Party politics is high on the agenda in Germany. A one-day alliance between Germany’s anti-Semitic, far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) saw the sudden resignation of CDU party boss Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. While the CDU had, very temporarily, violated its very own non-alliance policy with the semi-fascistic AfD, internal party conflicts have opened up again inside Merkel’s party.
The Beginnings of the Controversy
In October, about 2 million people voted in the Eastern German state of Thuringia, and the outcome was rather inconclusive. The CDU received 21.8 percent of the vote; the Rosa-Luxemburg-like progressive socialists, Die Linke, received 31 percent; Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) got an abysmal 8.2 percent; the environmental Greens, 5.2 percent; and the neoliberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) received an extremely narrow 5.0066 percent.
Still, the results were to become highly significant only a few months later. AfD received a whopping 23.4 percent of the vote, reflecting the party’s 20 to 25 percent success rate throughout Eastern Germany. After long, protracted, painful and complicated negotiations under Germany’s proportional representation system, Thuringia’s politicians were unable to come to an agreement on who was going to govern the state.
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Traditionally, Germany is governed either through a left-leaning government consisting of SPD, the Greens and, in some cases, Die Linke; or a right-leaning conservative government consisting of CDU and FDP. In the latter case, Germany’s strong-state conservatives from the CDU typically work with the free market conservatives of the FDP. In exceptional cases, however, there might be a grand coalition. For many years, Chancellor Merkel’s federal government has been secured through a grand coalition of CDU and SPD, which together hold a comfortable majority at the federal level. In the state level of Thuringia, however, no such coalition was to be formed.
In a surprise move on February 5, the CDU supported a state premier (equal to a governor in the U.S. system) for Thuringia who came from the rather weak FDP. The party had just managed to scrape into Parliament by the narrowest of margins, receiving 5.0066 percent — just 73 votes above the 5 percent threshold. These 73 votes allowed the FPD to occupy a king-making position, with the party’s sharply anti-environmental and pro-business Thomas Kemmerich as state premier. Still, the center-right CDU and the neoliberal FDP did not have enough votes; it needed the despised AfD for a voting agreement. This gave the AfD the power it always wanted — even though it was, at it turned out, just granted this power on one day.
Within hours, Merkel had sent the (now resigned) CDU party boss Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to the Thuringian capital city of Erfurt. Pressured by Kramp-Karrenbauer, Mike Mohring — who represents the CDU in Thuringia’s state Parliament — withdrew his support, and FDP’s Kemmerich resigned as premier immediately, leaving him with a hefty paycheck of €93,000 (or US$102,000) for day’s work. Barely 24 hours after it started, Germany’s first post-war conservative-neo-fascist arrangement was over.
Meanwhile, there are speculations about a fresh election in the state of Thuringia. In the last public polling, the socialist Die Linke received a previously unseen 39 percent of support, the center-left SPD 10 percent, and the environmental Greens 5 percent in public polling. This is a rather comfortable majority (55 percent) to govern the state of Thuringia. This would mean that Thuringia would return to a left-wing government under the leadership of Die Linke. This is the most progressive state leadership in Germany. It also means that Merkel’s CDU and the neoliberal FDP will be punished for working with the AfD.
February’s political kerfuffle in Erfurt was highly exceptional. But even more devastating is the role the AfD played in the drama.
The AfD: Anti-Democratic and Deeply Authoritarian
Founded in 2013, the anti-migrant, racist and anti-Semitic party entered Germany’s federal Parliament in 2017 and pretends to be just another populist party. In reality, it is radically far right. For instance, 79-year-old Edith Pfeiffer, a member of the Holocaust survivor support organization Union of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime, said of the AfD in a recent interview that, “The new Nazis are no better than the old Nazis except they are a bit better in pretending to be democrats.”
The conservative bloc’s pure numbers of seats in Thuringia’s Parliament were insufficient to appoint a conservative state premier, so the CDU and FDP sought support from the AfD — a first in the country’s post-war history.
The AfD’s right-wing extremist youth organization, which calls itself “The Wing,” and party member Björn Höcke are currently under surveillance by Germany’s all-powerful domestic secret service, the Verfassungsschutz (BfV). The BfV can render a political party illegal. Despite the fact that the CDU has a policy of not entering into a coalition with the AfD, it did exactly that in early February.
The CDU’s most powerful woman — Chancellor Merkel — publicly despises the AfD. Merkel also loathes the boss of the AfD in Thuringia — Höcke — who is the leader (some say Führer) of the party’s right-wing extremists. In his early days, Höcke used to write under the neo-Nazi pseudonym “Landolf Ladig.” As the parliamentarian leader of the AfD in Thuringia, he was instrumental in getting the FDP’s Kemmerich into position.
