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Why Germany's far-right AfD youth wing faces a ban

February 25, 2024

The so-called Young Alternative is the radical youth wing of Germany's far-right AfD party. Courts have deemed the organization "extremist," and calls for a ban are growing.

A bald man with a beard holds a "Junge Alternative" flag over his left shoulder
The Junge Alternative, or Young Alternative, is the youth wing of Germany's far-right Alternative for Germany partyImage: Alex Talash/dpa/picture alliance

Anna Leisten is cheerful, young and radical. That's how she appears in the many images she's posted on Instagram, at least.

She's one of the best-known faces of Germany's Junge Alternative (JA), or Young Alternative, the youth wing of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Her social media profile says she can be anything "from a braid-wearing sweetie pie to a forged-iron soldier."

The 23-year-old from Brandenburg plants her political messages between harmless-looking images. One, for instance, shows her lifting her hand to show the white power hand sign adopted by the radical right and neo-Nazis. It's the same sign right-wing extremist and Christchurch gunman Brenton Tarrant flashed in court.

A woman in a brown scarf and black coat stands at a podium — framed by an Alternative for Germany flag
Anna Leisten is a co-chair of the Brandenburg branch of the Young AlternativeImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture alliance

Another shows her gazing up at Götz Kubitschek, one of Germany's most famous far-right extremists and an advocate for an antidemocratic "conservative revolution."

Then there's a picture of her looking battle-weary as she crawls through mud and under barbed wire. The caption reads, "Boot camp eastern front 2025." Apparently, the Young Alternative is dreaming of war.

'Young Alternative is clearly an extremist movement'

Leisten appears to embody everything for which the Young Alternative stands. The group advocates radical change in Germany and the exclusion of anyone deemed "ethnically foreign" wherever possible. In February, an administrative court in Cologne ruled that "the Young Alternative is clearly an extremist movement," citing that reason.

The ruling also stated that the group's ethnic distinction of peoples violated Article 1 of Germany's Basic Law, which enshrines the inviolability of human dignity. In particular, the court found that the youth group "continues to engage in massive anti-foreigner and, in particular, anti-Islam and anti-migrant agitation," pointing out that it often portrays asylum-seekers and migrants as criminals or freeloaders or otherwise degrades them. 

Anna-Sophie Heinze from the University of Trier has conducted a comprehensive study of the Young Alternative faction. She told DW how ties between the party and its youth group have strengthened over time.

"In general, the Young Alternative is an important place for training young cadres and forming new ideas," she said. "Young people don't only mobilize for the party during elections. They also have a strong online presence."

Overall, Heinze believes the youth faction is a "key driver of the AfD's radicalization."

Mathias Helferich standing in front of a gray background in Germany's parliament
Mathias Helferich is a former member of the Junge Alternative that now represents the AfD in German parliamentImage: Sebastian Gabsch/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

By now, many prominent JA members and supporters have found their way into Germany's national and state parliaments as AfD representatives. One is Matthias Helferich from Dortmund, who sits in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament.

In an internal chat, Helferich once referred to himself as "the friendly face of National Socialism" — referencing the same party that orchestrated the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews and millions of others who resisted, were marginalized or were deemed "unworthy of life." The JA faction celebrated Helferich as the "future minister of remigration," or the man tapped to organize the supposed upcoming massive expulsion of people from Germany's borders.

JA, AfD closing ranks against opposition

Federal JA spokesperson Hannes Gnauck is another member of the Bundestag. He's also a staff sergeant for the Bundeswehr, but Germany's military counterintelligence service has exempted him from duty for "a lack of loyalty to the constitution."

A man standing in front of a "Junge Alternative" sign
Junge Alternative spokesperson Hannes Gnauck said the 'fight against the right' was actually 'a fight against us, against the German people'Image: Bodo Schackow/dpa/picture alliance

Gnauck is currently under heavy criticism in Germany after media reports broke on January 10 about right-wing gatherings to plan the mass expulsion or so-called "remigration" of anyone considered "non-assimilated" or "non-German." In response, millions of people have taken to the streets across Germany in unprecedented protests against the far right.

But this has not silenced extremists such as Gnauck. Later in January, he turned to the JA YouTube channel to claim that this "fight against the right" was actually "a fight against us, against the German people."

To meet this resistance against radical forces in the JA and AfD, Gnauck called for supporters to "close ranks." He argued that "we need to develop a mentality that says: an attack against one who is fighting for the cause is an attack against all of us."

Grannies vs. the Right take on AfD in far-right stronghold

This so-called closing of the ranks appears to be working well. Radical individuals such as Leisten were reprimanded for flashing the white power hand sign, but she hasn't faced any further consequences. And many party dignitaries are openly expressing their solidarity with the radicalized youth. It seems to indicate that the entire party, young and old members alike, share these radicalized beliefs.

Is a ban to follow?

Given the court ruling that the JA is "clearly extremist," the public debate over whether the group should be banned outright has gained fresh momentum. A ban would be fairly simple to execute, as the youth group is part of the AfD but only as an association. Courts are not required to decide over banning associations the way they would over a ban on a political party. A simple ordinance from the Federal Interior Ministry would suffice.

Germany's migration policy divides communities

Many German legal experts believe it would be worth considering legal proceedings to ban the group, but they've also expressed some concern. In her constitutional blog, Kathrin Groh, a public law professor at the University of the Bundeswehr, posted an article arguing that "in order to fire a warning shot across the AfD's bow, it would make sense to target its youth group and to ban the association."

However, she also believes the damage to the AfD would be so substantial that the party would take legal action against the ban — with good chances of success.

"If the ban fails […] it will not only feed into the AfD's narrative of being a victim," she warned, "but it would also reveal a considerable gap in the toolbox of a self-defensive democracy."

This article was originally written in German.

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