The AfD is not exactly in free fall, but the party is not doing well. In January, their former co-leader Meuthen threw in the towel. Meuthen had been the most prominent of the self-styled moderates and had aimed to improve the party’s optics by pushing back against the most visible right-wing extremist tendencies within the AfD.
In March, the party scraped past the threshold in the Saarland regional election. Just before the election, two of their three MPs tried to kick the the third one out of the party. Two of the three party memberships involved are currently pending while the national party tries to sort out the mess.
In last week’s state election in Schleswig-Holstein, the AfD remained below the threshold. It was the first time in any election they have contested since 2013. Yesterday, they narrowly escaped the same fate in NRW, winning just 5.4% of the list vote.
These latest results did not come out of the blue. Nationally, support for the party has been more or less static since about 2019. Subnationally, the East-West gap is well-documented. But there is also a North-South gradient that I do not understand very well: previous results in northern states have already been been kind of meh, but now the party has lost the momentum that carried it through the second half of the 2010s. The allegedly unstoppable rise-and-rise may well be beyond its peak.
Against this backdrop and given his very complacent attitude, it is hardly surprising that Tino Chrupalla, the remaining co-leader, has come under fire today. Chrupalla rose to power in 2019 with the not-so-tacit support of the most radical forces within the party. He also represents (and there is some overlap) the particularly successful eastern chapters of the AfD. If one should describe his stewardship of the party with a single word, it would have to be ‘hapless’.
And this is what some members of the national executive did today, though they did it in more words. For them, Chrupalla represents ‘the end of the AfD’s success story’ and must not be allowed to stand again as party leader.
Chrupalla’s counter attack was Michael-Gove-level bizarre: he likened his critics to campers complaining about humidity whilst peeing inside the tent. Mixed metaphors, anyone?
As of tonight, no other members of the leadership have rushed to Chrupalla’s defence. Again, this is not surprising. Backstabbing and a certain level of anarchy are the norm in the AfD, and Chrupalla has always been an odd compromise candidate, some sort of placeholder, not a leader per se.
Nonetheless, Chrupalla says he wants to fight for his job at the party conference next month. There are also rumours that the Meuthen’s bête noire, Björn Höcke, could run for a seat on the executive or even for the leadership, which could split the party and/or confine them to the East. All or nothing of this might come to pass. The one thing I’m sure of is that the infighting will go on.
Looks like we are indeed getting an option 1+2 outcome: Höcke & Kalbitz say they cannot shred the membership list b/c there is none, but tell members to refrain from political activity under the “wing” brand. Obviously, they will otherwise remain very active within the party.
Update #2 March 21:
The wing (who exactly?) has chosen option number 1 (see below), probably in a really, really ghastly WhatsApp group chat. The message they sent out on twitter is telling: while the wing is no more, their beliefs and values are unchanged, and they remain a “part of this great party project”. In other words, the wing shall henceforth be known as “AfD”.
The wing disbands. Problem solved. Simples.
Update #1 March 21:
The meeting of the wing has been postponed because of the Covid19 crisis. Apparently, it’s not fake news when your own life is on the line. The national leadership said that the April 30 deadline applies, regardless.
On March 12 2020, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (aka the spooks) stated that the AfD’s “Flügel (“wing”) faction is right-wing extremist and will be put under surveillance. This also applies to the faction’s most prominent members, its head honchos Höcke & Kalbitz. This has far-reaching consequences. Surveillance up to the use of informers aside, the official “extremist” label will make the party less attractive/acceptable for some of its voters. Members of the “wing” who are public servants may well lose their jobs and their pensions. Most importantly perhaps, the move against the “wing” suggests that the party as a whole might come under observation next.The wing emerged almost exactly five years ago as an informal group of rebels who signed a declaration against the (relatively moderate) course of the party’s then-leader Bernd Lucke. Within days, the manifesto attracted hundreds of signatories. The formation of the Flügel presaged the 2015 split and subsequent radicalisation of the party (read everything about this trajectory in my recent paper on this topic (ungated)). Over the following years, the group has held annual meetings in a spot where right-wing extremist have gathered since the days of the empire. These were often attended by prominent members of the national leadership. Over time, the wing has replaced another faction (the “Patriotic Platform”), and its influence has grown, especially in the eastern states. However, it was never recognised by the party as an official group and never sought an official status. What the wing really wanted to be was an influential network of like-minded ultra-radicals, with ties to openly extremist elements outside the party proper.
