To Grab Attention, Germany’s Far Right Now Flirts With Hitler

The populist far-right in Germany likes to scandalize, then retreat once it’s grabbed headlines—a tactic seen in other countries as well.

Jens Schlueter/Getty

BERLIN—The right-wing populist Alternative for Deutschland party may be slipping in the polls right now, but that sure doesn’t keep them out of the headlines.

Last summer, young Elena Roon, previously lauded as the one of the party’s hopeful prospects, posted a picture of Adolf Hitler on WhatsApp with the caption “Missing since 1945. Adolf, please get in touch! Germany needs you! The German people.“

Roon, who is the AfD’s parliamentary candidate in Nüremberg, had previously made a name for herself with the anti-refugee initiative “Sichere Heimat” (secure homeland).

And all too predictably, when a local newspaper, the Münchner Merkur, confronted her about that post this week, this was her response:

“I distance myself from right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism,” she was quoted as saying. She didn’t want Hitler back “under any circumstances,” she claimed. She had in effect re-tweeted someone else’s post and, of course, sharing doesn’t mean condoning —in fact, any implication that she condones the post would be “turning reality inside out“!

Roon’s defence exemplifies the dog-whistle tactics that have served the AfD so well in the past: something very offensive is said and, after a public rebuff, retracted, and so the party manages to consolidate support from the hardcore right that feels marginalized while keeping other would-be voters more or less happy.

Much the same strategy was used in France by Jean-Marie Le Pen over the years to build the base of sympathizers now helping propel his daughter toward the French presidency. And Americans have grown very familiar with the tactic listening to Donald Trump over the last year or so.

Another smooth master of this technique is the AfD’s deputy leader, Alexander Gauland, a politician formerly from Merkel’s conservative party, who loves tweed jackets and has written a book on British lords. In an interview with the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung last May, Gauland was quoted saying about the Bayern Munich soccer player Jerome Boateng, who is black, that “Germans don’t want a Boateng for a neighbour.“ Gauland then went live on national television to accuse the FAS, a Sunday paper, of “tricking“ him, and “putting the word [Boateng] in his mouth.”

Similarly, when confronted with his use of the neo-Nazi slogan, “Today we are tolerant, tomorrow we are strangers in our own country” (Heute sind wir tolerant, morgen fremd im eigenen Land) during a rally in Brandenburg last year, Gauland claimed to have picked up the phrase only after someone had “held a sign in his face.”

And then there is blonde, scowling Björn Höcke, possibly the party’s most controversial figure, who caused a national uproar after he gave a speech in Dresden last month, where, among other things, he called for a “180 degree turn” in Germany’s attitude to the Second World War, accused Germany’s national Holocaust memorial of being a “monument of shame” and promised to “rewrite history books.”

And Höcke’s response to the public outcry that followed his speech of shame? He had really meant that the Holocaust was “a shame for our people.” The media coverage had been an “ill-spirited and deliberately slanderous interpretation” of his speech, he said.

But now, it turns out that not even the AfD is comfortable with putting its name on that particular trick. On Monday, despite initially agreeing to let Höcke remain in the party the AfD’s leadership moved to expel the man for his deeply offensive words. He had gone beyond what was “democratically acceptable,” party leader Frauke Petry admitted.

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Political scientist Oskar Niedermayer tells The Daily Beast that “the AfD’s biggest problem is that it has failed to dissociate itself from this outer right flank.” Initially founded as a eurosceptic party, the AfD has been attracting more and more people with right-wing extremist backgrounds since shifting its focus to countering the refugee intake and the so-called “Islamization of Germany.” The AfD’s political agenda itself, Niedermayer argues, still contains ambiguous language with racist and xenophobic undertones.

Petry, who had petitioned to kick out Höcke, argued that, “in such an important election year, it is important for the Party to be united.” The AfD has also promised to investigate Roon’s Hitler post. (Although, in this case, the AfD’s Bavarian state leader has already claimed that accusations of party-damaging behavior against Roon seem “most likely to be unfounded.”)

In fact, Höcke’s departure may well weaken the already deeply confused and divided party—especially now that Social Democrat nominee Martin Schulz is scooping up Germany’s smaller party voters by revamping the Socialist Democratic Party from the conservatives’ coalition buddy to an actual “alternative to Merkel.”

Unbelievably, Höcke was employed as a history teacher at a German secondary school before delving into politics. His expulsion from the AfD still needs to be confirmed by an internal party tribunal, but he would probably have a hard time going back to his old job: The German Association of History Teachers has already disowned him.