Opinion: Germany’s far right is surging. Banning it would backfire

Editor’s Note: Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based writer. He is the author of four books on European issues, most recently “Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

Even though the hard right has come to power in many European countries in recent years – either ruling on their own like in Hungary, or in coalitions such as in Italy and Finland – Germans never thought it could happen to them.

Paul Hockenos - Hayyan Al-Yousouf
Paul Hockenos - Hayyan Al-Yousouf

After all, modern Germany is acutely conscious of the crimes that Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich committed in the name of, and with plenty of zeal from, the German people.

In the postwar decades, democratic-minded Germans bent over backwards to wring out the toxins that catapulted the Nazis to power and, ultimately, enabled the Holocaust.

But today, Germany is staring at a surging far right – and the country’s mainstream politicians and democratic citizens, still by far the lion’s share of the population, are understandably rattled.

At the center of Germany’s distress is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party born in 2013 out of protest against the country’s abandonment of the deutsche mark in favor of the euro.

Since then it has veered steadily to the far right, where its members tout barely veiled racism and Islamophobia. They deride the EU as a “failed project.”

Now a fresh scandal has Germans debating whether the party should be allowed to exist at all.

A ‘master plan’

Last week, investigative outlet Correctiv reported that in November leading AfD members met with neo-Nazi groups to create a “master plan” to deport on a mass scale asylum seekers and German citizens of foreign origin. (The AfD has denied the plans are party policy, and co-leader Alice Weidel has since parted ways with one adviser involved).

All of this comes as the AfD is riding higher than ever in opinion polls – making it the most popular party in some states – with regional elections on the horizon this fall. It captured several mayorships last year and increasingly teams up with mainstream conservatives – in the European Parliament as well as domestically – to hammer immigrationdiversity and climate policies.

Among my large number of foreign national – including naturalized Muslim – friends and colleagues in Germany, there is veritable uneasiness. If the far right’s ideas seep into the mainstream, as so much of the AfD discourse already has, could they really be expelled from the country they call home?

Many Germans share their concerns. The bombshell of the November meeting has prompted mass anti-AfD demonstrations across the country and renewed calls to ban the AfD altogether.

More than 1,500 people demonstrate against the AfD and right-wing extremism in Schwerin, Germany, on January 16. - Ulrich Perrey/picture-alliance/dpa/AP
More than 1,500 people demonstrate against the AfD and right-wing extremism in Schwerin, Germany, on January 16. - Ulrich Perrey/picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Germany’s constitution does permit the outlawing of enemies of the democratic system, and its highest court has done so twice: in 1952 and 1956, a fascist and communist party, respectively.

In three of Germany’s federal states, the state intelligence services are already monitoring the activities of particularly radical AfD branches that they label “extreme right” for using Nazi terminology and stirring up resentment against foreigners.

Should they be found a genuine threat to democracy, the high court could eventually ban them, although the judicial process would take years.

Ever more observers from diverse parties and professions favor this dramatic step. Germany, as a “defensive democracy,” argues leading Christian conservative and governor of the state of Schleswig-Holstein Daniel Günther, “should use the instruments at its disposal for the purpose of its own protection.”

Easier said than done

It would be wonderful indeed if pernicious and hateful parties could simply be banned out of existence – case closed and then get on with bettering society rather than poisoning it.

But this route is tricky not just because it contradicts a basic democratic assumption, namely that the people choose their own governors. Illiberal governments, like that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, also outlaw dissident parties and persons in the name of protecting the state.

And behind most successful parties, there is also a popular movement that backs it. A state may nullify a party but it can’t as easily eliminate the sentiment fueling it. Often, banned parties pop up again with different names and cosmetically modified stands – and stronger than ever. Research at Brandeis University found that party bans increase media coverage and public awareness of anti-democrats, “making them more politically popular and legitimate.”

The AfD, as demagogic parties do, offers discontented, angstful people simple, if misleading, answers to the array of crises facing them today: rising prices, climate change, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It explains their disaffection with the false accusation that migrants, international development expenditures, foreign powers and climate protection are responsible. It purports to offer strong leadership, national pride and slashed bureaucracy as solutions to complex, longstanding problems.

The great mistake that its adversaries make, as some German conservatives are now doing – a shift made long ago in Italy, Sweden and Austria – is to attempt to steal their thunder by espousing milder versions of fundamentally wrongheaded ideas.

For the AfD and its European peers, immigration is topic number one. Germany’s Christian conservatives have responded by clamping down ever harder – advocating for fewer civic rights and quicker expulsions of rejected asylum seekers, and even blaming migrants for wait time at dentists’ offices.

But studies show that time and again the accommodation of radical right positions benefits the hard right – and not its imitators. The mainstreaming of xenophobia makes it ever more palatable to the average voter and leads them into the hard right’s camp.

Democrats must stick together

The utmost imperative of democratic parties must be to present a united front against the hard right and confront their populist caricatures with evidence-based facts and rigorous arguments.

Conservatives above all must not give in to the temptation to leave the liberal camp in favor of far right. This might mean that conservatives will have to enter unwieldy coalitions with their traditional adversaries: green and leftist parties. This might sting, but the alternative – coalitions of hard rightists and conservatives in one boat – is by far the more dangerous option.

Moreover, democrats of all stripes should expose the far right’s populist arguments for what they are: exaggerations, falsehoods and demagoguery. The mainstream parties have the better arguments, and plenty of evidence to back them up.

Germany’s ascendent far right shows that all of Europe – and beyond, including the US – could be at a tipping point. The way to walk it back is to go on the offensive, including mass movement on the streets, not latch onto the hard right’s tailwinds.

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