The man who softened Germany’s radical stance

Late last year, on a small stage in a tavern in a wooded town in eastern Germany, right-wing ideologue Björn Höcke regaled audiences with the story of his impending trial: He was charged with saying “All for Germany” at a political rally, in violation of a German law that bans the chanting of Nazi slogans.

Even with his trial date looming, he looked down at the crowd and gestured to them with a mischievous smile. “What is it all for?” he asked.

“Germany!” they shouted.

After a decade of testing the limits of political discourse in Germany, Höcke, the leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), no longer had to push the boundaries himself: the crowds were doing it for him.

The moment underscores why, to his critics, Höcke is not simply a challenger to the political order but a threat to German democracy itself.

Over the years, Mr. Höcke has chipped away at self-imposed bans to prevent extremists from regaining control of Germany, which has a tougher stance on free speech than many Western democracies, learning bitter lessons from the 1930s, when the Nazis used democratic elections to seize power.

“All for Germany” is a slogan once inscribed on the knives of Nazi storm troopers, and Höcke’s opponents say that by reviving the phrase, he is trying to make fascist ideology more acceptable in a society where such idiom is not only taboo but illegal.

In May, judges found Höcke guilty of deliberately using a Nazi slogan and fined him the equivalent of $13,000. On Monday, Höcke is due to go on trial in the same courtroom on charges of using the same slogan again in a speech at a tavern.

It’s one of a string of lawsuits he now faces, none of which appear to have slowed the comeback of Höcke or his party: In this month’s European Parliament elections, the AfD came in second in Germany, outperforming any of the country’s ruling parties.

Until recently, Höcke was on the fringe of the extreme parties, but over time, experts argue, he has drawn them closer to him, making them more radical and in the process shifting the entire German political landscape to the right.

To his opponents, he represents the far-right’s unjustified attempt to erase the taint of the country’s Nazi past.

To his supporters, he is a kind of linguistic freedom fighter trying to reclaim an unfairly maligned word and, more broadly, to defend the notion of ethnic German culture.

On the final day of court in May, Hecke, 52, with silver hair and a slim fit in a black suit, stood before prosecutors and a packed courtroom and impassionedly protested his innocence.

A former history teacher, he claims he was unaware he was using the SA slogan. He says the words came up unplanned, ignoring the fact that since his indictment he has twice persuaded crowds to repeat the Nazi phrase.

“Do we want to ban the German language because the Nazis spoke it?” he asked the judge. “To what extent should this be allowed?”

The trial of Höcke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is part of a new narrative struggle over Germany’s recent history and over who can call themselves German in an increasingly diverse country concerned about new economic and strategic challenges.

If Hocke’s aim is to plant the seeds of a new ethno-nationalism with overtones of fascism, he may be on to a subtle benefit.

Before the trials, many Germans had never even heard of the Nazi slogan “All for Germany.” Today, the phrase is routinely discussed and repeated on talk shows and in articles across the country.

History has played a big role in Hocke’s life.

Hecke was born into a conservative family in East Prussia, among millions of Germans living in eastern Europe who fled to West Germany to escape the advancing Red Army in the final days of World War II.

In Höcke’s view, this story of German expulsion and loss has been overshadowed by the national reckoning with Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust.

He has tapped into lingering resentment to appeal to Germans, particularly those in the former Communist East Germany, who feel cheated by history and denied their right to national pride and expression.

He blames the Allied powers, the victors of World War II, for robbing the German people of their roots. “There are no longer German victims,” ​​he said in a 2017 speech. “There are only German perpetrators.”

Höcke moved to the eastern state of Thuringia in 2013 and helped set up an AfD chapter there, and has since become a focus of attention amid a series of language disputes.

He described the officials of former Chancellor Angela Merkel as the “Tat elite,” as SS officers called themselves. He wondered why the “living space”,“The term ‘living space,’ which the Nazis used to describe their territorial expansion in Eastern Europe, is still anathema to Germans,” he says, calling Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.”

His references to Nazi-era ideology are so numerous that a court once ruled that critics’ descriptions of him as a fascist were not defamatory but a “fact-based value judgement”.

For years, even his own party has tried to sideline him; now his allies make up two-thirds of the party leadership.

Political analysts say Höcke’s growing following reflects the AfD’s evolution from a small conservative party suspicious of the eurozone into a much more radical party.

German leaders now promote the argument that statehood is based on bloodline and that only a strict deportation policy can prevent Germany and other Western countries from being flooded with immigrants.

