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Björn Höcke’s Nazi trial won’t damage the AfD

Björn Höcke appears in court yesterday. Credit: Getty

April 19, 2024 - 1:55pm

For most political organisations, it would be a major scandal if one of their leaders were on trial for using a Nazi slogan in the 21st century. Not so for Germany’s second most popular party, the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). One of its most prominent faces, Björn Höcke, arrived in court yesterday, accused of borrowing a campaign slogan from the Nazis’ SA stormtroopers. Yet the most pertinent question is not how far to the Right the AfD has drifted, but why this doesn’t seem to have harmed its electoral prospects.

There have been so many revelations about far-Right extremism in the AfD recently that the Höcke trial is struggling to make headline news in Germany. A report earlier this year made public that high-ranking AfD members had attended a meeting of neo-Nazi activists where a “master plan” was discussed that involved mass deportations from Germany should the party come to power. Large street protests followed, but neither they nor the report itself seemed to invalidate the AfD as a voting option for nearly a fifth of the German electorate.

The Höcke trial is also unlikely to shock voters away from the party, but it’s significant for the fact that the politician could face up to three years in prison. Later this year, there are European elections and regional elections in three of Germany’s 16 states: Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. All three are in the former East Germany, where the AfD is currently polling as the strongest political party. Höcke himself is running to become Minister-President of Thuringia — a powerful position in Germany’s federal system that devolves areas such as education to the states.

So what Höcke will say and do in the course of this trial matters. Denying that he ever said the words Alles für Deutschland, or “Everything for Germany”, is difficult because the 2021 speech where he is accused of having used the slogan was public. He also knows, like every German, that the symbols of unconstitutional organisations are illegal in Germany, and that goes for swastikas as it does for Nazi phrases.

Alles für Deutschland was so central to the SA’s ideology that it was even engraved on its service daggers. Having moved in far-Right circles for years, Höcke will be well aware of that. He is also a trained history teacher. Yet he chose to claim ignorance, turning up in the courtroom with a history book under his arm, presumably to show that it doesn’t mention the SA phrase.

This strategy is interesting because it seems to indicate that the AfD is still trying to build respectability in the same way that other Right-wing figures such as Marine Le Pen have done to stretch their parties’ appeal into the centre of society. The AfD now chooses words such as “normal” and “conservative” to describe its positions. In his recent TV appearance, Höcke also tried his best to frame AfD policies in a way that took the hard-Right edge off of them.

But whether Höcke even needs to watch his language beyond ensuring that he stays out of prison is doubtful. The last few months have shown that AfD voters will not return to the political centre ground because party politicians are shown to embrace extreme positions. The established parties really ought to have strategies up their sleeves which go beyond banking on the “demasking” of the AfD. The truly shocking fact about the Höcke trial is not that someone regarded as a far-Right extremist by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency may actually be a far-Right extremist, but that he is still on track to win his election regardless.


Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
29 days ago

Look who’s back !

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
29 days ago

Here’s a thought. Maybe people simply don’t believe the AfD is some far right Nasi organization. The Correctiv investigation stinks to high hell. It’s another left-wing NGO dressing itself up as some investigative journalism outfit. It is financed by the govt, and shady orgs like the George Soros Open Society Foundation.

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
28 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

More than 3,000 years ago the men of Ephraim (an Israeli tribe) fought the men of Gilead in a fierce battle. (Near the Jordan River, where Israelis battle Palestinians today.) The Gileadites won, and the Ephraimites tried to flee through a river passage to get to their own lands.
Trouble was, the Gileadites had taken the river passage and were holding it. But there was nothing to distinguish the two groups in appearance, and many Ephraimites tried to pass through the lines as Gileadites and cross the Jordan River.
So clever guards figured out a test: they asked any suspected Ephraimites to say the word “shibboleth” (a Hebrew word meaning “ear of corn” or “stream”). Men of Gilead pronounced it as spelled. Men of Ephraim couldn’t manage the “sh” sound, and said “sibboleth”. That slip of the tongue meant instant death. All told, 42,000 men were slain because they were in the wrong tribe.
“Alles fur Deutschland” is a modern shibboleth. It doesn’t matter what else Bjorn Hockes says or does, if he says those words he belongs to the wrong tribe. That’s how tribalism works — every event is cast as an instance of us versus them, good versus evil, black versus white. And belonging to the wrong tribe means being cast out, resulting in figurative, or even literal, death.
Sadly, social psychology — the study of how humans interact with each other — has taught us over the past 50 years that tribalism is a big, big problem. We too readily separate into groups, and we are too ready to then strongly, often exclusively, side only with in-group members and against outsiders.
Satirical songster of the ’60s Tom Lehrer put it this way in his celebration of National Brotherhood Week: “Oh, the poor folks hate the rich folks, and the rich folks hate the poor folks. All of my folks hate all of your folks. It’s as American as apple pie.” Or in another verse: “Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics, and the Catholics hate the Protestants, and the Hindus hate the Muslims, and everybody hates the Jews.”
(Of course this is all satirical, but close to truth. In introducing the song he said: “I’m sure we all agree that we ought to love one another, and I know there are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that.” We say we are tolerant of other views, but we aren’t. )
Mark Twain wrote about this problem in an essay called Corn Pone Opinions, written in 1901 but published in 1923 after he died:

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently; they read its literature, but not that of the other side; they arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand and are of no particular value. They swarm with their party, they feel with their party, they are happy in their party’s approval; and where the party leads they will follow, whether for right and honor, or through blood and dirt and a mush of mutilated morals.

