Inside Story

“Never again”?

What’s behind the biggest protests in recent German history?

Klaus Neumann Hamburg 6 February 2024 3300 words

Too much history? Protesters against right-wing extremism in front of the Reichstag building in Berlin last Saturday. Kay Nietfeld/dpa/Alamy

On Saturday, close to the French–Swiss–German border in Germany’s far southwest, 4000 people took to the streets of Lörrach (population 48,000). At the other end of the country, in Kappeln (population 8600), a town with a sizeable German–Danish minority, more than 1000 turned out to protest. In Berlin, more than 150,000 demonstrated in front of the German parliament. (At least that’s what the police said; the organisers claim twice as many showed up.) Living in an inner-Hamburg neighbourhood, I only had to walk a few blocks to join a 10,000-strong protest initiated by supporters of the local St Pauli Football Club. And those were just four of more than a hundred public protests that day.

It’s been like that for more than three weeks since investigative journalists from the independent newsroom Correctiv revealed a “secret plan” hatched at a “secret meeting” in November last year. According to the report, twenty-two far-right politicians and businesspeople met in a hotel outside Berlin to talk about expelling millions of people living in Germany, among them “non-assimilated” German citizens. The attendees included office holders of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, and members of the Werteunion, an organisation set up in 2017 by ultraconservative Christian Democrats unhappy about the refugee policies of then chancellor Angela Merkel.

A few hours after news of the meeting broke, eighty people protested in front of Hamburg’s local AfD headquarters. Two days later, 2000 took to the city’s streets. All over the country, the protests quickly gathered momentum. When a Turkish-born member of the Hamburg state parliament called for another protest on 19 January, he expected 4000 to join him. According to the police, 50,000 turned up, and the rally had to be cut short because the riverside venue was so overcrowded it was a miracle nobody ended up in the icy water. The following weekend around 100,000 people rallied in Hamburg.

Protests have continued every day in all parts of the country. Many of those taking part haven’t been to a demonstration in many years or are protesting for the first time in their lives. Altogether, millions have taken to the streets. The protests give no sign of fizzling out.

What exactly has prompted such outrage? The proposal to deport asylum seekers, other non-citizens and “non-assimilated” Germans to North Africa came as part of a master plan presented by Martin Sellner, a prominent far-right activist from Austria, at the November meeting. Sellner is known for propagating French writer Renaud Camus’s Great Replacement myth, which claims that Western elites are trying to replace white European populations using mass immigration, particularly from Africa and the Middle East.

The term “great replacement,” first used in Camus’s 2010 book L’Abécédaire de l’in-nocence, is a reference to an ironic poem by Bertolt Brecht. After the 1953 popular uprising in East Germany, Brecht asked in his poem “The Solution” whether, as the people had seemingly forfeited the confidence of their government, it might not be easier “for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”

It was the proposed deportation of German citizens that may have startled many Germans most. But Camus and others from the European and North American far right have long advocated a Great Repatriation, or “remigration,” as a response to the Great Replacement. The concept of “remigration” shouldn’t have been news in Germany: Dresden’s Pegida movement and other far-right activists have long called for a cleansing of the nation by means of “remigration.” Nor was it a surprise that prominent members of the AfD want to turn Germany into a country only for ethnic Germans. Björn Höcke, the most influential AfD politician — a leader of its Thuringia state branch and occasional speaker at Pegida rallies — has made no secret of his intention to rid Germany of many of its current residents should he ever be in a position to do so.

The idea of Höcke as Thuringia’s state premier, let alone in power in Berlin, has long seemed fanciful. No more. It seems almost certain that the AfD will emerge as the strongest party in three forthcoming state elections in East Germany. In Saxony, it’s possible that only the Christian Democrats and the AfD will reach the 5 per cent threshold required to enter parliament. Provided the latter polled more votes than the former, the far right would command an absolute majority in parliament and form government. In Thuringia, where the left-wing Die Linke is particularly strong, the Christian Democrats could be tempted to strike a deal with the AfD rather than allow Die Linke’s Bodo Ramelow to remain as state premier.