Bernd Höcke. Based on work by Sandro Halank, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0Treating the wing as an organisation that represents the party’s extremism problem and could be removed in principle is therefore slightly misleading. But this is exactly what the party, the media, and the authorities are doing at the moment. Today, the party’s national executive has called upon the wing to dissolve by the end of April. It is the latest in a string of appeals for moderation, and considerably more low-key than the previous (failed) attempts to expel Höcke from the party.Today’s meeting was prompted by two stories that were all over the media before COVID-19 drowned out everything else. First, it emerged that Kalbitz and his family had been members of the HDJ for several years, something that he had always denied, although it was already known that the he had attended one of their meetings. The HDJ was a right-wing organisation (now disbanded) whose stated aim was to indoctrinate children with Nazi ideology. Only a couple of days later, a video of a wing meeting was leaked. In the video Höcke made an awkward pun about sending his enemies within the party to a concentration camp.Höcke and Kalbitz are the leaders of the AfD in their respective states. Most MPs for the AfD in these state’s belong to the wing. Think about that for a minute.COVID or not, the wing will have a meeting of its own on this weekend. I can see three ways in which this could go.
The wing complies and dissolves. That could be acceptable for them. The exec did not vote to kick out Höcke, Kalbitz, or anyone else. This would be a win-win: the network networks on (perhaps under a different name), the AfD can claim that they stopped extremism in its tracks.
The wing tells everyone that you cannot formally disband informal structures. They don’t have a membership list, because they are not a proper organisation – just a long list of names under the original resolution and chaps sending emails to other chaps. Nothing to be done about. The standoff continues in a cold-war like scenario.
Full-on conflict. The party splits: easterners trying to kick out the westerners and vice versa, perhaps even splits within state chapters. This would probably be the end of the AfD as we know it. Germany being Germany, it would probably also result in lengthy battles in court over who may use the old name.
In my view, 3) is the wing’s first inclination, but also the least rational solution. The wing is strong (allegedly it has some 5,000 members) but hardly strong enough to go it alone. It is also unnecessary: while there are people left in the party who call themselves moderates, the party as a whole has become very radical over the last five years. Disagreement with the wing is mostly over style (many dislike the Höcke cult), over keeping up appearances, and over dealing strategically with the legal pressure the party is under. In many ways, the wing is seen as a naughty child that needlessly provokes the authorities. Then again, this brand of naughtiness is a vote getter in the east and strongly motivates some members. So 1), or a mixture of 1) and 2) looks like the most likely outcome to me. I shall keep you posted.
The ‘Institut für Staatspolitik’ is a well-known far-right ‘think tank’. Their self-stated meta-political mission is to educate the future nationalist. The long-term objective is to achieve a stealthy transformation of German society. They have been around for a while, and there are books and chapters about them, written by people who study right-wing extremism for a living.
Höcke says that he comes to the Institute to dose up on ‘intellectual sustenance’ (yes, that’s how he rolls). It was at the Institute that Höcke gave a speech in which he claimed that Africans were, quite literally, ‘a different breed’ – one of many statements that, amazingly, did not end his political career.
Alice Weidel is the co-leader of the AfD group in the Bundestag. Weidel used to be one of those legendary ‘economic liberals’. Most of whom left the party in 2015. In this role, she wanted Höcke expelled from the AfD for his outrageous statements as late as 2017.