This website called UnHerd recognizes this tribal (or herd) weakness in its very name, and both sides are given a voice here. But the remedy of giving voice to each side may not be working well. Votes of thumbs up or down on comments here tend to be herdish. It’s hard to stray from the herd. Nobody seems to change their mind. People stay polarized, and nonbinary views rarely develop.
In a book about religious convictions, three researchers noted how hard it is to change people’s minds. Even failed religious prophecies sometimes do not dissuade believers, but instead make them more fervent. The book begins:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts or figures, and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic, and he fails to see your point.

We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong.

What will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.

Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1956), page 3.
And it’s not just religion, but science as well. In responding to the 2017 Edge question What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be More Widely Known?, evolutionary psychologist John Tooby said we should fight against our “coalitional instinct”:

You are a member of a coalition only if someone (such as you) interprets you as being one, and you are not if no one does. We project coalitions onto everything, even where they have no place, such as in science. We are identity-crazed.

The primary function that drove the evolution of coalitions is the amplification of the power of its members in conflicts with non-members. To earn membership in a group you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups.

Hence, optimal weighting of beliefs and communications in the individual mind will make it feel good to think and express content conforming to and flattering to one’s group’s shared beliefs and to attack and misrepresent rival groups. The more biased away from neutral truth, the better the communication functions to affirm coalitional identity, generating polarization in excess of actual policy disagreements.

Communications of practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals [ie, shibboleths], because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty. In contrast, unusual, exaggerated beliefs—such as supernatural beliefs (e.g., god is three persons but also one person), alarmism, conspiracies, or hyperbolic comparisons—are unlikely to be said except as expressive of identity, because there is no external reality to motivate nonmembers to speak absurdities.

This raises a problem for scientists: Coalition-mindedness makes everyone, including scientists, far stupider in coalitional collectivities than as individuals.

To question or disagree with coalitional precepts, even for rational reasons, makes one a bad and immoral coalition member—at risk of losing job offers, one’s friends, and one’s cherished group identity. This freezes belief revision. 

Forming coalitions around scientific or factual questions is disastrous, because it pits our urge for scientific truth-seeking against the nearly insuperable human appetite to be a good coalition member. Once scientific propositions are moralized, the scientific process is wounded, often fatally. No one is behaving either ethically or scientifically who does not make the best case possible for rival theories with which one disagrees.

John Tooby, Coalitional Instincts (11/22/2017)
So what should we do to combat tribalism, especially when based on silly shibboleths rather than real substance? I think we ought to try to avoid polarizing into groups. When we read a comment maybe not so freely judge just “thumbs up” or “thumbs down”, but think less binarily. Realize like economist Thomas Sowell says, there are no solutions, only tradeoffs. Opinions may differ, and that’s good, not bad.
Climate change. Evolution versus design. Abortion. Russia versus Ukraine. Israel versus Palestine. Liberal versus conservative. Race. Men versus women. Cis versus trans. Religious versus secular. Lab leak versus natural spillover. Public health mandates (lockdowns, masks, vaccines) versus freedom.
Can we discuss these complex issues without splitting into sides and fighting? Without using shibboleths to polarize us? In Germany, can’t they just ignore Bjorn Hockes saying “all for Germany” and work on integrating all in Germany instead of dividing? And in the US, can’t people disagree with Donald Trump’s views without putting him in the criminal dock in a show trial?

Peter Mott
Peter Mott
28 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

I had a thought about this. We should criticise most severely those theories that we understand the best. That is our own theories.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
28 days ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Excellent post. Although, like most humans I find it very difficult to avoid the ‘taking sides’ mentality on some of those divisive issues you mention.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
29 days ago

Oh, good grief. Anything that does not completely toe the leftist line and agenda must, by definition, be characterized as ‘far right,’ essentially making the term meaningless. It can now join other accusations that have similarly lost any punch due to idiotic overuse: climate denier, racist, white supremacist, transphobe, etc.
Seriously, “master plan” is the subject of heartburn? Virtually every municipal govt has one of those to guide its future work. In this case, this resurrected horrible involves deporting people, not murdering them. This serial overreach by the perpetually aggrieved and offended is making the popularity of these parties easier to understand.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
29 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Your general point is valid, but either you haven’t fully read the article or misinterpreted it.

The “offending” phrase in question is (in translation) “Everything for Germany”.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
29 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

This was all too predictable and something that conservatives have warned about for the last couple of years. Once mild transgressions by the people against leftist group-think started to become held up as examples of extreme-right wing view points (and therefore allowed to be conveniently ignored), it would only be a matter of time before actual right-wing politicians would start to tap into their frustrations.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
29 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

But the phrase is open to interpretation. The German national anthem’s words of “Deutschland uber Alles” apparently mean love of Germany above all…not that Germany should rule over everything. Certainly that’s what my German language teacher, who was English, told us.