The AfD’s performance is particularly alarming in East Germany, where the pollsters have the party at between 28 per cent (in Brandenburg) and 35 per cent (in Saxony). News of November’s “secret meeting” was just the trigger needed to prompt millions of people to protest.

At the Hamburg rallies I attended, the main focus was squarely on the AfD. “Ganz Hamburg hasst die AfD” (All of Hamburg hates the AfD) was the most popular battle cry, “FCK AFD” the most common slogan on placards. Judging by their hand-painted signs, many of the demonstrators equate the current mood with that of the early 1930s, before the Nazi party’s electoral success prompted the German president to appoint Adolf Hitler chancellor. “It’s five to ’33,” some demonstrators claimed. Although many explicitly rejected “remigration,” other elements of the AfD’s program attracted comparatively little critical attention.

Besides, the focus on the AfD is not entirely justified. In Saxony, a party even more extremist than the AfD, the Freie Sachsen (Free Saxonians), is gaining ground. It may well win seats at the local elections in June. At the other end of the spectrum, the left-wing Die Linke, the successor of the East German communists, split last year. A group led by the charismatic Sahra Wagenknecht has since established their own party, the Alliance Sahra Wagenknecht, or BSW. It is as populist as the AfD and its migration and asylum policies hardly differ from those of the far-right party. The Werteunion too has decided to form a party ahead of the three state elections in East Germany in September. Some of its policies are likely to mirror those of the AfD.

Germany’s intake of refugees has been the number one political issue for the past six months or so, with most public commentators and politicians claiming that the country’s capacity to take in refugees has been exhausted. They say the number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany needs to be drastically reduced, despite the fact that the overall number of refugees arriving in Germany was much lower in 2023 than the year before. The authorities in Hamburg, for instance, registered 23,000 new arrivals in 2023, compared with 54,000 in 2022, the year Germany accommodated approximately one million Ukrainian refugees.

In response to Russia’s attack, the European Union invoked the European Council’s 2001 mass influx directive “to establish minimum standards for giving temporary protection in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons from third countries who are unable to return to their country of origin.” More than 4.2 million Ukrainians currently benefit from the EU’s temporary protection mechanism. On a per capita basis, most have been taken in by the three Baltic states and by Poland, Czechia, Slovakia und Bulgaria.

About 1.2 million of those Ukrainians are living in Germany. They are not required to apply for asylum, have immediate access to the labour market and receive the same social benefits available to Germans. Overall, their arrival has been surprisingly uncontroversial, not just in Germany but also in the other EU member states.

It’s not the Ukrainians who have prompted the current panic about new arrivals but refugees from elsewhere, who must go through the standard asylum process. Last year, about 330,000 new protection claims were lodged in Germany, compared with about 218,000 in 2022. Ordinarily, Germany should be able to cope with such numbers. But federal funding hasn’t kept pace with the rise, giving local authorities good reason to complain. Of course, capacities would be freed up if Syrian and Afghan refugees, who still make up almost half of all asylum seekers, were treated like the Ukrainians: if they too were granted temporary protection with immediate work rights and access to social benefits.

The AfD, whose success is linked to its vilification of asylum seekers, has tried hard to create a moral panic about the number of new arrivals. That it was successful has been due in no small part to the fact that other parties jumped on the bandwagon in the hope that they too would benefit from scare-mongering.

Michael Kretschmer, the Christian Democrat premier of Saxony, was among them. He demanded that Germany establish stationary controls at its borders with Poland and the Czech Republic, abolish the last remnants of the constitutionally guaranteed individual right to asylum, transfer asylum seekers to third countries, set an upper limit on the annual number of asylum applications, and cut benefits paid to refugees. His proposals were either unfeasible or would have little effect, but they added to the sense of a situation spiralling out of control. The much-evoked “firewall” against the AfD may still work when it comes to forming coalitions, but it’s permeable as far as political rhetoric is concerned.

