Björn Höcke, from the right-wing Alternative for Germany, awoke uncomfortable memories with his speech invoking "a thousand years of Germany." But his appeal to far-right radicals is vital to the party, analysts say.
People with far-right sympathies are currently spoilt for choice when it comes to rallies in Germany. They could join the anti-Islamization PEGIDA marches every Monday in Dresden, which notched up its extremist rhetoric at the latest event. Or they could travel to Cologne, where the "HoGeSa" ("Hooligans Against Salafists") movement has been given the go-ahead to stage a demonstration this Sunday.
There are of course distinctions to be made between the two - most PEGIDA supporters would not consider themselves "hooligans" - but Hans Vorländer, Dresden-based political scientist and authority on Germany's far-right, has not been alone in noticing more far-right radicalism at PEGIDA rallies. "You have to make a distinction between the supporters and the organizers and speakers," he told DW. "The speakers are increasingly radical right-wing, because they use hate and semantics that is certainly close to neo-Nazi vocabulary."
And there is also more choice on the ballot papers for Germany's right-wing voters. For many years, the only option to the right of the conservative mainstream Christian Democratic Union was the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), which became largely discredited for its fanatical views, financial troubles and the ongoing attempts to have the party banned, or the rather brief appearance of the far-right Republicans.
That changed in 2013, with the emergence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party originally founded by a group of economists unhappy with Germany's response to the European debt crisis. Two years later, the party has shed its academic gown, becoming more grass-roots and overtly nationalist, and is focusing all its efforts on opposing Angela Merkel's asylum policy.
'1,000 years of Germany!'
The AfD has also taken to organizing its own rallies in eastern Germany to rival PEGIDA - though with notably less success. On Wednesday night, an AfD demonstration in the Thuringian capital of Erfurt attracted only 4,000 people - half as many as the party had gathered in the city two weeks earlier, and some 16,000 fewer than PEGIDA brought together in Dresden on Monday.
That was a particular defeat for the AfD's Thuringian leader Björn Höcke, as the event was set up to be a triumphant homecoming for him after he achieved national prominence on a much-watched TV political debate show last Sunday.
In fact, his appearance on the "Günther Jauch" show on the national public broadcasting network ARD seems to have backfired on the 43-year-old. His decision to drape a small German flag over the armrest of his chair during the show, "as a sign that the AfD was speaking with the voice of the people against old-party politics that have gone insane," garnered much mockery in the media, while his speeches proclaiming "1,000 years of Germany!" conjured up many uncomfortable collective memories of the Nazi era.
Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was one of several German politicians to condemn Höcke's rhetoric. "[The AfD] uses the language of the NSDAP, Nazi phrases," the Social Democratic Party leader told TV network RTL on Thursday. "Höcke's semantics are clearly borrowed from National Socialism," said Vorländer. "But we can't say that all the people that identify with the AfD are far-right radicals, even though there's no doubt that there are far-right radicals in the party."
Since the unceremonious ouster in July of the previous leader and founder Bernd Lucke, who represented the euroskeptic liberal economist element of the party, the AfD has been reduced to two wings - the middle-class nationalist conservative wing, represented by Frauke Petry, and the far-right radicals, represented by Höcke, which is rapidly leeching voters from the NPD and among PEGIDA demonstrators.
Dilemma, or double strategy?
On Wednesday, the same day that Höcke spoke to the reduced crowd in Erfurt, an email from the AfD leadership to party members was leaked to the press in which leaders Frauke Petry and Jörg Meuthen said they "did not consider themselves represented by the style of Thuringian party leader Björn Höcke," and that while he was free to speak for the Thuringian AfD, he could not "legitimately represent the federal party."
But when she made her own TV appearance on another political debate show ("Maybrit Illner" on ZDF on Thursday evening) Petry rowed back on the email. "We are in a joint party," she said. "Content-wise there are no differences between us." It was simply a matter of reining in Höcke's rhetoric, she argued, which is normal for a new party. "He admitted to me that he made mistakes and that he's prepared to change his style," she said.
That remark might make it seem like the AfD is struggling to keep its two halves together. In fact, says Vorländer, it is deliberately aiming for both demographics. "It's not a dilemma, it's a conscious strategy," he said. "Petry has to keep the moderate national conservatives on her side, and Höcke is the figurehead for the right-wing radicals - and the AfD needs both. It wants both."
The AfD is currently polling at around 7 percent in national opinion polls - above the 5 percent the party would need to enter parliament. Though there is no doubt it is being boosted by the ongoing refugee crisis, it seems doubtful that the party will be able to sustain that figure until the next general election in 2017. Still, many observers believe the AfD has good chances in next year's regional elections. "The times at the moment are so unsettled, no one knows what will happen," said Vorländer.