Can Germany police an extremist party without playing politics?

Norbert Kleinwächter is well aware of the staggering powers held by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).

The far-right political party of which he is a member, Alternative for Germany (AfD), is already being monitored in three German states over concerns about its activities. Now, the AfD may be declared unconstitutional following the conclusion of a two-year investigation by the BfV. That would put the party – and potentially every member – under state surveillance, just seven months away from federal elections.

Mr. Kleinwächter is undeterred. “I stand by the things I do and say. I have no anti-democratic goals.”

In the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots, after which far-right groups have drawn the scrutiny of U.S. federal officials, the German situation taps into a global debate: How should democracies best stamp out extremism, while still paying heed to civil rights and individual freedoms? With its focus on the AfD, a party that swept into the German parliament on a platform that included anti-Muslim rhetoric, the federal office is focusing on its largest and most mainstream target yet.

“In comparison to the U.S., history has given Germany greater recognition of the dangers for democracy, in particular, of inciting rhetoric against minorities,” says Aletta Diefenbach, a sociologist at the Free University of Berlin. “Therefore, there’s greater [societal] acceptance of restrictions for freedom of expression, and for a party being classified as right-wing extremist by the federal constitution. But [the designation] doesn’t solve the problem that people think like this, and that they organize. That’s a problem that the whole of society has to solve.”

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A hard course for the AfD

Though founded in 2013 to resist European Union integration, the AfD found its first major political success a few years later when, amid Europe’s migration crisis, it adopted a nationalist, anti-immigration platform. A portion of its membership initially derived from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, whose right flank broke off in part over what it viewed as her too-lenient migration policies. The AfD swiftly doubled its membership and took seats in both state legislatures and the Bundestag, the national parliament. Pre-pandemic, the AfD was polling with support across Germany in the mid-20 percentages.

The AfD’s social media strategies were wildly successful, toying with emotions but also playing loose with facts. For example, it has overstated the number of migrants seeking asylum, falsely claimed that foreigners commit more crimes in Germany, and cautioned that Europe was becoming “Eurabia” with ads depicting white women surrounded by Muslim men. Its leaders have declared Islam incompatible with German culture.

This activity is part of what the BfV would declare in violation of the German constitution’s provisions for human dignity, principle of democracy, and other tenets.

Launched right after World War II, the BfV was a young democracy’s effort to ensure, in part, that Nazi ideologies never again took hold. Its monitoring powers are vast: It can surveil, wiretap, infiltrate, and use paid informants to assess domestic threats. Typical targets in recent years have been extremism on the far-left and far-right, terrorism, cults, and organized crime.

The AfD’s momentum waned during the pandemic, as Germans turned to Ms. Merkel and her coalition for leadership amid the crisis. And being labeled “unconstitutional” would hand the AfD an unprecedented set of challenges.

The party had already seen a spate of resignations amid knowledge that its activities were being considered by the BfV for possible observation. But it will likely become even more difficult to fundraise, says Berlin AfD politician Götz Frömming, and membership is down to single-digit percentages in North Rhine Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, after years of momentum there. Police officers, judges, and other civil servants might be further deterred from joining.

“Surveillance goes hand in hand with further public stigmatization,” says Dr. Frömming. “This affects us in the exercise of our democratic rights and duties, such as holding party meetings. It’s already difficult for us to even find spaces where we can gather.”

Justice or politics?

The threat of observation has prompted grumbling from AfD members. “We never said we want to deport German nationals just because they are Muslims or foreigners,” says Roland Hartwig, an AfD parliamentarian from western Germany. Until recently, Mr. Hartwig oversaw an AfD working group that studied what words or actions might be in constitutional violation. “Our goals are just to have controlled immigration. We want to decide who can come in and stay here.”

The government and media “will never stop defaming us,” says Matthias Büttner, an AfD parliamentarian. “Instead we should stand tall and oppose this regime of injustice.”

Moderate AfD members clarify they’re not criticizing the gathering of the information, or even the office itself, which was meant to protect Germany against extremist threats. Rather, they’re decrying what they see as a calculated political move to hurt them ahead of federal elections in September.

“The problematic step is when the information is evaluated,” says Markus Dossenbach, chief of staff for two AfD members of the Bundestag and a former CDU member. “Subjective opinion comes into play when evaluating this information. That’s where the political manipulation is seen. As soon as anyone within the AfD says anything out of line, the reaction is to say the entire party needs to be put under surveillance. This is the easiest way to block financial support, to block new members from joining, and to steal back a few voters from the moderate side.”

Ms. Merkel and her coalition parties have denied any political motivation, with leadership declining to advise the federal office on the matter. The BfV “must make a free decision on the matter, otherwise the impression could quickly arise that parties were trying to use [the office] for their own purposes,” parliamentary group vice-chairman Thorsten Frei told a newspaper editorial team in early 2021.

Experts say that the observation system is designed to be firewalled from politics, in part via a clear set of criteria according to which the classification of “unconstitutional” is made. The court will pursue any legal actions in such a way that basic civil rights are weighed, adds Dr. Diefenbach. “Some consider [declaring it unconstitutional] a good way to demonstrate the AfD is not a democratic party and that it’s a dangerous party. It’s a first step.”

Limited support for the AfD

The party will contest any decision in court, and its legal actions so far may have delayed the office’s “unconstitutional” designation, which was expected several weeks ago. Further legal action could take years to wind its way through the courts, though the office could launch surveillance in the meantime.

Ultimately though, AfD may be fighting against the tide; a majority of the public is in favor of placing the party under observation, according to a 2018 survey. A 2020 report found two-thirds surveyed agreed with the decision to place the party’s extremist wing Der Flügel under surveillance.

Over the long term, the “unconstitutional” declaration would only be the first move in a complicated fight against extremism. After all, the AfD’s success indicates deep societal rifts, analysts say.

A 2019 German Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency found that the number of racist and discriminatory incidents across the country has doubled since 2015. And, a recent survey found that more than a third of Germans wouldn’t rent to immigrants.

“There’s a relevant number of hard-boiled racists and anti-Semites and maybe even far-right extremists, and they might be able to control their statements in the short term, but not in the long run,” says Fabian Virchow, head of a research unit on far-right extremism at the University of Applied Sciences in Dusseldorf. “And the structures of society are still largely white, such as administration and police. It’s a long way to go to change the soil from which these parties are born.”

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