27 OCTOBER 2019
It’s clear there’s something different about Björn Höcke from the moment he arrives in Gotha. A ripple of expectation goes through the crowd as he strides across the cobbled town square, flanked by menacing bodyguards dressed in black.
“There is nothing wrong with expressing our democratic opinion. We want Germany to remain German,” he tells his supporters, to ecstatic cheers.
Mr Höcke is the most controversial figure in German politics. He is under observation by the country’s intelligence services as a possible threat to the democratic order. His opponents say he is a Nazi, and German television has compared him to Hitler.
But to his supporters he is a hero. They have waited hours for him in the cold, windswept square of this small east German town, part of the ancestral home of the British Royal Family, and his bodyguards have to hold them back as they queue to take selfies with him.
Mr Höcke is only a regional politican, yet nobody in current German politics has built a personality cult to rival his.
If the polls are right, he is set to lead the nationalist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) to second place in regional elections in the eastern state of Thuringia on Sunday.
Almost of quarter of voters say they are prepared to back a man who has been compared to Hitler on national television.
An unusually dark atmosphere has hung over the campaign. Police are investigating death threats against several candidates, including Mike Mohring, the regional leader of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who was told to quit the election or face stabbing or a car bomb in an email signed: “The musicians of the Reich State Orchestra”.
The campaign has taken place in the shadow of the failed far-Right terror attack on a synagogue in nearby Halle earlier this month, and senior members of Mrs Merkel’s government have accused Mr Höcke of personally whipping up an atmosphere of anti-Semitism that led to the attack — charges he denies.
“It is the other parties who have fostered an atmosphere of stifling democratic opinion,” he tells his audience in Gotha.
A large crowd of protestors has gathered at the other end of the square — almost as many as have come to support Mr Höcke — and they try to drown him out with jeers. But he laughs them off. “And here we have the evidence of the education crisis in our country,” he says, to his supporters’ delight.
He turns on the press too, lecturing the German television camera crews. “The press has an important role in a democracy,” he says. “Unfortunately our German media does not perform it. They prefer to produce propaganda for the establishment.”
A lot of what Mr Höcke says is straight out of the Trump playbook — he even trots out the line “Drain the swamp”. But this is Trumpism with a twist: Mr Höcke says he wants to “drain the swamp of the lefist biotype”.
He lashes out at the usual populist targets. The other German political parties are an establishment “cartel” cooperating to keep power out of the hands of the people. Climate change is a plot to “de-industrialise the German economy”. His favourite subject is migration, and Mrs Merkel’s “open door” refugee policy of 2015. If the AfD were in charge, he says: “The migrants would be sent straight to the airport”.
It’s a popular line with the crowd. Once part of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, where Prince Albert was born, today Gotha is typical of small east German towns: the young have moved west in search of employment, and the local economy is flagging.
But more than anyone else in the AfD, Mr Höcke has mingled these populist rallying calls with controversial positions on Germany’s Nazi past. He has publicly called for a “180-degree turn” in Germany’s culture of atonement for the Second World War, and described the national Holocaust Memorial as a “shameful monument”.
His supporters in Gotha reject the idea that he has whipped up anti-Semitism. “The problem with Germany is we have a guilt complex,” says David Heinemann, a 39-year-old electrical worker. “What Höcke’s doing is great. He’s speaking up for the Germans. Look at the US: they conquered an entire continent but no one ever asks them for reparations”.
Germany is facing calls from Greece and Poland to pay Second World War reparations.
Mr Höcke’s opponents accuse him of deliberately using language that evokes that of the Nazis. In the summer, German television asked several AfD politicians to identify whether quotations came from Hitler’s Mein Kampf or a book by Mr Höcke. None of them could.
When a television interviewer played Mr Höcke the recording, the politician threatened him with “massive consequences”. Asked to elaborate, he replied: “Maybe one day I will be an interesting political figure in this country”.
One of the lines quoted from Mr Höcke’s book was: “The longing of the Germans for a historical figure, who once again heals the wounds in the people, overcomes turmoil and puts things in order, is deeply anchored in our soul”.
Mr Höcke has set up his own faction within the AfD called Der Flügel, or The Wing. At its annual meeting he hands out silver badges to loyal followers. At this year’s gathering a supporter welcomed him on stage by saying: “You are our leader, who we are happy to follow”. The German word he used was Anführer.
German domestic intelligence has placed The Wing under observation as a possible threat to democratic order.
Mr Höcke is a formidable figure within the AfD. Two former leaders have tried to have him expelled from the party. Both ended up being forced out themselves.
Unless the polls are dramatically wrong, he will not lead the AfD to victory in Thuringia. The Left Party of the current regional prime minister, Bodo Ramelow, is leading in the polls with 28 per cent. The AfD and Mrs Merkel’s CDU are neck-and-neck in second place on 24 per cent. With no party expected to win a majority and no obvious coalition, talks on forming a new government could be complicated.
But Mr Höcke is setting the agenda. Mr Mohring, the CDU candidate, defied his death threat to take part in a hustings at a smoky candlelit pub in the regional capital Erfurt, this week. The AfD was the only party not invited, but Mr Höcke ended up dominating the evening anyway, as discussion repeatedly turned to him.
“I think Mr Höcke is a Nazi,” Mr Mohring said. “I’m not the only one who’s noticed this.”