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A Whiff of Weimar

Is Germany in danger of repeating its Nazi past?

Björn Höcke (center), the leader of the AfD in Thuringia (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Björn Höcke (center), the leader of the AfD in Thuringia (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Thuringia lies at the geographic heart of Germany. It is where Bach was born, where Goethe wrote Faust, where Martin Luther was ordained as a monk. Germany’s first democratic constitution was adopted there, in the city of Weimar in 1919. And Thuringia is arguably where the end of the Weimar Republic began, as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party first gained a foothold in government there. In January 1930, the Nazis joined a coalition government with four other parties mostly from the conservative and business-friendly side of the ideological spectrum, a decisive step in legitimizing a movement already known for its anti-Semitic hatred and violence. The Nazis did not squander their opportunity: They used their time in government to force social democrats from civil service positions and fill the police force with loyalists.

“We had our greatest success in Thuringia,” Hitler wrote in a letter from February 1930. “There we are today the party on which all others depend.” These words made the rounds across social media a few weeks ago, tweeted out by Bodo Ramelow, who earlier that day had been ousted as the governor of Thuringia. Even for a country as haunted by its past as Germany, it felt like an unusually blunt invocation.   

Germany has long prided itself on its supposedly fastidious reckoning with its history. But that pride was severely shaken in 2017, when the Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD, became the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag since the 1950s. And it was all but dispelled earlier this year, when the AfD joined a group of centrist parties to install a governor in Thuringia—a political earthquake that recalled the past so violently that people began comparing the Germany of 2020 to the doomed Weimar Republic. “A whiff of Weimar is in the air,” warned Gerhart Baum, a former interior minister.

How did this happen? On one level, this is the story of a local political struggle, involving arcane allegiances and parliamentary maneuvers. But the broader lesson from Thuringia lies in how mainstream political parties, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, engage with an extremist menace—a lesson with implications for all Western liberal democracies grappling with a rejuvenated hard right.

The turmoil in Thuringia begins with Björn Höcke, a former schoolteacher who, as head of the AfD in Thuringia, represents the right wing of the already far-right party. Höcke endorses eugenicist theories, warning that the “European placeholder type” of human risks being overrun by “the African expansionary type.” He traffics in barely disguised anti-Semitic tropes (“Christianity and Judaism represent a basic antagonism”) and has accused the Allies of committing genocide in World War II (“an attempt to rob Germans of their identity, to annihilate them trunk and branch, and to tear out their roots”). Elsewhere in Germany, the AfD can try to hide behind a veneer of respectability, however threadbare. In Höcke’s case the veneer was removed by court ruling: In September 2019, the city of Eisenach sought an injunction against a protest that called Höcke a fascist; the court ruled that the statement was not defamatory, insofar as it accurately described Höcke. 

The AfD’s anti-liberal, anti-immigrant, proudly nationalistic message has found particular resonance in former East German states like Thuringia, where both xenophobia and hostility toward the liberal model championed by the central government in Berlin run deepest. Höcke’s appeal to these disillusioned voters paid off in elections last October, when the AfD won about a quarter of the vote—nearly doubling the number of seats it controlled in Thuringia’s parliament.

Prior to October, Thuringia was governed by a three-party coalition led by The Left (Die Linke), a party that is itself an amalgam of old East German socialists and West German leftists, disaffected social democrats, and union members. In most state parliaments, The Left is a marginal presence, but in Thuringia it was the largest party and accordingly furnished the governor: a transplant from the West named Bodo Ramelow. 

The election results made clear that Ramelow’s coalition would no longer have an outright majority. The Left had done well, gaining slightly on its results from the previous state election in 2014, but its coalition partners had lost just enough support to ensure that Ramelow could at best form a minority government. The CDU (Angela Merkel’s party) saw its result drop by 12 percentage points from the prior election, so no obvious center-right block presented itself either. Over the next five months, Thuringia’s parties jostled in an effort to form a ruling coalition. Höcke used that time to make new friends.    

On February 5, Ramelow sought the governorship and was voted down in a first round of voting, then in a second. By the end of the day a new governor emerged: Thomas Kemmerich, the local leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party, which had won just enough of the vote in October—around 5 percent—to be seated in parliament. Kemmerich was elected with the votes of the FDP, the CDU—and Höcke’s AfD.

The FDP and the CDU kept claiming that they had not anticipated that the extremists of the AfD would vote for Kemmerich. But subsequent reporting suggested that they very much foreseen what would happen. It was a watershed moment in postwar German history. For the first time, a democratic party had pushed through its candidate, and seemed to intend to govern, with the support of a far-right party openly opposed to liberal democracy.