Now Weidel followed the example of her co-leader Gauland by speaking at the Institute‘s ‘academy’ for future leaders. Rumour has it that Kubitschek brokered an agreement between Höcke and Weidel. In a video that is making the rounds she tells Kubitschek that ‘it feels great’ to be there. Once more, move on: nothing to see here.
What is the “winter school” for Germany’s New Right?
This weekend, Alexander Gauland, co-leader of the AfD, will give a lecture at the annual “winter school”, a weekend seminar that is organised by the “Institut für Staatspolitik” (IfS). The IfS is a Wannabe-Nouvelle-Droite think tank based in Schnellroda, a tiny village in Saxony-Anhalt. Its mastermind is Götz Kubitschek, a far-right publisher, author and self-styled “New Right” intellectual.
Götz Kubitschek Metropolico.org [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Kubitschek believes in meta-politic: a conscious attempt to alter the meaning of words and establish new frames, to shift discourses and to form the minds of new generations, all in a bid to change the course of the nation. He and his associates borrowed this concept from the French Nouvelle Droite, who in turn got some ideas from the German “Konservative Revolution” of the 1920s and 1930s and mixed them, ironically, with a bit of Gramsci.
Their “winter school” is a crucial part of the meta-political strategy. It is run exclusively for people under the age of 35. Students pay just 60 € for two nights, including full board and access to all lectures. If they subscribe to “Sezession”, a highbrow right-wing magazine published by Kubitschek and the IfS, this is further discounted to 40 €. Getting to Schnellroda is definitively the most costly part of the weekend. But why is Gauland going to Schnellroda as a speaker?
Schnellroda: Götz Kubitschek, the IfS, and the AfD
Kubitschek lives the Altdeutsch dream. More specifically, he lives in the local manor house, together with his wife Ellen Kositza (also a far-right author) and their many children, who bear traditional Germanic names. We know all this from the newspapers. Kubitschek’s elite brand of far-right politics has attracted an unhealthy interest from mainstream journalists, who are occasionally allowed to visit the couple in exchange for half-gushy, half-disgusted home stories. Scientists are similarly intrigued, and there is a lot of research (in German) about the “New Right” networks Kubitschek and his ilk form. I sometimes wonder if his influence and importance are seriously overestimated.
Helmut Kellershohn: Das Institut für Staatspolitik und das jungkonservative Hegemonieprojekt. In: Stephan Braun, Alexander Geisler, Martin Gerster (Hrsg.): Strategien der extremen Rechten: Hintergründe – Analysen – Antworten. 2. aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage, Springer Fachmedien, Wiesbaden 2015,
In the past, Kubitschek’s radicalism and elitism made for an uneasy relationship with the AfD. In 2015, when the party’s transformation from soft-eurosceptic to radical right came under way, he and Kositza applied for membership. They were initially accepted, but within days, the national executive, then still controlled by Bernd Lucke, intervened and rejected their applications. Nonetheless, Kubitschek is closely involved with the most radical Eastern circles in the party, whose members regularly attend events at Schnellroda. It was here, at an IfS meeting, that Höcke made his infamous speech about “Africans”, and it was Kubitschek who put a video of that speech online.
In his characteristically cringeworthy style, Höcke has praised the manor house as a sort of spiritual home for the AfD’s hardliners. In turn, Kubitschek and Kositza have attended conferences organised by the “Flügel”, the far-right network that is now under scrutiny by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), i.e. the secret service.
Leader of the opposition, leader of the AfD, keynote speaker at Schnellroda – all in a day’s work Original picture: Metropolico.org [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons
Kubitschek has also spoken at “Pegida” and “Legida” events. At the invitation of Matteo Salvini, he has attended a Lega conference, but he also has contacts to the neo-fascist Casa Pound and has even published a Casa-inspired book in translation. He is friends with Martin Sellner, one of the most prominent figures in the “Identitarian” movement, and works closely with Jürgen Elsässer, one of the most prominent figures of the German far-out-right. Kubitschek is no neo-Nazi – that would be far to vulgar. But he puts himself into the succession line of the “Konservative Revolution”, the young, revolutionary and above all anti-democratic movement that operated at the fringes of conservatism in the Weimar Republic and helped to pave the way for the real Nazis.
