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“Never underestimate them”: A Holocaust historian’s warning about Germany’s far right

How Germany’s far right is making a comeback using an old playbook.

A speaker in the background stands at a lectern, while blurred phones recording him block the foreground.
Tino Chrupalla, AfD federal chairman and AfD parliamentary group leader, gives a press statement at the start of his party’s parliamentary group meeting in the Bundestag, September 4, 2023.
Kay Nietfeld/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

BERLIN — In Germany, as in a number of European countries, support for the far right is surging.

Buoyed by discontent over the economy and energy policy, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has been gaining in the polls ahead of regional elections in East Germany in 2024 and in Bavaria later this fall. An anti-migration, climate change-denying party, AfD won its first district council election in Sonneberg — a town in eastern Germany — this past June and holds 78 seats (a little more than 10 percent) in the national legislature.

The backing it has picked up is notable: National polling averages currently show the party with 21 percent support, higher than that of the 18 percent held by Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). And in recent polls of specific German states, AfD has become one of the most popular political parties in some regions, getting up to 34 percent support in Thuringia, for example.

AfD’s gains have raised alarms among historians and political leaders, given the country’s history with Nazism. The AfD says it is not interested in neo-Nazism and has publicly tried to distance itself from neo-Nazi organizations. Its ties to right-wing extremists are deep, however, and, as with the Nazis, nationalism and the scapegoating of minorities — including Muslim migrants — are key to its ideology.

Thus far, the major German political parties — the center-left SPD, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the environmentalist Greens — have declined to work with AfD at the federal level. But there is concern that mainstream parties may begin to normalize the AfD in order to build governing coalitions and to consolidate power.

“One thing is: never underestimate [the AfD]. Never,” says Christoph Kreutzmüller, a Holocaust historian and former curator at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

Vox sat down with Kreutzmüller, who now chairs the Aktives Museum, which is dedicated to confronting the history of Nazis in Berlin, to discuss the lessons we should take from Germany’s past and the reasons the right is seeing this resurgence now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Li Zhou

Could you start by talking about some of the political and economic factors that fueled the rise of the Nazis?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

I think the most important is a general wariness, dissatisfaction of a huge part of the population with ... the Republic, seen as the one who kind of lost the war.

[And] in the mid-1920s, the feeling, “Hey, we are getting somewhere, we are moving,” was quite broad. But then, of course, came the economic catastrophe. And this small party, which had been tolerated by too many for far too long, became a serious threat.

This is something we want to think about because, in 1923, this small radical party tried to putsch. And instead of, you know, prohibiting this party, which was against the rule of law, which was against the Constitution, they were only disbanded for a short time. Adolf Hitler, the head of the putsch, was given a very honorary prison treatment, in which he was able to write his fake news book, which became an international bestseller.

They missed the chance in 1923 to say “full stop.” They missed a chance in saying “full stop” when ... the Nazis rose to power with brawls and violence. [There were] a series of lost chances to enforce the rule of law. And, of course, then it’s the Depression. And in times of fear, anxiety, and millions unemployed, lots of people look for a strong figure.

[Additionally], anti-Semitism was one of the core political messages. After World War I, a quite big portion of the population seemingly needed something like a scapegoat. And Jews were then in Europe, in a Christian-based society, the easy scapegoat to pick.

Li Zhou

Was there a sense that other parties helped normalize Nazi leadership?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

In the state of Thuringia, there was a Nazi minister in a coalition party as of 1931. There were quite a few of those states Germany consisted of then that had established the Nazi form of government or had let Nazis come to power. So that normalized it, of course.

And that’s the question that is debated [about the AfD] right now. Can you form a coalition with those people and make them accepted as normal partners? And there’s a huge understanding right now, or was a huge understanding: No, you may not, because they don’t play according to the rules. And the rules are the content of our Constitution and the rule of law.

There’s real concern. And the head of the CDU right now is not as adamant as his predecessors.

Li Zhou

What parallels do you see now with the rise of AfD and the current far right and that of the Nazis?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

In times of anxiety, people tend to become more extreme because they’re afraid to lose [what they have].