The AfD now sees itself as anti-globalist. It is suspicious of urban elites and government overreach in fighting the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Many of its leaders espouse conspiracy theories that question the legitimacy of Germany’s post-World War II government.

Experts say the party’s popularity is influencing political debate across the country, with mainstream politicians from all walks of life over the past year defending the AfD’s hostility to immigration and environmental policies.

AfD leaders say critics are saying the opposite.

“There has been no shift to the right,” said Torben Braga, an AfD spokesman in Thuringia, who worked for Höcke for many years and has a photo of him on his desk. “What has happened is that certain beliefs – political demands – that have always existed in society have found a voice after decades of being repressed.”

AfD supporters see the trial of Höcke as a witch hunt aimed at preventing this awakening.

This sense of persecution permeates Hocke’s rhetoric: At a rally last month, he likened himself to fellow dissidents such as Socrates, Jesus and Julian Assange, all of whom have been “hit with the club of justice.”

Coincidentally or not, history also plays a big role in the state he represents.

A century ago, Thuringia was the first place where far-right politicians gained a majority in the state parliament. Later, Thuringia became the first state where the Nazis came to power.

The AfD is expected to win the most votes in Thuringia’s state elections this September.

“A year ago we would have said it was impossible for Höcke to become Thuringia’s prime minister,” said Jens-Christian Wagner, a historian at the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial in Thuringia.

“I said it’s unlikely,” he said, “but by ‘unlikely’ I mean possible.”

In 2012, a German sociologist named Andreas Kemper began researching the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric in German politics, which led him to become interested in the AfD and the speeches of its then-little-known leader, Björn Höcke.

Höcke used the term “organic market economy,” which is reminiscent of the term “organic order” used by the Nazis in 1934 when they reorganized the economy.

Kemper said he searched online for people using Hocke’s phrase and “only one hit came up”: Randolph Radig, the pen name of a writer for a neo-Nazi magazine.

In one article, Radigue described the Nazis as “the first anti-globalist” movement and said that if they had been successful, “there would have been imitators everywhere.” He said some people still support their ideas today, and “the fire is still burning here.”

Kemper found other similarities between the two men’s statements, the most bizarre being that Radiguet quoted, in exactly the same way, a passage from a book that Höcke mentioned in his speech, and that both men misquoted it.

He eventually published an analysis containing a shocking accusation: Randolph Radig was Björn Höcke, he said. “There were just too many coincidences.”

In 2015, the AfD leadership asked Höcke to end the controversy by signing an affidavit saying he had not written or collaborated under the name Randolph Radig.

he Rejected“It’s not because I have something to hide,” he told German media at the time, but that it was “an attempt to defame me.” He insisted that he had never written under a pen name.

Germany’s domestic intelligence service mentioned Kemper’s research when it classified the AfD’s Thuringia branch as right-wing extremist in 2021.

Since then, several AfD chapters and the party’s youth wing have been labeled as extremist. AfD leaders dispute the labeling but say it has not hurt their growing popularity. Blaga, the Thuringia party spokesman, said the labeling may actually help them.

“My response to this repeated assertion is to keep writing,” he said.

Appearing on television before his trial in May, Höcke argued that he had been deliberately misunderstood — he claimed he was condemning the Nazis — and that many people before him had used the phrase “All for Germany” incorrectly, even in an for Deutsche Telekom.

The allegations attracted the attention of the telecommunications company, which denied them and filed a cease and desist order against him.

Wagner, the Buchenwald historian, also had to dig through piles of books in his office from a right-wing publishing house run by the writer Götz Kubitschek, seen as the intellectual godfather of both Höcke and the AfD.

One of Kubitschek’s essays is titled “Self-Dwarfing,” and it lays out a strategy for attracting supporters.

The first step is to establish a verbal “bridgehead” by using controversial language. The second is to “align with the enemy” – highlighting examples of mainstream figures who use the same language and raising doubts about how extreme an idea actually is.

The third step is to “disarm oneself” by claiming that such views are within mainstream norms.

The essay ends with a warning: “The goal is to appear harmless, not to be harmless.”

With many efforts to counter the AfD failing, Wagner believes the case against Höcke is more important than ever.

“If politicians can’t draw the line, surely the judiciary can at least,” he said.

But whether there’s a dividing line is something Hocke is still testing.

Speaking again in the western city of Ham in early May, ahead of the European elections, he told his audience that times were changing in his homeland, adding that “the signs point to a storm”.

The phrase is familiar to anyone who knows German history: It was used in Nazi newspapers in 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power.

Christopher F. Schutze He reported from Halle, Germany.

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