In 2018, Höcke was leading a neo-Nazi march of 6,000 supporters in Chemnitz — a two-hour drive to the east from Erfurt. The rally had all the neo-Nazi trimmings one can imagine: the hunting of foreigners, an attack on a Jewish restaurant and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi salute (a criminal offense in Germany). About one-and-a-half hours to the south of Erfurt lies the East German city of Halle, where a local and well-armed neo-Nazi tried to kill Jews on Yom Kippur while they were praying in the local synagogue on October 9. This is the geographical and political context of the AfD-certified appointment of Thuringia’s new state premier.
The neo-Nazi-sponsored appointment of the FDP’s Kemmerich didn’t go well. In the public gallery of Thuringia’s state Parliament, shocked faces jumped from their chairs. “Shame on you!” someone shouted toward the new premier, while protesters rallied outside. For the first time in Germany, Thuringia now has a premier semi-elected by the far right AfD — a long held taboo has been broken.
A Secret Agreement?
Initially, the candidate for the job of state premier was Christoph Kindervater, who was also put forward by the AfD but received zero votes. With 45 votes, Kemmerich ended up receiving just one more vote than the long-serving and much-admired incumbent premier Bodo Ramelow of the progressive Die Linke. Erfurt’s conservative coalition, including the support of the AfD, is now the subject of much debate throughout Germany. There is confusion and a nagging question: Has there been a secret agreement between the CDU, FDP and AfD?
Initially and very publicly, CDU and FDP had ruled out any coalition with the AfD in all bodies and at all levels of German politics. But Germany’s strong-state and free market conservatives broke their own rules. Even worse, FDP candidate Kemmerich portrayed himself as the AfD’s most vigorous opponent during the election campaign.
Merkel’s local representative, the CDU’s Mohring; his local party setup; and Merkel’s federal CDU are feeling the heat. The party’s claim of total shock comes despite the fact that scenarios of an impending FDP state premier had circulated in Thuringia for days. For Mohring, though, Kemmerich’s appointment is ultimately good news for the conservatives. Ever since, the CDU had tried to prevent a red-red-green coalition of Die Linke, the SPD and the Greens, as the German ruling elite has always seen a red government as dangerous and to be avoided at all costs.
Seeking to prevent a progressive alliance, the CDU has favored what Germans call a “Zimbabwe government.” This does not mean a Zimbabwe-like government. It merely uses the colors of the Zimbabwean flag: black, green, red and yellow. These colors are reflective of the political colors of the CDU (black), SPD (red), FDP (yellow) and the Greens (green). But the CDU’s initial plan of a black-green-red-yellow coalition never materialized. Failing for many weeks in behind-the-scenes politicking while a red-red-green coalition edged closer to reality, CDU apparatchik Mohring has now become a joke, receiving severe condemnations from his own party. Today, Mohring is hoping for a position on the government bench, claiming that he did not collude with AfD extremist Höcke.
Thuringia and Hitler
What renders the entire affair historic are its parallels to January 31, 1933 — the day Hitler became Germany’s reichs-chancellor. Three years before that, in 1930, the state of Thuringia played a crucial role in his rise. On February 2, 1930 — 90 years ago this month, Hitler declared victory in Thuringia, saying, “We achieved the greatest success in Thuringia. That is where we really are the decisive party today. The old parties in Thuringia, which until now formed the government, are not able to raise a majority without our participation.” In fact, just six members of the Nazi Parliament tipped the balance, giving the right-wing conservative coalition a majority of 28 seats.
Thus, on January 23, 1930, the first Nazi government participation in the German Reich came about. Arch-Nazi Wilhelm Frick became minister of Interior and National Education. After World War II, Frick was tried and convicted at the Nuremberg trials and executed by hanging. But it was Hitler’s takeover of the state of Thuringia in 1930 that set the scene of what was to come in 1933.
In the last free elections in November 1932 before Hitler’s appointment, the Nazi party only received 32.3 percent. Hitler’s party had no majority — Hitlerism was failing. In fact, the November 1932 election constituted a 4.18 percent swing against the Nazis. In other words, the Nazis never managed to cross the all important 50+1 barrier. Meanwhile, the communists gained 2.5 percent.
To get Hitler into power, the Nazis needed the support of Germany’s conservatives. By the end of January 1933, the Nazis got it in the form of Germany’s national conservative German National People’s Party, as well as the conservative Catholic Franz von Papen. Support for Hitler also came from Germany’s powerful and deeply chauvinistic military establishment in the form of German General Paul von Hindenburg. This support sealed the country’s fate.
While 2020 is not 1933, and what has just happened in the state of Thuringia is nowhere close to what happened at the federal level in January 1933, the significance of the Erfurt events cannot be overstated. They represent a clear warning to stay away from any coalition government that includes the semi-fascist AfD. German politics draws a very clear line here: no arrangement with the crypto-Nazi AfD. The events of the last few days in Germany have shown that all democratic parties must adhere to the “Never Again!” and “Stop Nazism” dictum.