Presumably “Alles fur Deutschland” can be interpreted as the person must give everything for Germany i.e. loyalty.

Of course, both are nationalistic, which is unfashionable in the West but not so much in other countries.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

You’re perfectly right, Germany above everything else! Just as Rule Britannia is an injunction to Britain to keep order on the high seas in the fight against slavers.
David Eades

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
28 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Normally I’d agree, the term far right is horribly overused these days (although I’ve noticed more people on here lately shouting down anything vaguely left leaning as Marxist so it cuts both ways), but if you’re quoting a paramilitary group from a certain German regime (bl**dy censors) I think far right is a fairly acceptable description in this case

Mark Phillips
Mark Phillips
29 days ago

I wish I had checked out who wrote this drivel before I read it. It would have saved much time.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
28 days ago

Alles für Deutschland was so central to the SA’s ideology that it was even engraved on its service daggers. Having moved in far-Right circles for years, Höcke will be well aware of that. He is also a trained history teacher. 

I think you mean, Katja, it was so central to the SA’s ideology that service daggers were the only place it was engraved or used at all.
There are two things to always bear in mind about this Trump-style show trial:
1. Saying things should not be illegal, especially not generic catchphrases. It’s embarrassing to Germany this is even a legal case at all. The Allies can’t be blamed decades after Germany stopped being controlled by them.
2. “Alles für Deutschland” is not at all well known to be a Nazi phrase. The reason people like you have to fall back on “but he was a history teacher” is exactly because it is so deeply obscure the average reader has never heard of it.
Go look up the Nazi Glossary on Wikipedia if you don’t believe me on this. You can find this phrase in there. It’s described as something engraved on some daggers, and that’s it.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

Katya Hoyer knows very well it was not a meeting of neo-Nazi activists, it was a meeting at which 2 or maybe 3 known neo-Nazis were present, as were some CDU members, among many others, so why is she repeating this nonsense?
The AfD is about as far right as Mrs. Thatcher was back in the 80s, but for left-liberal influenced Germans, the fact that so many of their fellow citizens actually want to democratically elect them to local, state and federal assemblies and parliaments, as well as the European Parliament, is enough to traumatise them. Demonise them, repeat nonsense about them, and put their leaders on trial is about as much as the mainstream can do.
David Eades

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
28 days ago

I wonder if they could have found an even more unflattering photo for this article?

Martin Specht
Martin Specht
28 days ago

My hypothesis: People vote for AFD not because of Björn Höcke but despite him.
There is no other party in Germany (apart from Sarah Wagenknechts recently founded leftwing BSW) that is or was critical of Covid Lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates, aks for peaceful solution of the Ukraine war, is openly critical of Energiewende based on solar and wind and its visibily damaging consequences for the German industry, openly questions the imperative of gendering, really cares about the region in the former DDR, questions European overreach, the list goes on and on. After Merkel and the multilpe crisis of migrants, climate, Covid and Ukraine the mainstream in politics, media, elites has shrinked to a very narrow worldview.
There is a very much underrated fraction of voters from all kind of colours that don’t vote anymore or vote AFD. The AFD on the other hand should not confuse high ratings with approval of its nationalist core which most certainly is supported by only very few.
Especially in the East people are socialised in a way to not trust mainstream media- for them media always were and still are vehicles of propaganda. Therefore the mainstream media fear mongering and its narrowing down of AFD to its ugly part Katja mentions will not reach many East Germans – they live outside this bubble and just dont read or watch them anyway.

Bob Ewald
Bob Ewald
28 days ago

It seems that Germany has a similar problem to what the US is experiencing albeit with different circumstances. Ossified parties aka elitists, who are disconnected from fundamental values & lacking in true leadership qualities, vilify and dismiss the concerns of large groups of citizens. Unfortunately for Germany, the backlash comes from a party whose leader apparently sees aspects of Nazism as the answer.

William Brand
William Brand
27 days ago

Any Jews who have moved to Germany should leave. The Black and Moslem immigrants who have invaded Germany should remember the fate of German Jews. They are the current target of AFD. Islamic behavior in Germany has been the main reason for AFD rise. The rule of the Antichrist is predicted in the next few years. It is likely that The AFD will bring back the swastika during the 7 years of Satanic rule.

Dr E C
Dr E C
27 days ago

‚Alles für Deutschland‘ isn’t ok but ‘Death to Israel (or the USA)’ or ‘Gas the Jews’ or ‘Yemen, Yemen, make us proud’ are? I wish more politicians would listen to what (especially) young Muslims are openly saying about their host countries & start to take it seriously. It’s seriously patronising not to think they mean it. Why shouldn’t Germans in Germany love their country and want the removal of people who openly revile them? Crime stats alone vindicate them. Look at Sweden. It now has the highest number of shootings in Europe and the highest number of rapes outside sub-Saharan Africa. Great job Swedish politicians! Way to go protecting your citizens.