We all know now that there’s big changes coming [on climate and other issues] and we are afraid of these big changes. The other thing you got now ... is you [have] this fascist revival all over Europe. They are supporting each other, of course.

[There is also] scapegoating again, and it’s forgetting that ... Germany needs the influx of new people because we are a dying society, we are too old. And without people coming in, it will be an even huger recession. And in 10 years, we don’t have the workforce anymore. So we do need them now. We do need everyone who wants to come right now. And every economist will tell you that.

[It’s] a very, very old pattern. Antisemitism was rooted in this Christian society. Now it’s against foreigners, and of course, it’s connected to this anti-Muslim attitude that lots of people share.

Li Zhou

In a way, it felt somewhat surprising to see the resurgence of the far right in Germany given the country’s recent history and attempts to reckon with it. I’m curious if you have found it surprising.

Christoph Kreutzmüller

No, I mean, there’s more than one factor. One is that history is long gone now. People have forgot what it really [was] like in Europe. The witnesses are dying — the eyewitnesses — and so the impact is dying. It’s not just like the witnesses of the persecuted, it’s the people... who can say, “Look, my village has been bombed, and it was dreadful.” That is kind of receding, this acute knowledge of destruction and murder.

And the other thing is that you can certainly see that the AfD is stronger in the East, and one of the reasons for it is that in West Germany, the talk, like the bottom up talk about Nazi perpetrators, about Nazi ideology, about the persecution of the Jews. This bottom-up process is really grassrooted in society, and ... that really helped. And that process didn’t happen in the GDR (German Democratic Republic, occupied by the Soviet Union), [at least not until] much later, and then ... not so rooted in society.

Li Zhou

What are the arguments you’re seeing AfD make that are resonating with voters?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

One of the main arguments of the AfD is that they are not a real party. They are different: “We don’t do it like the big ones.” [They say that to] voters forgetting that after [existing for] 10 years, they are an established party.

The other is a very strong nationalistic argument, that us Germans have to find ourselves again, and that resonates quite well, especially in the East, because as strange as it may, it’s something that still lingers in the corners there, which has got something to do with not really talking about the perpetratorship in Nazi Germany.

In the course of the reunification, the people in the East tend to think that they have been neglected and not heard, and they should be heard. And that’s another bit of it, which I find quite understandable because they were really not heard in the early years and lost lots of their lives. I see that. But of course, it’s not a justification to supporting Nazis or neo-Nazis.

And, of course, [they support] disbanding the EU because people don’t understand what the EU is and that one of the greatest benefactors of the EU is Germany.

But the main argument is nationalism, and we are different.

Li Zhou

Was there more Germany, either politically or societally, could have done to stop the progression of AfD?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

The Office of the Protection of the Constitution [which is meant to protect the German government from anti-democratic extremism] actually opened an investigation. And it’s becoming clearer and clearer that [the AfD] is in huge parts, or in part, against the Constitution, and could [therefore] be prohibited. And you know, the case hasn’t been solved yet. (Editor’s note: German law has a formal process for banning political parties found to be a danger to the state, in order to prevent anti-democratic extremists from using parties to take control of the country.)

But this is a question that is widely debated right now in Germany. And maybe it comes a bit late. I think if you think about the chances we. as a society, missed in saying, full stop, “You are not playing according to the rules, so you don’t play with us anymore. You are fascist and you are against our Constitution, and our beliefs on how to live together, you are to be prohibited.”

Those chances are kind of fading, even though the arguments are growing. [It’s] ever more difficult to really prohibit this party because they’re gaining so much support. I mean, how do you then prohibit a party that has got, and will gain 30 percent of the votes?

Li Zhou

What lessons do you think are important for people watching the rise of the AfD to keep in mind from German history?

Christoph Kreutzmüller

One thing is: Never underestimate them. Never. And do enforce the rule of law. I mean, that’s what we’ve got, for God’s sake. That’s the only thing we’ve got as a society.

We’ve got the Constitution, which I see as part of the rule of law. Apply it. And that applies for the Federal Republic of Germany, as well as the United States of America.

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