What is Gauland doing at the Schnellroda “Winter School”?
In short, the IfS’s “winter school” is a remarkable event for Gauland to attend, let alone to give a lecture. Gauland is by no means the first AfD politician to speak at Schnellroda, but as national co-leader and co-leader of the AfD’s caucus in the Bundestag, he is by far the most prominent one. Gauland has attended “Flügel” meetings in the past, and has repeatedly defended Höcke. But he is still widely seen as “bürgerlich”, because as a former high-ranking bureaucrat, CDU member and conservative journalist, he is a card-carrying member of the elite that has run this country for seven decades.
In a press conference this week, the BfV announced that they would put the Flügel under enhanced scrutiny, which can even include measures such as phone tapping. When a journalist asked whether this could also affect Gauland, the BfV’s president said that would depend on what kind of information they would unearth in the coming weeks and months. In this situation, speaking at Schnellroda is either particularly brave or extraordinarily stupid. Either way, we have reached the point where, within a single week, we have learned that the leader of the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag a) may come under observation by the secret service and b) is the headline speaker at a notorious far-right gathering. What a time to be alive.
Andre Poggenburg, a prominent hardliner from Saxony-Anhalt, has left the AfD. He has already founded a new party. What does that mean for the AfD and German politics in general? I’ve made a short explainer video. Or, if you’re not the visual type, you can read an old-fashioned post on the latest breakaway from the AfD.
Today, German public radio interviewed Klaus-Peter Schöppner, a well-known pollster, who claimed that the party could benefit “from throwing out the extrepmists”. This is exactly the spin the AfD is trying to put on the whole affair. They claim that they are getting rid of a problematic, bumbling character who would take his few and equally deranged supporters with him.
When you recognise the framing for what it is
Nothing could be further from the truth. Other leading members of the vökisch wing had sidelined Poggenburg more than a year ago over his gaffes and petty affairs. And these guys show no inclination whatsoever to leave the party. On the contrary, they will continue to shape the AfD in their image.
Björn Höcke, the most prominent of them, was re-elected as leader in Thuringia less than two months ago and is the party’s frontrunner for the state election in October 2019. Andreas Kalbitz became Gauland’s successor as state party leader in Brandenburg. Last week, he was confirmed as the frontrunner for the state election in September 2019. Jens Maier, the former judge who tried to silence our colleague Steffen Kaillitz, is a sitting MP. Hans-Thomas Tillschneider is a state MP in Saxony and will likely be re-elected come September. And the list goes on.
They cultivate links to the Pegida movement and to the Identitarians. They attend seminars run by New Right pseudo-intellectuals and dream of a “meta-political” transformation of German society. They were a driving force behind the AfDs’s metamorphosis to a Radical Right party, and it is unlikely that they will stop at that.
This morning, I woke up to the news that Andre Poggenburg, former leader of the AfD in Saxony-Anhalt and former chair of the AfD’s delegation in the state parliament is now also a former member of the AfD. And thanks to @TheDanHough, I quickly learned that he has already set up his own party: “Awakening of German Patriots – Central Germany” (AdP). In other words, they are playing our special song. Once more, with feeling.
The AfD and Bruce Springsteen. You would have to ask @BDStanley what it means.
While most European Populist Radical Right parties shy away from traditional right-wing extremism and draw a (sometimes thin) line between themselves and those who openly campaign against democratic values and principles, the Eastern chapters of the AfD are remarkably relaxed in this respect. As early as 2015, Höcke voiced sympathy for not just voters but also for members of the right-wing extremist NPD. On other occasions, he has shown thinly veiled support for biological racism and has demanded that Germany performs a “U-turn” with respect to its attempts to come to terms with the Nazi past. Whenever Höcke came under fire from more moderate characters in the party, Poggenburg rose to his defence.
