“Live in such a way that the AFD would have something against it!”, banner at anto-AfD rally, Reichstag, Berlin, January 21, 2024 “Live in such a way that the AFD would have something against it!”, banner at anto-AfD rally, Reichstag, Berlin, January 21, 2024. Source: Stefan Müller - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC 2.0

In the wake of mass protests against the fascist-like AfD, the radical left has opportunities to take the initiative, but it must not tail the establishment left, argues Kevin Ovenden

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Germany for nearly two weeks against the extreme right Alternative for Germany party (AfD). These are the largest mobilisations since before the pandemic and signal a return to the streets of the social movement after a period of being becalmed, and now in a country facing multiple crises, political and economic.

It is hugely welcome to see this new movement against the AfD, which is polling second at 20-25% and is set to do very well at the European Parliament elections in June. This initial phase of mass mobilisation, however, appears to have had some impact on cutting the AfD’s popular support. Whether that continues and is permanent depends upon many factors, not least the course of the rejuvenated anti-fascist movement.

The AfD is an extreme-right party that was initially formed a decade ago by conservative and nationalist economists opposed to any bailout of the European south, even the one that benefitted German capital by imposing strict austerity across the continent, especially on the debtor countries.

The party has radicalised to the right since then, mainly out of vicious anti-Muslim racism, opposition to immigration, and reactionary nationalist politics. That has meant incubating a fascist wing. Despite attempts to discipline that wing, under pressure from the constitutional mainstream and anti-fascist campaigns, it has grown in influence.

The AfD could now be described as a fascising party moving further towards modern fascism and certainly providing an interface for historic neo-Nazis in the country. That this has happened while it advanced steadily to be now the second party in the polls and above each of the three parties of the government coalition – the labour-type SPD, the Greens, and FDP, right-wing liberals – refutes the idea that the extreme right will automatically moderate through success in the electoral process.

The mask slips

The trigger two weeks ago for the protests was the revelations by the Collectiv investigative media group of a secret meeting between prominent AfD functionaries and outright neo-Nazi ideologues (plus a couple of figures from the conservative CDU main opposition party) at a hotel in the Potsdam suburb of Berlin.

Amongst other things, the meeting considered plans under a future government of the radical right for the mass deportation of millions of people from Germany. It was in the context of quite a detailed discussion about refashioning the German state and society on a far-right model. This went all the way down to removing immigrant-run shops from high streets to create a national ‘visual space’.

The revelations were incendiary. The AfD has gone to great lengths to claim it is merely a patriotic and nationalist party, still with a pro-business and free-market economic policy, and not fascist. The news brought back all the previous scandals and shook the public, causing concern among some of those who had voted for the AfD based on its pseudo-anti-establishment rhetoric.

The demonstrations were essentially spontaneous, bringing back into life the Unteilbar (Indivisible) coalition that had mobilised large numbers before Covid (during which tragically it was the far-right that was able to provide a political pole for people’s frustrations). Active too is the Stand Up Against Racism initiative that has had a sharp focus on opposing the AfD and the racism out of which it grows.

The movement is much wider and involves all sorts of civil society organisations and layers, including from the cultural sphere. As previously in German history, actors and theatres play a prominent part. The mass protests come at a time when rail workers have just started a six-day strike, the longest in German history, that is bringing the country to a halt.

At the same time, there are blockades and a revolt by farmers and hauliers over cuts to fuel subsidies for those sectors. Those protests are against the government, but are not so clear cut in terms of working-class interests and politics as the strikes are, which for the moment are separate. The AfD has tried cynically to present itself as the voice of the farmers and truck drivers – the ‘little guy’ – just as the fascist Marine Le Pen did in France over similar eruptions.

But it is not true that the farmer revolt is a plaything of the far right. It is a result in the immediacy of the constitutional court agreeing with the opposition CDU that an unspent sixty billion euros allocated for the COVID emergency could not be used for green transition measures. Instead of defying that decision, the government moved to shock cuts of sixty billion, including to aid small farmers and hauliers. The right caused this directly and the AfD, despite its populism, is on record for cutting such subsidies anyway. Nevertheless, the government is refusing to intervene in the train dispute – even though it is the sole shareholder in the privatised DB rail company – and is refusing concessions to the farmers of the kind that could end the confrontation in a way that isolates the right.

Into this has come the mass street eruption against the AfD. This triangle of forces – the politically charged rail strike, the farmer blockades, and the anti-fascist mobilisation – is open to all sorts of combinations and developments.

The spontaneous anti-fascist movement has to be considered in this context and so do the political dilemmas it faces, as do all big movements. The movement did not start from above with a call from the establishment parties or the government. However, a reason why it has grown so rapidly is that because it is aimed at the AfD, which is an electoral threat to all the parties, it has enjoyed their encouragement to one degree or another.

Centrist traps

That is certainly the case for activists and representatives of the SPD and Greens who have been on the receiving end of public anger for the economic woes inflicted upon people in Germany in recession. Remaining left support in those parties has also been demoralised as the government has lurched rightwards on civil liberties and on immigration.

Last year, Prime Minister Olaf Scholz proudly declared his ambition to increase deportations from Germany. There was no real argument or targeting of the policy. It was essentially ‘kick more people out’. Predictably, that has emboldened the AfD.

So now there is a chance for the centre left to try to rehabilitate itself to an extent and aim to restore the electoral balance by giving fair wind to the anti-AfD protests. Scholz addressed 10,000 protesters in Potsdam not far from his home.