Kretschmer was backed by his party leader Friedrich Merz, who last September said of asylum seekers: “They go to the doctor and have their teeth done, while Germans can’t even get an appointment.” Members of Germany’s hapless Ampel coalition — the Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens — have also talked of emergencies and crises rather than trying to steer the public conversation towards a rational debate about Germany’s responsibilities and its record of meeting them.

Ampel politicians have endorsed the idea that all those whose asylum claims were rejected need to leave Germany. In October, the cover of the news magazine Spiegel depicted a serious-looking Olaf Scholz demanding ramped-up deportations. It is true that about 300,000 people living in Germany are technically supposed to leave the country, mainly because their protection claims were rejected. But four out of five are not — indeed must not be — deported, because (for example) the country they hail from is not safe.

New legislative measures in Germany aim to reduce asylum seeker numbers, as do new EU-wide changes to the Common European Asylum System, or CEAS. The EU wants to set up Australian-style centres at Europe’s external borders to detain applicants while they’re being screened. Unsuccessful applicants would be swiftly removed. Several EU governments — and some prominent German Christian Democrats — want to go further by transferring protection claimants to third countries such as Rwanda.

Germany last experienced a comparable momentum — albeit with far fewer street protesters — in 2018 and 2019, when many cities and towns hosted demonstrations in support of search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Since then, relatively few protests have been held in support of migrant and refugee rights. When the European Commission and the European Council agreed on the CEAS reforms last year, dozens rather than hundreds of protesters rallied in Hamburg.

For the last movement of a similar size we need to go back to the early 1990s. Between 1990 and 1993, Germany experienced a wave of racist violence. Asylum seeker hostels were torched, and many “foreigners” assaulted. According to an investigation by journalists, fourteen people died as a result of racist violence in the first two years after German reunification on 3 October 1990 alone. On 23 November 1992, two men associated with the far right firebombed a house in the small town of Mölln in northern Germany. A woman and two children of Turkish descent died. The murders startled Germans as much as the revelations about the “secret” deportation plans startled them more than three decades later. Large spontaneous demonstrations took place all over the country. In Munich alone, 400,000 people attended a candlelight protest.

Then, as now, the protests were triggered by an attack on long-term residents of Germany. Then, previous murders of asylum seekers had not prompted similar demonstrations of solidarity. Now, too, calls for the deportation of everybody whose asylum claim has been rejected have prompted little opposition. Then, the protests followed the opposition Social Democrats’ agreement to restrict the constitutionally guaranteed right to asylum. Now, the protests followed the Scholz government’s introduction of a harsh new law to expedite deportations and backing for the far-reaching CEAS reforms.

There are also key differences between the events of late 1992 and early 2024. When the Social Democrats met for an extraordinary party congress to decide whether to change the constitution and restrict the right to asylum, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the proposed reform; when parliament voted on the change in May 1993 large numbers of people once more descended on the German capital. And some Social Democrats and Free Democrats did actually vote against the changes.

This year’s protests against the CEAS reforms have been insignificant by comparison. And while some Greens and Social Democrats have publicly grumbled, their opposition is not as principled as that on display in 1993.

Millions of people have rallied over the past few weeks and railed against the AfD. But have they also expressed solidarity with asylum seekers threatened with deportation under the Scholz government’s new regime? Have they spared a thought for the refugees pushed back at the Polish and Croatian borders or in the Aegean? For those who drowned in the Mediterranean? Or have the demonstrations rather been an exercise in self-reassurance?

The postwar architects of the Federal Republic’s constitution were convinced that the Weimar Republic failed because it gave its enemies too much leeway. They thought that those out to undermine or destroy democracy must not abuse democratic rights and freedoms to achieve their aims.

Thus, the constitution makes this provision: “Parties that, by reason of their aims or the behaviour of their adherents, seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order or to endanger the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany shall be unconstitutional.” The High Court has twice deemed a party to be unconstitutional: in 1952 a party of the far right, and in 1956 the Communist Party. More recently, in 2017, the High Court ruled that the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany aimed to abolish democracy but that its influence was not substantial enough to warrant its prohibition.

