Moderates in the Alternative for Germany have rejected Alexander Gauland's trivializing characterization of the Third Reich. But hardliners blame the media and say the party chairman's words were taken out of context.
A group of self-proclaimed moderates within the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) has taken party co-chairman Alexander Gauland to task for a controversial statement about Nazi Germany over the weekend. At a conference of the party's youth wing, Gauland said that within the context of a thousand years of German history, the twelve years of the Third Reich amounted to "bird shit" — by which he meant something relatively insignificant.
Read more: The AfD's Alexander Gauland: From conservative to nationalist
The "Alternative Mitte" (Alternative Center) group claims to represent the centrist elements in the party. It released a statement Monday criticizing Gauland and apologizing to "all victims of the Nazi regime."
"This should not happen to any politician with a minimum of sensitivity and responsibility for our history," the group wrote on its homepage. "How could anyone think it was a good idea to cause so much damage and thereby do harm to the AfD at what was for the party a small, insignificant event? Only Alexander Gauland can answer that question."
Critics have long accused Gauland and other leaders of the right-wing populists of courting support on the extreme right by making offensive statements — only to later claim that their remarks were taken out of context.
Gauland himself said that "nothing could have been further from my intention" than to trivialize Nazism. The "Alternative Mitte" is very much a minority wing within the party, but they weren't letting the boss off the hook so easily.
"Given that the press were present at the event, it unfortunately cannot be ruled out that this happened consciously and that the splash it made in the media was calculated," the group said.
One verbal affront too many?
Gauland was a founding member of the AfD when it started life in late 2012 as a political group critical of the eurozone and bailouts for Greece.
In recent years, he has been a central figure in the populists' transformation to a party focused on opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming stance toward migrants.
His comments over the weekend were by no means his only controversial statement.
In 2017, Gauland caused uproar when he said that the government's Turkish-German migration commissioner, Aydan Özoguz, should be "disposed of" in Anatolia.
After that remark, most AfD members defended Gauland, claiming that he had merely misspoken. But moderate party members aren't getting behind his latest transgression of verbal norms. Some are even apologizing on the party's behalf.
"Germany's worst mass murderer Hitler is by no means just bird shit," tweeted AfD Bundestag deputy Uwe Witt immediately after Gauland's remarks. "As an AfD politician, I apologize to all of our fellow Jewish citizens, the victims of the Holocaust and their families for our chairman's unbelievable trivialization."
Since entering the German parliament for the first time following September's election, the AfD has largely been successful in presenting a unified front in public. But now cracks may be emerging in the populists' alliance of people from diverse walks of life who are unhappy with the political establishment.
Off the record, centrists often complain about some party figures' penchant for provocative remarks costing them potential support in the social mainstream. By contrast, hardliners think that offending mainstream sensibilities is part and parcel of the party's character.
Defense from fellow hardliner
One of those who is defending Gauland is the AfD's leader in the state of Thuringia, Björn Höcke. He accused the media of distorting Gauland's words.
"Alexander Gauland has once again been quoted out of context by journalists," Höcke said in Berlin on Monday. "Before the quote in question, Alexander Gauland spent four or five sentences explaining in detail how he as an AfD member and as AfD chairman accepted Germany's historical responsibility for the Nazi era."
Höcke himself was at the center of a controversy in early 2017 after he termed the central Holocaust Memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame." Some AfD members called for him to be banned from the party, but Gauland defended him. Now Höcke is repaying the favor.
Höcke took the opportunity to accuse the Merkel government of "delivering our social-welfare system up to plunder" and "at least indirectly" of "allowing our daughters and wives to be leered at, raped and killed." Gauland's critics, he said, had no place judging the party leader.
"Those hyper-moralists who are again raising a hue and cry…and who are part of the political establishment that allowed 2.5 million people to illegally cross our borders…have lost the right in my eyes to make any judgements about AfD politicians," Höcke asserted.
But the criticism this time around is coming not just from the usual sources, but from within the populist ranks as well.