surveillance options. The office found that the party is moving farther to the right, to the point where it threatens rights enshrined in the Constitution. Several state chapters are already considered to be extremist groups.

Since the details of the November meeting were revealed last week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in Berlin, Potsdam, Freiburg, Cologne and elsewhere. A demonstration on Friday in Hamburg attracted more than 80,000 people, according to the labor union that co-organized it. More demonstrations are planned for this weekend.

“These demonstrations don’t necessarily mean that the AfD’s poll ratings are going down again,” Professor Römmele said. “But what it does show is that the silent majority is no longer silent — it’s an important signal, both nationally and internationally.”

On Wednesday, after an estimated 30,000 people rallied against the far right in the Western city of Cologne, Mr. Scholz showed his support. “I am grateful that tens of thousands are taking to the streets all over Germany these days — against racism, hate speech and for our liberal democracy,” he said in a post on X. “That gives us courage and shows us: We democrats are many — much more than those who want to divide.”

During a special session of the country’s Parliament on Thursday, Nancy Faeser, the country’s interior minister, who is responsible for national security, joined the chorus of those warning of danger. “The greatest threat to our basic democratic order is right-wing extremism,” she told lawmakers.

But the AfD’s widening appeal has presented a quandary over what to do about it. Many of its supporters say they already hold a deep suspicion of the government and feel increasingly unheard and disenfranchised. Many of its opponents fear that banning the party would only reinforce those feelings.

Yet more than 700,000 people have signed an online petition to consider a ban on the AfD. Marco Wanderwitz, a politician with the conservative Christian Democrats party who was formerly in charge of dealing with East Germany, is trying to convince his colleagues in Parliament to vote for such a ban.

But not everyone is convinced that banning the party outright is a good idea.

“The most effective means against the enemies of democracy are not repression, bans and the like,” Philipp Amthor, another Christian Democrats lawmaker, said on Thursday. “The most effective means of preserving a defensible democracy are better arguments, good politics and good governance.”