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A visit to Germany's far-right stronghold

September 14, 2021

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has its strongholds in the very east of the country. Its top candidate, Tino Chrupalla, battles against societal change. And is set to win — in some regions, at least.

Deutschland Tino Chrupalla beim AfD-Bundesparteitag
The AfD's Tino Chrupalla has his home base in GörlitzImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Whenever Tino Chrupalla travels to the German capital of Berlin, he needs police protection. He is the co-leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), which people in the capital regard as a far-right party that stirs up hatred against immigrants with racist slogans and whose members sometimes attract attention for their proximity to National Socialism or its relativization.

By contrast, when Chrupalla is in the Upper Lusatia (Oberlausitz) traditional region of Saxony, he is met with friendly greetings and handshakes, despite the coronavirus pandemic. He is at home in this area, and Berlin — though geographically close — feels far, far away.

Map of Upper Lusatia

He won his constituency of Görlitz for the far-right populist AfD party during the last Bundestag election four years ago with more than 32% of the vote.

He now intends to repeat that success.

On a weekday at lunchtime in September, Chrupalla is out campaigning on the streets of Löbau, a small city of about 15,000 residents that lies about 35 kilometers (22 miles) north of the border with the Czech Republic. He is relaxed, standing under a parasol, ready to talk.

There's not much going on at the campaign stand. Heiner Putzmann is among the passersby. He is born and bred in Löbau, he tells Chrupalla: "I was a home birth. Winter of 1952. It was freezing cold," he says, and goes on to tells how "life is quite good" in Upper Lusatia. Beautiful mountains, chic cities. "That's why we live here and never want to live in a big city." But the infrastructure is bad, and there are far too many burglaries and car thefts. Putzmann's concerns are shared by many in the region, even though crime rates have been falling for years.

Tino Chrupalla and an assistant talking to a supporter
Tino Chrupalla stumps in LöbauImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

Here in the Upper Lusatia region, Chrupalla is simply the master craftsman with his own painting and decorating business who, in a down-to-earth way, fights for ordinary people. "The workers and those who really add value no longer feel politically represented," he tells DW at his election booth.

His sentiments strike a chord with many people in the region.

No room for refugees and gender-inclusive language

Black Lives Matter, gender-neutral language, the rights of LGBTQ people, the situation in Afghanistan and Syria — these debates are not of particular interest here. At most, they serve as topics that evoke anxieties.

"The politicians in Berlin and Dresden [the state capital] must finally take care of their own people before they carry their own people's money abroad," says Chrupalla.

The Upper Lusatia region is characterized by change. Refugees from eastern Europe arrived following World War II. After the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) ended in 1989, the economy here collapsed. As a result, it became far less socially cohesive. Prejudice, racism, and social envy became dominant strains in the local culture.

A peak cross on a hill overlooks Görlitz in a valley under cloudy skies
Beautiful landscape, conservative values: Germany's Upper LusatiaImage: Volker Hohlfeld/imago images

This only intensified as young and more educated people moved away as quickly as they could. Today, the region of Upper Lusatia is one of the most economically underdeveloped in Germany — and a stronghold for far-right parties like the AfD.

Promoting democracy and cohesion

Bernd Stracke has been fighting against right-wing extremist structures on the ground since the late 1990s. At that time, he voluntarily moved to Upper Lusatia. "My parents and friends were shocked: "Are you out of your mind?" they asked him. 

As a punk musician, Stracke was an enemy of the state back in the socialist GDR. He stuck out like a sore thumb. In GDR times, the Upper Lusatia region was already considered a cut-off point for the "valley of the clueless" ("Tal der Ahnungslosen") — an East German slang term for places where there was no reception for television broadcasts from West Germany.

Today, Stracke is an adviser to the state premier of Saxony — his job is to bring citizens and politicians together. His position is a recognition that many cities, municipalities, and families are torn between social awakening and a reactionary renunciation of modern democracy.

Stracke is tasked with promoting a new sense of cohesion. He calls it a revolution from within — because the change cannot be prescribed from the outside of that society. "We are now seeing this in Afghanistan too. It doesn't work. Importing new ideas and mindsets here won't work."

Bernd Stracke engages in dialogue — also with the AfD. "It takes a certain aptitude for tolerance to withstand things that are different from what you think yourself."

Görlitz city center
Görlitz has been the backdrop to Hollywood films that play in Nazi GermanyImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

Upper Lusatia is a region full of contrasts: Some cities still look like ruins of the defunct GDR. In contrast, the city of Görlitz is a tourist magnet. Görlitz was spared the bombs of World War II. Immaculate old streets lined with grand historic buildings have also attracted Hollywood blockbusters: Quentin Tarantino shot his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds here, bringing the Nazi era back to life. The city has proudly dubbed itself "Görliwood" due to the many film productions.

Election campaign with far-right impact

At the Kretscham inn in the small village of Lawalde, Tino Chrupalla is holding an election campaign rally. About 300 people crowd in. Despite the close quarters and ongoing coronavirus pandemic, nobody is wearing a mask.

This DW reporter, who is wearing a protective face covering, is eyed with looks ranging from mocking to hostile. At the door stands a young man in noticeably neo-Nazi dress. His neighbor's arm is tattooed with skulls. Every second arrival greets him — they seem to all know each other.

Most of the attendees are retirees. "Bürgerlich" (middle class), as they say in Germany. But among them, there are also those with the skull tattoos — some featuring runes popular in the Nazi era, some with bullet casings slung over their heads. The crossover between far-right and right-wing extremist is fluid here.

Chrupalla election campaign event in a jam-packed room
At the Kretscham inn, Tino Chrupalla performs to a home crowdImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

In this environment, Chrupalla makes no attempt to distance himself from the more extreme right wing of his party. It was this group that elected him as one of the party's two top candidates in the German federal election.

When he speaks here warning of erosion of supposed German virtues, of overdue deportations to foreign countries, of an impending progressive dictatorship, a resounding "Jawoll!" ("yes Sir") echoes through the hall.

With his supposedly pragmatic course, Chrupalla has come a long way in the AfD. And he has an announcement for his voters in Upper Lusatia: from 2025, the AfD intends to be part of a ruling coalition government in Germany.

This text was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

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Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha