Björn Höcke has partially backed away from his recent historically revisionist speech. But Thuringian right-wing extremism researcher Dr. Matthias Quent has said the politician is still a threat to democracy.
Matthias Quent: What does change of heart mean? It is part of a strategy. One makes provocative statements, halfheartedly backs off a bit, and then enjoys the media attention. That was the same thing that Alexander Gauland did with his Jerome Boateng insult last summer. It is part of the staging to say, "That's not how I meant it." Most, however, know that's exactly how it was meant. Höcke is a political professional, and has said most of what was in the Dresden speech before. The whole thing is a tactical maneuver within the context of the party expulsion proceedings that have been started against him. He backed off with a wink and a nod, to let those who think like him know that he is not apologizing for the revisionist part of his speech but rather for the fact that the speech cost the party a few votes - especially in the old West German states.
Could he actually be expelled from the party?
No, because that would mean that the case would have to go before the Thuringian State Court of Appeal. It would not stand up in a federal court of appeal either, because the AfD's extreme right wing has positioned itself very strategically over the last few years. The state association is behind him 100 percent, they agree with the content of his speech. Party expulsion proceedings are a tactical maneuver by the Petry wing of the party, but nothing will come of it.
Does the split have the potential to damage the party in the long run?
We won't know that until the federal party conference in May. Then it will become clear just how strong each wing is. There are competing strategies: Federal Chairwoman Frauke Petry wants to orient the party towards a possible coalition, and Höcke sees the AfD as a movement party that can be an instrument for making new rightwing concepts socially acceptable. He is not concerned about where its hub is, because he just sees parliamentarianism as a means to an end. The potential for a split is certainly there. In May it will become clear whether the different wings are interested in keeping the party together and waging a successful federal election campaign, or if power interests and political differences are more important.
You say that Höcke doesn't care where he sits. At the state party conference in Arnstadt one thing became very clear: Höcke won't stand for federal election. What is the strategy behind that?
Höcke is more powerful as state chairman than he would be as a backbencher in Berlin. His positions are supported by the majority of AfD voters in Thuringia, but not nationwide, not even within the AfD as a whole. He faces a lot of resistance with such sentiments in cosmopolitan Berlin. He can better position himself with them in the Thuringia State Parliament.
In your January 2016 analysis you accused Thuringia's AfD of having rightwing extremist tendencies. Höcke maintains contacts with rightwing extremist organizations and the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany). Is Höcke a threat to democracy?
Höcke is a threat to democracy because he has been able to politicize dissatisfaction and the desire to conserve the old elements of classic conservatism in a destructive way. That goes beyond a simple "us against them" mentality and straight into the rhetoric of National Socialism. It is also much more than populism. With him it has to do with a politicization of rightwing extremism. He sees the AfD as a fundamental oppositional movement. This is not about parliamentarianism, it is only about content. That, for instance, makes him much more dangerous than Frauke Petry, who has also tried to make words like "völkisch" (nationalistic) socially acceptable and is therefore also attempting to lure adherents of the far right into the party.
Throughout Germany people are keeping a close eye on Thuringia's rightwing extremist scene. It was, after all, from there that the neo-Nazi terror group NSU (National Socialist Underground) came. But has rightwing extremist thought been sufficiently countered in Thuringia over the last few years? Does Thuringia have an especially serious far-right problem?
Thuringia's state parliament is on the right track. But things move slowly. One cannot simply outlaw such a mindset or get rid of it with a few educational programs. It has deep roots. There is a need for more work in terms of rightwing extremist concerts and dealing with rural rightwing extremism. In those regions people simply don't think of it as a problem when youth centers are operated by rightwing extremists. People say: "Well at least there is a youth center thanks to them."
And it is not something unique to Thuringia, one also finds such sentiments throughout the countryside of the former West German states. I think Thuringia is dealing with the problem and, unlike Saxony, it admits that it has a problem. Nevertheless, one must deal more robustly with the threat of rightwing extremism, there is no doubt about that.
Dr. Matthias Quent is a sociologist and researches rightwing extremism. He currently heads the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society (IDZ) in Jena. In 2016 he presented a comprehensive study on the threat to democracy in the German state of Thuringia, for which he dealt extensively with Thuringia's AfD and Björn Höcke.