The condemnation was universal and vociferous. Protesters converged on the FDP headquarters in Berlin, charging the party with having betrayed democracy. The CDU’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Merkel’s successor as the head of the party, demanded that Kemmerich step down and call new elections. While the FDP’s leadership was lukewarm in its rebuke and insincere in its denials that the whole thing was planned, many rank-and-file members voiced their outrage.

When it came to congratulating the new governor in Thuringia’s parliament, Ramelow’s second-in-command, Susanne Hennig-Wellsow, walked over with a bouquet of flowers and threw it at Kemmerich’s feet. Ramelow himself tweeted out the Hitler quote. His message was clear: For decades, German politics had moved to what Theodor W. Adorno had called the “new categorical imperative” of “never again.” Now Germans were seemingly watching an exact replay of the 1930s. “Never again” had failed.

Amid all the outrage, however, the guilty parties seemed shockingly nonchalant about what they had allowed to happen. Kemmerich assured the press that the unwritten agreement between the mainstream parties to prevent the AfD from exercising power remained his priority: “The firewalls vis-à-vis the AfD remain,” he said, about a barrier he had just brought down. FDP head Christian Lindner recast Kemmerich’s election as a victory for the great middle of German politics: “Today Thomas Kemmerich went head to head with a candidate of the AfD and one of The Left. He sent a signal that the political center is still strong in parliament.”

Indeed, in the debate over what had happened in Thuringia, talk of “The Center” (Die Mitte) was never far. The concept of Die Mitte, and its stranglehold on the imagination of a particular political class in Germany, will be familiar to American voters who have heard paeans to this shifting, elusive middle ground. For certain politicians and journalists, there seems to be something self-evidently legitimate about this “center,” whatever it might entail; something self-evidently illegitimate about whatever does not belong to the “center”; and, most important, an equivalence between the left and the right—no matter how far to the right the right goes.

Germans know this “both sides” argument all too well. It is a ghoulish calculus that equates far-left punks setting a trash can on fire with an entire political party advocating for ethnic cleansing. It is not just a rhetorical device: For decades German law enforcement, above all the Constitutional Protection Service (Verfassungsschutz, roughly Germany’s FBI), has suspected the far left of harboring terrorist influences, while being blind to very obvious terrorist tendencies that thrive among active, self-identified neo-Nazis. 

The former head of the Federal Office for Constitutional Protection, Hans-Georg Maassen, chimed in after the vote in Thuringia by tweeting: “The Party of the Berlin Wall Killers,”—a reference to The Left’s connection to the East German Socialist Party —“which repressed, jailed, surveilled and murdered human beings, no longer has a governor representing them in Germany. That should make every democrat in our country very happy.” It was Germany’s version of horseshoe theory—the idea that the left and the right are so extreme that their ideologies end up overlapping—at its purest.

Defending their alliance with the far right, the FDP and the CDU—the party that, again, has ruled Germany for years under Merkel—repeatedly equated the AfD and Björn Höcke with The Left. Such glib comparisons overlooked the governing record of Bodo Ramelow, who had for five years run a very popular government in Thuringia, had worked well with more centrist parties, and was well liked even among the voters of the CDU and the FDP.

Before long the pressure grew too intense: Kemmerich stepped down. The head of the CDU in Thuringia, Mike Mohring, announced his resignation soon thereafter. But there seemed to be no real contrition, no sense that these leaders understood the source of the fury directed at them. The Thuringian FDP caterwauled that it was the victim of “the organized hatred which we as liberals are facing in the shape of mass emails and threatening letters.” The fact that its actions had created a climate of fear among Germans likely to be targeted by the AfD, especially Germans of color, didn’t register. 

As Thuringia began preparing for new elections, an optimist might have said that Germany’s democratic institutions appeared to have held firm—that the outrage from civil society forced the parties to repair the breached firewall against far-right creep. But the scandal in Thuringia reveals that the postwar consensus is alarmingly fragile, and not only because the far right remains a threat: On February 19, a gunman with racist motives killed nine people at a hookah bar frequented by Turkish and Kurdish Germans in the city of Hanau, before killing himself and his mother. 

A major reason for concern is the center’s simultaneous fear of, and disdain for, the left, which has become a veritable governing philosophy for certain German elites. Angela Merkel has often justified her policies—especially when they concern austerity—by claiming that they are “alternativeless” (alternativlos). Die Mitte as a concept draws from the same kind of self-satisfied, stubbornly circular reasoning as “alternativelessness”: a refusal to justify, to engage in dialogue, to respond to objections.