Poggenburg’s political positions and style are hardly different from Höcke’s. For years, the two men were allies, and perhaps even friends. But more recently, Poggenburg became a bit of an embarrassment, and his political star began to sink. His power grabs, his iron-fist approach to intra-party opposition and his chaotic, undisciplined leadership put off many party members in Saxony-Anhalt. As early as 2016, it emerged that Poggenburg, who was a small business owner before becoming a full-time politician, had not paid back money that he owed and had hidden from the bailiffs on several occasions. In 2017 Poggenburg was accused of nepotism when it became known that the AfD employs his girlfriend as a trainee. All in all, he is not exactly a model law-and-order politician. And so Poggenburg lost first his influence within the Eastern right-wing circles, then his seat on the national executive (in 2017), and finally, in 2018, his leadership positions in Saxony-Anhalt.
Trump on Poggenburg (source: https://tenor.com/view/no-one-loves-aloser-unloveable-loser-donald-trump-our-cartoon-president-gif-11428270)
His real problem, however, is that he lacks Höcke’s air of pseudo-intellectualism and does neither understand the concept of (im)plausible deniability nor the need for tactical moderation. In various states and at the federal level, authorities are currently pondering the question whether the AfD is an extremist party and should hence come under surveillance by the secret service. Such a move would not just be inconvenient but would put off many voters and would probably lead to a mass exodus of members who fear for their careers. Because of this threat, the national leadership is consulting with constitutional lawyers and has compiled a list of words and phrases that should be avoided because they are too obviously beyond the democratic pale.
Poggenburg baulked at this. He complained, without apparent irony, about a “lurch to the left” within the AfD. He began using a blue cornflower as his header image on social media, a symbol that was used by anti-semitic parties in Austria and Germany in the 19th century and became the shibboleth of the then-illegal Nazi party in pre-1938 Austria. And finally, Poggenburg kicked off 2019 by sending “patriotic well-wishes” to the “Volksgemeinschaft” (the community of the people)- a Nazi-era term that was used to legitimise first the exclusion, then the murder of Jews, socialists, communists, homosexuals, Roma, and anyone else who did not fit into the totalitarian vision of German society.
A couple of years ago, that might have been worth a half-hearted explanation (“I misstyped …”), but in the current climate, the national executive decided to ban Poggenburg from holding party offices for two years. And so the man left, then made his announcement, all just in time for a slow-news Friday and for the upcoming AfD party conference.
What are the likely consequences of this split?
Glad that you ask. The AfD has previous form for de-facto splits. In 2015 and 2017, the respective leaders left and went on to set-up their own parties: Lucke’s ALFA (now LKR) and Petry’s Blue Party. Ironically, both were self-styled moderates that broke with the AfD over its radicalisation (that they had furthered, up to a point). Poggenburg, on the other hand, is a true radical who leaves over the party’s alleged moderation.
Sometimes a flower is not just a flower
Three and a half year down the line, ALFA/LKR is dead in the water. The Blue Party looks pretty blue on the national level (could not resist – sorry), but may play a role in the upcoming election in Saxony, where it has a small parliamentary presence due to defections from the AfD. But by and large, there seems to be no demand for an entirely moderate AfD: voters can simply return to the centre-right, especially now that Merkel’s chancellorship is coming to a close.
Poggenburg’s AdP is a completely different proposition. He is aiming for East Germany (or Central Germany in his parlance) only, and heplans to out-AfD the AfD in the East German elections of 2019. That could work if Eastern voters were of the opinion that the AfD is indeed lurching to the left, selling out, etc., etc., etc. But so far, the AfD’s numbers in the polls look pretty solid. The Eastern state party chapters already operate to the right of most Western chapters. They have access to state funding that their parliamentary presence has earned them, they have party machines in place, and they have a cohort of reasonably seasoned politicians. Poggenburg, on the other hand, has all the experience of winning an election, then blowing it.
