The city of Sonneberg in Thuringia. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.

The polls say the AfD has 1/3 support in my community. What does that look like?

This was first published by Zócalo Public Square.

By RALF-UWE BECK

I grew up in East Germany, in the former German Democratic Republic, and I am still here today.

In the fall of 1989, we liberated ourselves from dictatorial conditions through a peaceful revolution. That was a beginning. Freedom “from something,” however, must lead to freedom “for something.” We discussed how we wanted to develop our country. The possibilities seemed endless.

Then the Wall fell. People oriented themselves towards the West. It promised prosperity, which had a stronger allure than taking our own uncertain path.

So, I became a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. But for decades, I felt like a stranger. For East Germans, everything—really, everything—had changed with the accession to the Federal Republic of Germany. For West Germans, the only thing that changed was their postal code.

Then, in 2015, on the news thousands of refugees appeared walking on highways in Austria and Hungary, seeking a new home. Germany took them in—over a million people. When Angela Merkel said, “We can do it,” I felt a sense of belonging for the first time. My country—I finally saw it that way—felt like a welcoming society that took responsibility for its actions in the world.

But soon, the welcome turned into backlash against migrants. German politics shifted from focusing on migrants’ reasons for fleeing to dwelling on reducing the number of refugees reaching the country. Today, refugees are pushed back, beaten, and robbed at the Polish-Belarusian and Croatian-Bosnian borders—the outer borders of the European Union. Pushbacks are illegal and criminal, but they are condoned by the European Commission.

Most vocal in this backlash is the AfD, or Alternative for Germany party. In July 2023, a politician from the AfD declared to the audience during a television report from the party congress: “Dear friends, what we need are pushbacks, no matter what the European Court of Justice says.” She was placed on the party’s list for the European elections, ranking ninth. Currently, the AfD has nine seats in the European Parliament, and is likely to increase that number in the June 2024 elections.

This was disturbing for me. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights just turned 75. The declaration formulated an ideal that is still not achieved, but serves as orientation toward a goal of justice. Losing that orientation means losing ourselves. We can’t be indifferent. It does matter whether we respect human rights or not.

The AfD is indifferent to human rights. The party has just been classified as “right-wing extremist” by Germany’s domestic spy agency and offices protecting the constitution.

The AfD’s ascent is partially due to the way that the difficulties and disruptions of life since the country’s reunification have become deeply ingrained in East German identity. In the economic transition that came with reunification, the West treated the East as a market to be discovered and an “outdated” economy to be dismantled.

In that shift, many East Germans ended up unemployed and found themselves shame-stricken at the employment office looking for work or fear-laden at the tax office. This felt like a loss of control—over their country and their own lives.

The AfD plays its fatal melodies on this piano.

Even though the majority of Germans do not support AfD, the overall mood is changing. Before, fascist attitudes fomented under the surface of society’s skin. Now they are breaking out. On the streets, it seems as if nothing is sacred to some people anymore. In a city in the state of Thuringia, a group of disabled people was harassed by a man with derogatory remarks. When confronted, he said, “Hopefully the AfD will come to power soon. Then you’ll all be gone.” He was endorsing eugenics, one of the crimes of the Nazi era that most of us thought had long been universally condemned.

In 2024, three states in the former East Germany will see parliamentary elections: Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia, the last of which I call home. According to polls, the AfD could win up to 35%. That would give it a blocking minority in the parliaments: All decisions requiring a qualified two-thirds majority would have to be negotiated with the AfD. Even without governing, the AfD could advance its program of racism and revocation of rights.

Björn Höcke, the state chairman of the AfD in Thuringia and the leader of his party in parliament, is considered the mastermind of the AfD throughout Germany. In 2019, a court decided he could be publicly called a “fascist.”

In December, he published a plan for what he hopes to achieve upon joining state government. He would massively deport refugees and abolish programs to strengthen democracy and civil society—a move that would specifically affect initiatives trying to establish counterbalances to right-wing populism within the population. The intelligence agencies would be reoriented to conduct surveillance only of the left. The public broadcasting system would be overhauled. And all climate protection measures would be terminated, as the AfD denies human-made climate change.

The AfD stands against everything that I have fought for in my life: the expansion of civil rights for all people, a strong civil society, refugee protection, addressing the causes of migration, effective nature and climate protection. The polling numbers scare me. The cluelessness and ignorance of the other parties, shifting into campaign mode instead of focusing on saving the aspects of democracy that can be saved, also worry me.

This is still my country, and it cannot simply be handed over to the AfD.

On my street, half of the families are involved in a neighborhood association. We take care of a soccer field for children and teenagers, rake leaves, and generally clean up. We also maintain a small forest and create bee pastures. After our workdays, we sit around the grill with a beer and talk, sensibly. Does one out of every three of them vote right-wing extremist? That seems hard to believe.

But it’s very likely that many of my neighbors are disappointed with the existing politics. Soon, we won’t be able to avoid the AfD issue anymore just to keep the neighborhood peace. The AfD constructs emergencies and grievances, only to present itself as the last resort—it lights a fuse and then claims to be the only way to extinguish it. Learning to distinguish these invented grievances from actual grievances is crucial to keeping the AfD at bay. We have to face these conversations, consciously address the party’s dangers, and name our ethical boundaries—in our families, our neighborhoods, at work, and in all political engagement.

Ralf-Uwe Beck is a regional and national leader of the German non-governmental organization Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy) and serves as chief press officer for the Lutheran Church in Central Germany. This “Election Letter” is part of a year-long Zocalo inquiry, “Can Democracy Survive This Election Year?,” looking at countries holding elections in 2024.

The city of Sonneberg in Thuringia. Courtesy of AP Newsroom.