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Germany

AfD members distance themselves from Holocaust memorial critic

Björn Höcke has been told to stay away from his state parliament’s remembrance ceremony for victims of the Nazi regime after a speech last week in which he called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame."

Thuringia's state parliament has marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day without regional Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Björn Höcke. He was uninvited. State parliamentary speaker Christian Carius told Höcke that his presence at the event would be seen as a provocation. Höcke accepted the decision, Carius said in his opening remarks.

The state parliament had invited survivors from the Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar. Höcke was also excluded from Thursday's wreath-laying ceremony at the camp. His speech last week in which he labeled Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a "monument of shame" provoked angry reactions, also within his own party.

"He needs a good kick in the pants," said one party member. "He went too far. He doesn't represent us," said another member, adding: "We should continue to deal with our past in the same open and honest way." A woman sitting next to her agreed. "We cannot forget what happened, as something like that should never be allowed to happen again."

"I was really annoyed," said AfD member Kay Gottschalk. "As someone who used to be a history teacher, Höcke should know how to express himself better." Lothar Bleeker, who is also a history teacher as well as spokesman for the AfD regional association in the town of Euskirchen near Bonn, said that Höcke's speech "had undertones that, understandably, made people uncomfortable." However, Bleeker is also critical of the way, he says, German history is often "reduced to the 12 years of the Nazi era." That view is shared by almost all of the AfD members who came together on Thursday evening for an event that was supposed to be about German-US relations. Around 130 people between the ages of 30 and 60 showed up for the event. A small group of left-wing protesters demonstrated in front of the venue, resulting in a large police presence.

Deutschland Björn Höcke ARCHIV (picture alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer)

Björn Höcke unleashed a firestorm of criticism when he called the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a 'monument of shame'

Demands for more patriotism

Looking over at the police, one woman says that she can't quite believe "how quickly things have changed, that you can no longer say what you think here in Germany." "We are a different generation, we haven't committed any crimes," she said.

Another AfD member presents a similar view as a question: "Why should I be responsible for what a bunch of people did three generations ago?" Another nods and adds: "We weren't part of that war."

It becomes increasingly clear that, although Björn Höcke reaped plenty of scorn for his remarks, at the core of his speech is a feeling that is shared by many inside, and outside, his party. Many in the AfD say they are no longer prepared to accept Germany's "self-imposed low self-esteem" as they put it. When asked why, no answer is forthcoming. "It just can't go on like this," say many of those asked. One man talks about people he knows in the UK who wonder why the Germans seem to be so pre-occupied with the past. Another says it should be permissible for Germans to be critical of Israel. "Everyone else is proud of their country, but we're not," an AfD member complained. If Germany were less vigilant about remembering its past, it doesn't mean there would be greater danger of history repeating itself, he says, despite the current rise in right-wing populism.

AfD Euskirchen für Wolfgang Dick (DW/W.Dick)

Lothar Bleeker is critical of the way history is taught in Germany

'Something's not right'

Are Germans being forced to remember the crimes of the Nazi era? Is it no longer possible to have a different opinion?

"This is a dictatorship!" an AfD member shouts into the microphone. Clearly, many of the other party members agree. Regional party spokesman Bleeker tells an anecdote about his son's violin teacher. The man is a German-Russian who lived in Russia in the 1960s and '70s. His only source of independent news at the time was Deutsche Welle. "He was surprised about the situation here. And now he says he's once again seeing the kind of secretive conservations among people of the same opinion that he knew back then," Bleeker said.

Another man recommends turning to foreign news sources.

"It was only by coincidence that we heard about New Year's Eve attacks on women by foreign men in Innsbruck, like there were in Cologne," he said, adding that the German press doesn't report about such incidents anymore. "Something's not right here," he said.

Of course, the evening's AfD event is only a snapshot, a sample of the current opinions circulating within the party. Bleeker adds that the group is likely to be more representative of AfD views in western Germany. However, many of the views expressed here in Euskirchen are shared by AfD supporters in eastern Germany. That includes the clear criticism of Höcke, repeated frequently by party leader Frauke Petry.

On Sunday, there's going to be a regional AfD party congress for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in Oberhausen. Many say that at this congress, it will be clear that the splinter group - known as the "Patriotic Platform" that was a disruptive influence and that once included a quarter of delegates - has now been "pulverized." Bleeker, for one, is confident that it no longer exists. Frauke Petry, however, continues to speak of a "common source of concern for the party."

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