And the centre-left/moderate centre-right push is to argue that the AfD is at odds with German values and a threat to constitutional democracy. It is not to go deeper into challenging the anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism in addition – which they have contributed to and out of which the AfD builds. That is leaving aside addressing the social and economic grievances the fascists hope to exploit. Then there is the question of Palestine, where the government is generating rampant Islamophobia in Germany through lavish and wholly unconditional support for Israel.

So there is a question posed for the movement as to how it advances without being subordinated to the essentially electoral concerns of the mainstream parties. A second issue is that there is some call for the AfD to be banned as a political party under the constitutional clauses that may permit this or to have special action taken to cut its finances. The government is ambivalent about this.

On the one hand, it helps it to have the AfD seen only as a particular problem and not one that is an outgrowth of the political and economic crisis the government itself is imposing on people. On the other, it is aware that a party on 22% and heading for big victories in regional state elections cannot be dealt with through state bans.

A more clearly fascist party, the Homeland Party, recently lost a constitutional court case over its access to the state funding that comes for political parties that reach a small threshold in national and European elections. That was a technical judgement and no one should entertain the idea that the rules should not apply to the Nazis. But two previous attempts to ban its forerunner, the National Democratic Party (NPD), using the constitution failed in the courts. The result was to boost them. That stood in contrast to what took place in Greece at the same time. 

There was the five-year trial of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn. It had MPs and was the third party in the Greek parliament at one point. But the difference with Germany and the case against the NPD, as it was then, was two-fold. 

First, this was not a move the Greek state made of its own volition but arose out of what was nothing short of an anti-fascist uprising across the country in the days following the murder of Pavlos Fyssas in September 2013. It threatened a pre-civil-war situation if the government did not act.

Second, Golden Dawn were not prosecuted over breaches of constitutional provisions protecting ‘democracy’. They were prosecuted under criminal law for murders, attempted murders and many other felonies; the conspiracy to commit those crimes; and they were commissioned by a criminal organisation masquerading as a political party.

Of course, the Nazis claimed they were victims of political persecution and that they had democratic rights (which they naturally would deny to everyone else if in power). But that argument was beside the point. They were put on trial and jailed under the law governing mafia-style criminal organisations. This is very important because it meant that the argument about Golden Dawn being a Nazi criminal organisation and not some group of martyrs to free speech could be taken to every workplace, school, neighborhood, and village.

The trial was an element of building a sustained, national anti-fascist movement that was not indifferent to the political divisions between the government and the fascists, but that refused to be subordinated to the governmental parties and their interests. Thus it challenged racism, Islamophobia, and anti-refugee policies as well in a popular, class-based way.

The SPD-led government rhetorically denounces the AfD for entertaining mass deportations in the future, while committing to actual deportations now. It talks of threats to democracy while closing down free speech on Palestine and unleashing the cops on protesters.

This doesn’t mean at all some abstention from developments because we are against all the hypocrites. It means fighting to develop the movement in a militant and mass direction that can directly strike a blow at the fascists of the AfD, while at the same time building an alternative force that puts the SPD, Greens and systemic forces on the spot and is independent of them.

Palestine and Left strategies

The question of Palestine here is as central as it is in other countries. Of course, it would be wrong to insist that you have to support the Palestinian struggle to protest against the fascist AfD. But that is not the issue. It is the opposite. In parts of Germany, people have been prevented from joining anti-AfD protests if they are carrying Palestinian flags. Most of those people are part of the majority-Muslim Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab minorities who number millions and are the central targets of fascist violence, AfD fascistic propaganda, and state repression.

Civic anti-fascist outpourings that structurally segregate away the main racial and ethnic minorities targeted by the fascists and the state will not break the AfD or build the wider revolt needed to do so. They will end up strengthening the state and governmental forces that produce the conditions for the fascists.

A left that pretends this is not happening, and drops the Palestine question just as it is being raised in German ghettos and driving global developments, will fail to act effectively on the potential of this moment to unite and broaden the struggles. It happens to be that 62% of Germans do not support the Israeli response to 7 October.

It must be hoped that the potential for a mass and militant movement with mass mobilisation of the racially oppressed is realised. Along with that, links need to be made to the major national rail strike and to the farmers’ revolt to find practical ways to pose a political alternative. There is more to be said about all of that. There is a conference this weekend by a breakaway from Die Linke led by Sahra Wagenknecht, which is strong on opposing NATO and the Ukraine war, but weak and worse on some other issues. It wants to win over soft supporters of the AfD, who think it is some radical force, but Wagenknecht has argued that the way to do that is to play down fighting racism and confronting the AfD. That is unlike Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France who many commentators bracket with Wagenknecht, but has been much more successful. That’s not least because he and his party, La France Insoumise, in undermining Marine Le Pen, call her a fascist and treat her as such.

The German radical left has gone through some major defeats in recent years and has been in the doldrums. It is to be hoped that this latest confluence of struggles can provide a lift for all those who want to come together on a stronger political basis than before in unity of purpose and of struggle. 

Germany today is a glaring example in Europe of why fundamental to the growth and influence of the radical left is its relationship to the struggle, its participation in it, and capacity to provide political leadership. That’s more important than organisational relations between parts of the left, however cordial. The German media is full of talk of ‘crisis’, ‘struggle’, ‘strikes’, and ‘mass protest’. Can the left in whatever configuration rise to that?

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.

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