The party in Germany calling for a new 'Fatherland', breaking Nazi taboos - and winning voters in the process

Virulently anti-immigrant, Alternative for Germany is expected to do well in three state elections this weekend, and moderates are worried

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The Independent Online

His campaign speeches have been compared by some to the wartime propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, yet the new bogeyman on Germany’s xenophobic right seems not to give a damn. When Björn Höcke talks about “1,000 years of Germany” and the threat posed by migrants to the “Fatherland” and the “German Volk [people]”, his supporters go wild with enthusiasm.

Mr Höcke, 43, an ex-schoolteacher who was raised in the former West Germany, is the most popular and radical politician in Germany’s recently formed Alternative for Germany (AfD). The vehemently anti-immigration party is set to make sweeping gains in this weekend’s so-called “Super Sunday” elections in three states because of its outright opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policies, which meant the country registered nearly 1.1 million people as asylum-seekers last year. 

Mr Höcke, the AfD leader in Thuringia, in eastern Germany, draws crowds of up to 8,000 to his rallies. He takes delight in breaking with Germany’s “politically correct” post-war consensus which still holds that anything that hints even vaguely of the Third Reich is out. His liberal detractors are appalled.

Die Welt newspaper recently commented: “For decades success in German politics for a man like Björn Höcke seemed impossible.  In the meantime, the seemingly impossible has become possible”.

We are the tortured German Volk! Merkel is ruining Germany

Björn Höcke

In a rainy, windswept market square in the down-at-heel town of Raguhn in eastern Saxony-Anhalt earlier this week, Mr Höcke was doing his best to sustain his reputation as a Teutonic Donald Trump as he campaigned ahead of Super Sunday.

“We are the tortured German Volk!” he bellowed at hundreds of his supporters from the back of a truck. “I am no longer prepared to accept the policies of Merkel. They are ruining Germany. This Chancellor – she must go – we need a patriot in the Chancellery,” he added to loud applause. A “Refugees welcome” sign showing a queue of migrants entering Ms Merkel’s office waved above heads in the crowd.

Tomorrow’s state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate are set to be a referendum on Ms Merkel’s policies and a bellwether for next year’s general election. Before the recent EU-Turkey summit on the migration crisis, opinion polls showed that 81 per cent of Germans believed that Ms Merkel had lost control of the refugee crisis.

In Saxony-Anhalt, the AfD is expected to win up to 20 percent of the vote and become the third most powerful political party in the state after Ms Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the reform communist Die Linke (“The Left”) party. In the two other west German states, the AfD is also on course to notch up double-digit percentage. While other parties have said they will not share power with the AfD, its performance could complicate efforts to form coalition governments. Big gains in this weekend’s elections are also likely to mean that the AfD will end up with parliamentary seats in eight of Germany’s 16 federal states and have a serious chance of entering the national parliament in Berlin in 2017.

The AfD advocates the return to a “Europe of Fatherlands” and the expulsion of criminal asylum-seekers. Last month, the party’s leader, Frauke Petry, suggested that border guards should be empowered to shoot illegal immigrants. The 40-year-old businesswoman later claimed that her remarks had been taken out of context.

In Raguhn, Hannes Loth, a local AfD politician, attempted to downplay claims that his party was xenophobic. He insisted that its chief concern was to expel rejected asylum-seekers who were taking up scarce hostel space that could accommodate genuine Syrian war refugees. “The Merkel government won’t kick them out,” he told The Independent, adding: “I admire your David Cameron. He leads the way on how to deal with welfare scrounging in Europe.” 

The party started out in 2013 with a Eurosceptic agenda opposing the single currency. But in an internal putsch in July last year, an initially moderate leadership under economics professor Bernd Lucke was ousted. Ms Petry and other vociferous anti-immigration politicians took the helm.

The AfD’s agenda is not just about migration. Its policies aim to make Germany a “Fatherland once again”. It wants schools to bring back 19th-century “Prussian values” of order and discipline, and laws that will oblige museums and theatres to strengthen “identification with one’s own country”.

Germany’s political pundits are divided on whether the AfD will remain a serious political force. Manfred Güllner of the Forsa public polling group argues that the party has already reached its zenith and that its popularity will wane as soon as the refugee crisis eases. But Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at Dresden University of Technology, thinks that the polls this weekend may be the beginning of a major shake-up. He believes the AfD could even end up sharing power with Ms Merkel’s conservatives in Berlin. “A horrific scenario threatens us,” he said.

Mr Höcke is not angling for the job of Chancellor just yet: “I am a long-distance runner, not a sprinter. I don’t have to put myself in the top position immediately,” he has insisted.