Nearly a quarter of voters in Thuringia voted for the far-right AfD last fall. The party's state boss, Björn Höcke, a man who is cheered and jeered across the nation, symbolizes the AfD's hard-right surge.
This week, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party caused a political earthquake in the eastern German state of Thuringia, sending shockwaves across the nation. It did so by withdrawing its own candidate for state premier at the last minute during a parliamentary vote and instead backing Thomas Kemmerich of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). Ultimately, AfD support secured victory for the FDP politician, and though Kemmerich stepped down the next day, the compact that Germany's parties had sworn to — the promise of never working with the AfD — had been broken by the FDP and politicians from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU). There can be little doubt that Björn Höcke, Thuringia's extraordinarily polarizing AfD party leader, was behind the plot.
Read more: A disgrace for Germany
Highly divisive figure
Höcke's ability to rile voters is infamous, and it was on full display last October, in the run-up to state parliamentary elections. When Höcke takes the stage things get very loud, with some in the crowd cheering him with chants of "Höcke, Höcke," while others boo and scream "Nazis out."
On that October day in the small Thuringian town of Bad Langensalza, the growing division in German society could not have been clearer, and no one seemed to enjoy the agitated mood more than Höcke himself. He threw up his arms to greet his supporters as he took the stage, wearing a smirk that would remain for the duration of his speech.
Höcke is undoubtedly the most divisive politician in the country. But when Thuringians went to the polls on October 27, he also led his party to historic gains, taking 23% of the vote — making the AfD the state's second most popular party. Opinions polls showed, however, that only 8% of voters would have voted for him as state premier.
Still, for many in his own party, Höcke is a man who is too far to the right of the political spectrum. It is not hard to imagine why, Höcke has called for a "180-degree turnaround" in the way Germany looks at its past, and he regularly uses expressions like "degenerate" or "total victory" in his speeches — despite the fact that as a former history teacher he knows full well which dark chapter of German history he is conjuring up.
Axel Salheiser, a right-wing extremism researcher in the eastern German city of Jena, says the speeches that Höcke and many other AfD politicians deliver are riddled with words and phrases "confusingly similar" to those used by the Nazis.
Playing with racial stereotypes
On stage in Bad Langensalza, Höcke knows just what to say to get those sitting at beer-drinking tables at the event up on their feet and cheering. Most gathered here are angry about Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy, especially her decision to open Germany's borders to allow hundreds of thousands of immigrants primarily fleeing civil wars into the country back in 2015.
Many complain that establishment parties don't care about them. They call Merkel the "Führer of the regime," they complain about the "elites," and when Höcke rails against the "cartel parties" they eat it up.
Another ingredient in Höcke's recipe for success is playing with racial stereotypes. Sometimes he labels the entire African population "propagators," at others he claims that thousands of German youths "experience school as a fearful place, because African thugs mob, terrorize and beat them there."
Though many gathered in Bad Langensalza would not agree with Höcke's way of presenting his argument, they also don't condemn it. One AfD politician says his colleague Höcke's words are often taken out of context. A supporter at the rally says: "He should tone it down a bit, especially with elections coming. But he's right about everything." The man says Germany has enough poor people of its own, and doesn't need to spend money on "foreigners."
Höcke (center) at a demonstration of his far-right AfD party and the anti-immigrant Pegida movement in Chemnitz, Germany in September 2018
'The Wing' versus the rest of the AfD
As in many other eastern German states, Thuringia's AfD is dominated by an extreme-right contingent known as "The Wing." It is estimated that as many as 40% of AfD party members identify themselves with the movement and Höcke, its leader.
On the political scale, far-right extremism researcher Salheiser says The Wing falls somewhere between "right-wing radical and far-right extremist." Germany's intelligence services treat the group as suspicious, and a court ruling last September found that it is legally acceptable to label Höcke a fascist.
The aim of Höcke and his supporters is to push the AfD further to the right. Höcke himself has no problem marching arm-in-arm with right-wing extremists, as he did in the eastern German city of Chemnitz in September 2018. But more moderate AfD politicians who seek to present the party as more centrist see Höcke as a thorn in their side. Two years ago, the party's national executive board sought to have Höcke's membership revoked, but that plan was shot down by a court of arbitration. Höcke himself has said he intends to expand his influence within the party.
'Out with Höcke'
But Höcke didn't only attract supporters last fall in Bad Langensalza. A number of people vehemently opposed to his presence also came. One of those people was Pastor Dirk Vogel. Pastor Vogel was furious that the AfD had chosen his parish church as the backdrop for its campaign event.
Vogel thinks Höcke is divisive, that he is exclusionary, and that he is condescending when speaking to and about people from other cultures. Although Vogel quietly watches from afar, others scream "out with Höcke," while others simply weep. Jeering them from the stage, Höcke calls them "communist Nazis" and suggests they should take medication.
Höcke rarely speaks with media outlets, whom he and many AfD voters denigrate. He has given very few interviews since he walked out of one with German public broadcaster ZDF ahead of last fall's elections. He ended that interview by telling reporters that he may well become a very interesting political figure in Germany in the not-too-distant future. The thought may thrill some, but for others it would be a nightmare come true.