How Germans are rising up against fascism
A conversation with sociologist Matthias Quent about what lies behind the country's great uprising against the AfD
We’ve been watching the mass demonstrations against Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party with interest and, frankly, some amazement at their scale. At the protest’s peak over the weekend of January 19, as many as 1.4 million people turned out to show their opposition to the AfD’s collaboration with other forces on the far right on a plan for the “remigration” of millions of immigrants and German citizens should the AfD take power in national elections.
Over the last year, the AfD was polling second overall nationally, with more support than any of the three parties in the current governing coalition (the so-called “traffic light” coalition of the center-left SPD, the center-right FDP and Alliance 90/Greens on the left) enjoys on its own. Drawing on widespread dissatisfaction with government policy on energy, inflation and immigration, the AfD has not only built significant popular support but has succeeded in pushing the national political conversation to the right, especially on immigration.
It had been expected that the AfD would consolidate its power with significant electoral gains later this year in the former East German states of Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg — at least before the protests got underway.
The clear turn in public sentiment appears to have had some impact already. Large-scale demonstrations are ongoing, with hundreds of thousands of protestors back in the streets for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The Federal Constitutional Court has barred an even more extremist right-wing party from public funding.
Significantly, in the first electoral contest held since the beginning of the protests, large turnouts motivated by the protests saw the AfD lose to the CDU in an administrative race in the rural district of Saale-Orla, in Thuringia. The outcome is significant because CDU leader Christian Merz — at that point expecting an AfD victory — had earlier pointed to the Thuringia race as a signal that the center-right party might be willing to relax a prior pledge not to collaborate with its far-right rival.
To get a better understanding of the sentiments driving these massive ongoing protests, we reached out to Matthias Quent, professor of sociology at Magdeburg-Stendal University of Applied Sciences. His research focuses on democracy, social justice, and right-wing extremism — the set of issues and ideas at work in the German protests.
Dr. Quent gave us some insight into how the demonstrations were organized, what their likely impact might be, how they figure into the ongoing evolution of Germany’s system of “defensive democracy” in which the state’s role includes the protection of democracy itself, and what the movement implies for other democracies — asking for a friend! — facing similar challenges.
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How can people outside Germany best understand the specific threat the Alternative for Germany (AfD) poses to democracy, and why these huge protests against the AfD broke out across Germany and how they developed.
These large protests were triggered by investigative reporting by Correctiv on a secret meeting of right-wing extremists in Potsdam. The small meeting was attended by politicians from the AfD (Alternative for Germany) and members of the CDU (Christian Democratic Union), as well as movement entrepreneurs and leading right-wing extremists from the “Identitarian Movement", including the Austrian extremist Martin Sellner. He is regarded as a mastermind of the international so-called “New Right,” which packages fascist ideas in modern terms, for populists.
This meeting was about Sellner's concept of “remigration,” a plan for the deportation of millions of people — and this includes people with and without German citizenship — once the AfD comes to power. There has been widespread fear of the AfD’s growing power; the reports were the straw that broke the camel's back.
How were the groups that organized these protests able to conjure up this very large scale pro-democracy movement so quickly? There were millions of demonstrators in the streets.