Germany’s right-wing populist party on Monday moved to expel a state leader who argued the country should turn the page on its World War II guilt, exposing a deepening rift within the party.
Bjoern Hoecke of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) sparked outrage last month by calling Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame,” arguing that Germany was too hung up by its guilt over the war and Holocaust.
Party leaders voted by the necessary two-thirds majority Monday to open expulsion proceedings against Hoecke, who heads its branch in the eastern state of Thuringia. The decision comes as the party prepares for a national election in September in which it hopes to enter parliament for the first time.
AfD co-chief Frauke Petry declared that “for the executive committee, the Dresden speech of January 17 overstepped the limit of what is democratically tolerable within a popular-liberal party.”
She expressed confidence that the majority of the party would back the decision. However, powerful members swiftly voiced their dissent.
AfD deputy chief Alexander Gauland called the exclusion proceedings “completely mistaken.”
He argued Hoecke “did not at any point breach party rules,” speaking to regional broadcaster Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk.
Hoecke himself also insisted that he had “violated neither the statutes nor the principles of the party.”
The leadership of Hoecke’s Thuringia faction published a statement in support of the former history teacher, calling the expulsion proceedings “politically motivated.”
“The aim is apparently to greatly limit the diversity of opinion, which differentiates the AfD from other parties, and to use these means to remove troublesome people from the party,” it said.
It is unclear how high the chances are of Hoecke being expelled. The matter will initially be considered by a party tribunal in his home state. He also has allies elsewhere in the party, which is known for strong internal rivalries.
Hoecke said he regrets the leadership’s decision but is confident about the proceedings. “I am convinced that I violated neither the statute nor the principles of the party,” he said.
The episode is reminiscent of a feud that erupted last year over another regional AfD lawmaker’s anti-Semitic comments.
Then, Petry’s bitter rival and co-chief Joerg Meuthen had sought exclusion proceedings against the lawmaker, Wolfgang Gedeon, for labeling Holocaust deniers “dissidents.”
But Petry did not condemn Gedeon’s comments and only held an emergency meeting with him after which the lawmaker offered his resignation from the AfD state assembly group.
Meuthen was then enraged over Petry’s meddling.
Crucially, in the latest row, around Hoecke, he has taken the side of the Thuringia politician.
“I don’t think that this proceeding is right, even though the speech was really off the mark,” he told national news agency DPA.
The AfD’s popularity took a knock after Hoecke’s comments, with polls now showing support at around 10 percent, down from last year’s average of around 13-15 percent.
Barred from Holocaust events
In the wake of his remarks, Hoecke was barred from several International Holocaust Remembrance Day memorial events.
When he showed up at the Thuringia state assembly for a January 27 memorial ceremony, the speaker, Christian Carius, barred him from attending.
Carius told Hoecke that “his presence would be seen as a provocation,” especially by Buchenwald survivors in the audience.
Later that day, Hoecke was also prohibited from entering the Buchenwald site for a wreath-laying ceremony.
The AfD slammed Hoecke’s exclusion as “a low point in the history” of the state parliament which, it charged, “raises considerable doubts about their understanding of democracy.”
The AfD, which started out as a euroskeptic party in 2013, has since shifted to mainly railing against multiculturalism, Islam and the over one million asylum seekers who arrived since 2015 under Chancellor Angela Merkel, its declared enemy.
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