It’s early days still (the first day, actually), but so far, Poggenburg has only convinced two semi-prominent right-wingers to jump ship and join his new outfit. With this small team, he is mainly gunning for the small-ish group of voters that have previously supported the NPD. But even these voters might still find the AfD reasonably attractive and will be reluctant to potentially waste their vote. In 2019, the AfD is an established brand whereas the AdP, which has adopted the cornflower symbol, looks like a radicalised knock-off lead by a man who has previously overestimated his political capital by a considerable margin.
My colleague Hans Vorländer has speculated on public radio that Höcke might want to join the party (groan! enough with the puns!). Without doubt, that would be a game-changer. But why would Höcke do such a thing? Höcke was instrumental in transforming the AfD. he division of labour between the AfD’s more respectable and its more radical/revolutionary wing has paid off handsomely for both, and the current national executive is willing to give Höcke and his associates considerable leeway. Not a single word of support for Poggenburg has come from Höcke in all of 2018. And so I think that this split will be as inconsequential as the last ones. But then again, I have been completely wrong before.
A party tribunal in his home state of Thuringia has ruled that Björn Höcke has not violated the party’s fundamental principles in his so-called “Dresden speech“. In January 2017, Höcke had demanded a “U-turn” in German memory politics, which he deemed “stupid”. In the same speech, Höcke called the Berlin Holocaust memorial “a monument of shame” that Germans had installed in their capital. He later claimed that “shame” had been a reference to the Holocaust, not to the monument, although this interpretation would contradict everything else he said on this occasion.
The old party executive under Frauke Petry had asked for Höcke to be expelled on the grounds that his views were akin (“wesensverwandt”, a judicial term) to NationalSocialism, and that his behaviour had been harmful to the party. Even then, the motion was controversial and may have contributed to Petry’s downfall.
In theory, the national executive has four weeks to appeal the tribunal’s decision and take the case to the federal party court. In practice, this is not going to happen. Gauland, and Meuthen, the new party leaders, have come out to support Höcke in the past. The AfD’s hard right is well-represented in the new executive, and while his views may not (yet) be mainstream, Höcke’s ability to speak to the ultra right is widely seen as an asset. In all likelihood, the leadership will just keep shtum and let it lie. Both Lucke and Petry have tried and failed to oust Höcke, and Höcke was instrumental in bringing down both. The tribunal’s ruling formally confirms his ongoing role as an evil spiriteminence grise.
At today’s AfD conference, Jörg Meuthen has been reelected as one of the the two co-chairs of the party. Although there was no other candidate, he garnered only 72% “yes” votes. Meuthen was once promoted by Petry because of his convenient market liberal profile, but quickly became friendly with the more radical elements.
The election of the second co-chair was a more interesting affair. Apparently, the leadership had agreed that Georg Pazderski (leader of the Berlin chapter), an alleged moderate and pragmatist, should get the job. But at the conference, a surprise competitor emerged: Doris von Sayn-Wittgenstein, party chair in Schleswig-Holstein, who had only joined the party when it began to radicalise after Lucke’s departure as leader and vehemently opposes any rapprochement with the powers that be. In two ballots, the vote was split almost equally between the two, but neither reached the 50% quorum.
After a break, both withdrew their candidacy, and Alexander Gauland, eminence grise and leader of the the AfD’s parliamentary Party emerged as the new and only candidate. He received a mere 68% “yes” votes. Gauland is an interesting figure. Once a long-term CDU member and career Beamter in Hesse, he became a conservative newspaper editor and then one of the founding members of the AfD.
Late in life (he is in his mid-70s), he turned out to be a populist who regularly toys with Islamophobia and racism. He has repeatedly used his considerable influence within the party to defend Höcke and his cronies. He has also repeatedly ruled out that he could become party leader, citing his poor health and advanced age. Now his double role makes him arguably the most powerful (co-) leader the AfD has ever had. While Pazderski’s defeat and the poor results for Meuthen and Gauland highlight the fault lines within the AfD, Gauland’s rise to the two top offices is further evidence for the growing influence of the party’s ultra right.