The AfD has been monitored by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency to gauge whether it is seeking “to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order.” In three East German states, including Saxony, the state intelligence agencies have already ruled the AfD’s respective state branches to be “without doubt extremist.”

Since the revelations about the “secret meeting” in November, calls for the government to make use of the constitutional provisions and initiate a High Court ruling about the AfD’s unconstitutionality have become louder. A petition signed by 1.69 million people is requesting that the government make use of another constitutional provision. According to Article 18, a person who abuses civil and political rights (such as the freedom of expression) “to combat the free democratic basic order shall forfeit these basic rights.” In this instance, too, only the High Court can order such a forfeiture and the proceeding needs to be initiated by the federal government, a state government or federal parliament.

It’s tricky, to say the least, to declare a party unconstitutional when it’s supported by a third of the electorate, or to target one of its most influential leaders. As the attempt to ban the National Democratic Party demonstrated, the High Court case would take a very long time and its outcome would not be a foregone conclusion. Using the constitution to restrict Höcke’s democratic rights and outlaw the AfD would also allow him and his party to portray themselves as victims of “the system” and “the elites.”

The constitution is, however, an asset in the fight against the AfD. Thus far, its opponents have tended to focus on the alleged similarities between the AfD and Hitler’s Nazi party and to suggest the AfD’s leaders aim for a return to the dark days of the Third Reich. But politicians like Höcke aren’t unreconstituted Nazis. They even claim that the German army officer who unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944 is their role model.

Their critics’ focus ought instead to be on how they deny the constitution’s most important principle, expressed in the first sentence of Article 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” But that may get some of those currently applauding the demonstrators into trouble, because AfD politicians aren’t the only ones who disregard that line or pretend it applies only to German citizens.

Will the demonstrations against the AfD have any impact on its electoral performance at the local and European elections in June and the three state elections in September? Italian researchers have shown that Italy’s anti-far-right Sardines movement in late 2019 and early 2020 muted the electoral showing of Matteo Salvini’s Lega. But if such an effect resulted only in a better-than-expected performance of politicians such as Michael Kretschmer, who have tried to deprive the AfD of oxygen by endorsing key concerns of the party’s followers, then little would have been gained.

“Nie wieder Faschismus, nie wieder Zweite Liga!” proclaimed a speaker at the rally in St Pauli on Saturday. It was a double-headed hope: never again should Germany experience fascism, and never again would the St Pauli Football Club play in the second division. For many St Pauli supporters the club has returned to Germany’s first division in all but fact, but in reality, more often than not, the Zweite Liga has been where St Pauli has played its football.

While “Never again second division!” gives the impression that the St Pauli Football Club has already left its past behind, “Never again fascism!” suggests that fascism was buried on 8 May 1945 and must not be resurrected now. But the break with the past was never complete. Elements of Nazi Germany survived well beyond the end of the second world war. The AfD would not have thrived in the past ten years if it hadn’t been able to exploit the widespread acceptance of — or even longing for — authoritarian structures. Racism was not only alive in the early 1990s when asylum seeker hostels burned, but has been an enduring feature of postwar German society.

From Lörrach to Kappeln, the admonition “Never again!” defines the current protests. Often the protesters don’t name the past that must not reappear, because to them it is obvious they are referring to the twelve years from 1933 to 1945. It’s highly unlikely that Germany will experience a repeat of that time. But an unholy alliance of the AfD on the one hand and Christian Democrats and Ampel politicians on the other could pave the way for a re-run not of Nazi Germany but of the early 1990s, when fear-mongering engendered racist violence.

For the current movement to have a lasting impact, the protesters will need to identify what exactly they do not want. There is more to the AfD’s wishlist than “remigration.” A close reading of the party’s program could prompt more startlement.

I also wish the protesters were less preoccupied with the past. Germany is in crisis not because it is moving backwards but because it lacks a positive, widely shared vision for the future. Surely the St Pauli supporters won’t be content with avoiding relegation once the club has been promoted to the Bundesliga. What comes after “Nie wieder Faschismus!”? It’s easy to understand what those millions who rallied in recent weeks do not want. But it’s unclear what they are hoping for. •