In The New York Times, Lukas Hermsmeier warned of Germany’s “obsession” with horseshoe theory. This obsession is reflected in the political class’s rhetoric and symbolism, though voters themselves are less ideologically rigid: 73 percent of Thuringian voters thought their leftist governor was doing a good job, including majorities of CDU voters (72 percent) and FDP voters (77 percent). The debacle of Kemmerich’s election seems to have only increased those numbers: The Left by now polls at nearly 40 percent of the vote.

It is possible that the CDU and FDP simply miscalculated in trying to stoke fear of The Left. But their insistent horseshoe-theorizing had the mark not so much of cynical messaging as of a bid to psych themselves up for something they knew they shouldn’t do but badly wanted to. In Der Spiegel, the journalist Jonas Schaible observed that the repeated invocation of “The Center” had the ring of self-hypnosis. 

This was what made the entire affair so unnerving: You could sense the forces pulling self-declared “liberals” and “old-school conservatives” away from the very “Center” that they nevertheless angrily claimed to represent—away from the center and toward the right. And the habits that cause this slippage are deeply ingrained in the German center-right. Party leaders and media voices have spent years excoriating as “political correctness” and a left-liberal “dictatorship of opinion” what are simply norms of common decency. They have celebrated as courageous apostasy the dehumanizing rhetoric against immigrants, people of color, and trans people spouted by the AfD’s sympathizers in the media and the culture more broadly. They have defended racism and angrily denied the clear connection between that racism and terrorist violence. They have found echoes of Nazism everywhere, among student protesters, climate activists, writers of color complaining about racism—everywhere, that is, except among actual neo-Nazis spouting neo-Nazism. The scandal in Thuringia forced those who claimed that the left was no better or worse than the far right to decide whether this was a convenient rhetorical cudgel or something they actually believed. 

For every member of the CDU and FDP who recoiled in instinctive revulsion from the AfD, there appeared to be another who resented having to recoil at all. Some called for the normalization of relations with The Left, while others called, more or less explicitly, for normalizing relations with the AfD, or at least its voters: The partisans of the so-called Values Union (WerteUnion), an independent right-of-right group made up of CDU members, made it clear that they were ready to cooperate with the AfD on a state or national level (until they hastily backtracked). The group’s leader had donated to the AfD and reportedly had even considered switching parties. Merkel has sought to rid the CDU’s leadership of AfD sympathizers, while others have demanded that they be kicked out of the party altogether. The Values Union, in turn, talked of Merkel’s Stalinist purges and made comparisons—because irony truly is dead—to the Nazis. 

The party leadership was stuck in limbo. To acknowledge the obvious—that Ramelow was not Höcke, that The Left was not the AfD—would have meant facing up to why the center-right had perpetuated this false equivalence for so long. It would probably have forced them to acknowledge that their equivocation had cost lives. The CDU chose not to choose.

As the Merkel era comes to a close, the question of where to draw the line against the AfD is emerging with renewed force. Part of the CDU clearly has no interest in establishing such a line. Indeed, parts of the AfD are simply the rebranded right wing of the CDU; despite what Merkel and her allies might claim, it’s a fiction that a massive gulf separates its brand of respectable conservatism from the AfD’s extremism. The events in Thuringia revealed just how much harmony there is between the extreme right and the CDU’s right flank.

However fervently it clings to this ambiguous position, however, the CDU is finding it hard to sustain. On February 10, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned as head of the CDU, throwing a wrench into Merkel’s well-laid plans for succession. Then the Thuringian CDU decided to throw its support behind Ramelow after all, hoping to forestall new elections it was sure to lose.

While the citizens of Thuringia didn’t get to vote again, the citizens of Hamburg did. In regional elections in late February, the center-left parties won almost three-quarters of the vote. The CDU dropped to barely a tenth of the vote, and the FDP was kicked out of parliament altogether. (The AfD made it in, if barely.) If the maxim “never again” is to hold, it seems German voters—increasingly less white, less ethnically homogeneous, and more cosmopolitan—will have to be the ones to uphold it. 

How strong, then, is that whiff of Weimar in the air? During the death throes of the Weimar Republic, the Nazis and Communists were ascendant, and a self-declared “center” rushed to ally with the Nazis in the name of anti-communism. One key difference between the Weimar Republic and the Federal Republic is that Germany’s current left is not composed of extremists. When Ramelow was in power, his party governed sensibly, perhaps even a little stolidly. The German left may well be critical of capitalism, neoliberalism, and certain aspects of globalization, but they are not banging on about “population replacement” or calling for an end to liberal democracy. If the whiff of Weimar is to be dispersed, it is by either the self-declared center taking a long hard look in the mirror or the voters taking a long hard look at the self-declared center. There is no sign that the former is very likely to happen anytime soon; but the latter just might.