In an unusually strongly-worded warning, Germany's domestic intelligence agency on Thursday officially classified a part of the far-right Alternative for Germany party as extremist and said it would place some of its most influential leaders under surveillance.
It is the first time in Germany's postwar history that a party represented in the federal Parliament has elicited such intense scrutiny, and it points to an uneasy quandary facing the country's institutions: What to do with a party that is at once considered a danger to democracy and that is gaining in popularity in parts of the country?
The leaders of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as the party is known, routinely attack the press, accuse Muslim immigrants of being criminals and question the universalist principles of liberal democracy. Yet the party sits in the federal Parliament, where it is the leading voice of the opposition.
The warning on Thursday was issued by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, whose founding mission after World War II was to protect against the rise of political forces — primarily another Nazi party — that could once again threaten Germany's democracy.
"We take that mission very seriously," Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the agency, told reporters at a news conference.
"We know from German history that far-right extremism didn't just destroy human lives, it destroyed democracy," he said. "Far-right extremism and far-right terrorism are currently the biggest danger for democracy in Germany."
For now, Germany's domestic intelligence agency has zeroed in on the extremist wing of the Alternative for Germany run by Björn Höcke, a history teacher turned far-right ideologue whose language is peppered with echoes of the 1930s and who has links to neo-Nazi circles.
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But many saw in Thursday's announcement a step toward broader measures targeting the entire Alternative for Germany party, setting the stage for a battle between the state and a party whose influence has steadily grown even as it has radicalised.
Leaders of the party responded with outrage, vowing to take legal measures and insinuating that the move was politically motivated. "The intelligence agency is criminalising the biggest opposition party with underground measures," Alice Weidel, a prominent party leader, wrote on Twitter.
But the move has also put the party on the defensive. A recently unveiled campaign slogan declares: "We are Constitution."
Haldenwang, the intelligence chief, does not buy it. The ambitions of Höcke's Wing, he said, were "not compatible with the Constitution".
Höcke runs the Alternative for Germany in the state of Thuringia, and he also runs a nationwide movement known as the "Wing". With an estimated 7000 followers, the Wing comprises about a fifth of total AfD party membership. They are now formally included in a list of 32,000 known as extremists on file at the intelligence agency.
For years, the number of far-right extremists has risen, Haldenwang said. Of the 32,000, he said, some 13,000 were ready to commit violence.
Those numbers are not academic, he pointed out. They have "led to real violence with real victims".
Last June, a regional official was shot dead on his front porch near the western city of Kassel by a far-right terrorist. In October, a far-right terrorist attacked a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle. Last month, a gunman murdered nine people with immigrant roots in the southwestern city of Hanau.
"Kassel, Halle and Hanau are three bleeding wounds in a historic trail of blood," Haldenwang said. Far-right terrorism had claimed more than 200 victims in Germany in the three decades since reunification, he said.
Behind these acts, he said, were not just the actual perpetrators and their supporters, but also those who normalise violent and racist language and over time create an atmosphere in which the bar to real violence was lowered even further.
"Before there is physical violence there is linguistic violence," Haldenwang said.
Höcke, who according to a recent German court ruling can legally be referred to as a fascist, is a master of breaking verbal taboos.
In 2017, at a rally in Dresden, he questioned the guiding precept of modern Germany — the country's culpability in World War II and the Holocaust — calling on Germans to make a "180 degree" turn in the way they viewed their history.
Germans were "the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital", he said, referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
In his book Never Into the Same River Twice he openly advocates bringing down Germany's postwar liberal order.
"A few small corrections and little reforms won't do, but German absolutism will be the guarantee that we will tackle this thoroughly and fundamentally," he writes at one point.
"Human harshness and unpleasant scenes won't always be possible to avoid," he went on, explaining the need for what he calls "temperate brutality".
When lawmakers issue such statements in Parliament, Haldenwang said, it risked legitimising actual violence. The Wing in the AfD, he said, was "part of the breeding ground of far-right extremism".
Calls to place the entire party under observation have grown louder after the recent string of attacks. Haldenwang was careful not to comment directly on that prospect. The party is currently considered a "test case" for the agency, not yet a "case of suspicion", which would allow surveillance measures.
But he pointed to comments by Alexander Gauland, one of the party's leaders, who recently said that Höcke was not an extremist but "in the middle of the party".
Written by: Katrin Bennhold
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