Anti-democratic sentiment is mainly confined to the east
In Germany, anti-EU, anti-Nato, pro-Right sentiment has been rising to 20% (the highest ever) for some months. So Germans have been understandably shaken by the revelation of official figures showing almost openly neo-Nazi activity mushrooming as well.
Groups like Die Heimat (“Homeland”) and the Free Saxons don’t even pretend to be loyal to the holy German constitution: they don’t actually sport the swastika, because that would be a crime in Germany, but they do pretty well everything else. And there were officially 162 meetings of such people, classed as “Right-wing extremists” (and therefore of interest to the security apparatus) in the first six months of 2023 — a 300% rise on the first six months of 2022.
Even more scary is the possibility of a continuum between these would-be paramilitary racist warlords and the AfD. The AfD insists that it has an “incompatibility list” of non-democratic extremists with whom it will not work, but three weeks ago, investigative journalists from Germany’s biggest news magazine, Der Spiegel, showed that some of the most senior AfD figures seem not to have read it. As the magazine reported a few weeks ago, AfD “contacts with Neo-Nazis” exist — and are most “intense” in the east.
In other words, Germany is being confronted with the deeply grim possibility that voters are not turned off by the AfD when the supposed divide between its members and open neo-Nazis is becoming increasingly blurred. And yet, the fact that this threat comes disproportionately from voters in the east should reassure democratic Germans, not scare them.
The east of Germany isn’t voting for Right-wing populist authoritarians because of immigration (or vaccination, or heat-pump legislation, or whatever). People there have been voting for Right-wing populist authoritarians ever since they got the vote. Bismarck’s Prussian Conservatives, the openly anti-democratic Deutsch-Nationale Volkspartei after 1919 and, of course, the NSDAP all depended for the national clout on votes from the East. It’s not about policies, it’s cultural history. The founder of sociology, Max Weber, saw this fundamental split back in the 1890s, and invented a special term for the German east of his day: “Ostelbien” (east Elbia).
Germany isn’t a homogenous nation-state, but a land split — like America — into regions with deep and ancient differences. While populist feeling is certainly on the rise, it has not spread throughout the whole country. The AfD may be on 21% now, but it was on 17% back in the autumn of 2018, when another 11% of German voters backed the Left-wing party, Die Linke — a party not all too different from the AfD (its supposedly polar opposite): anti-Nato, suspicious of the EU, with a distinct tendency to Russophilia — and far stronger in the east than the west. In other words, five years ago 28% of Germans nationwide were ready to back this classic political “horseshoe-formation” of hard-Right and hard-Left who meet round the back. But with the collapse of Die Linke, that figure is now only 24%.
Taken as a whole, the threat in the East is less than it was five years ago. And if would-be political leaders there associate with people who clearly want to overthrow the state by violence, they will meet the same ends as the Baader-Meinhof did. It didn’t destroy German democracy in the 1970s — and it won’t do so today.
Correction: an earlier version of this piece stated ‘Red Brigades’. It has been changed to ‘Red Army Faction’ (Baader-Meinhof).