Tens of thousands of Germans protest against resurgence of far-right AfD party

Mass demonstrations against populist faction, which has discussed mass deportations, held across the country, with more than 100 rallies expected over the weekend

File: Election placards for the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party are tied to lamp posts in Berlin ahead of elections, January 2, 2024. (John MacDougall/AFP)
File: Election placards for the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) party are tied to lamp posts in Berlin ahead of elections, January 2, 2024. (John MacDougall/AFP)

BERLIN (AFP) — Revelations that members of the far-right AfD party had discussed mass deportation plans are pushing tens of thousands of Germans to protest in the streets — and sparking debate on whether the anti-immigrant party should be banned.

From Cologne to Leipzig to Nuremberg, Germans across the country have mobilized over the last week, with another 100 demonstrations expected through the weekend.

Many of the demonstrations are held under the banner “together against the far-right,” with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also joining a spontaneous gathering in Potsdam, where they live.

Bundesliga coaches and church bishops have also issued calls warning against support for the AfD, with the manager of SC Freiburg Christian Streich saying that “anyone who does nothing now has learned nothing from school or history.”

The sudden and widespread mobilization was sparked by a January 10 report by investigative outlet Correctiv which revealed that AfD members had discussed the expulsion of immigrants and “non-assimilated citizens” at a meeting with extremists.

Among the participants at the talks was Martin Sellner, a leader of Austria’s Identitarian Movement, which subscribes to the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that claims there is a plot by non-white migrants to replace Europe’s “native” white population.

In this picture taken Nov.5, 2016, Martin Sellner, leader of the right-wing populist Identitarian movement of Austria is seen giving an interview in Berlin, Germany. (Paul Zinken/dpa via AP)

News of the gathering sent shockwaves across Germany at a time when the AfD is soaring in opinion polls, just months ahead of three major regional elections in eastern Germany where their support is strongest.

The “scandalous meeting” revived “the fear of deportations of millions of citizens or non-citizens, a fear that is part of the criticized heritage of Nazism,” said Hajo Funke, a political analyst who specializes in the far-right.

The “silent majority must wake up and take a clear position against extremism in Germany,” urged domestic intelligence chief Thomas Haldenwang.

Thanking those who have come out in the last days to make their voices heard, Scholz wrote on X that the protests “are encouraging and show that there are more of us democrats than those who want to divide us.”

The AfD was created in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit before seizing on anger over mass migration to Germany to garner enough votes to enter the Bundestag in 2017.

While support for the party eased subsequently, it has enjoyed a resurgence over the last year, feeding on frustration as Germany ails from soaring inflation and a weak economy.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, left, talks to government’s spokesman Steffen Hebestreit during the weekly cabinet meeting of the German government at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 25, 2023. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Nationwide, it is polling at about 22 percent, behind the conservatives but well above Scholz’s social democrats at about 16%.

In eastern Germany however, it is leading the polls, with more than 30% in the states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg, which are all due to hold regional elections in September.

The AfD had planted itself firmly onto the political landscape since its entrance in the Bundestag but after the meeting unveiled by Correctiv, “this normalization of the party is over,” said Funke.

The AfD confirmed the presence of its members at the meeting but has denied taking on the “remigration” project championed by Sellner.

But the scandal showed “the real face” of the party, said Lars Klingbeil, co-leader of Scholz’s SPD.

Voices calling for an outright ban of the party have also grown louder.

Far-right politician Bjoern Hoecke, Thuringia’s AfD parliamentary group leader, speaks at the special plenary session of the Thuringia state parliament in Erfurt, Germany, January 20, 2021. (Michael Reichel/dpa via AP, File)

Even if it has few chances of succeeding, a petition demanding the removal of constitutional rights for Bjoern Hoecke, one the AfD’s most controversial politicians, has already garnered a million signatures.

Several branches of the AfD are already under close surveillance of the domestic intelligence agency and in this context, “the state should look at a possible ban of the AfD,” said Wolfgang Thierse, a former speaker of parliament.

But others are skeptical about the effectiveness of launching such a long and complex procedure, as failure to win the ban risks further nourishing the AfD’s “victim narrative.”

But “if it’s proven that a party wants to transform the country into a fascist state, it must be banned, no matter how powerful it is,” said Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck in an interview with Stern magazine.

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