German anti-racists stand up to the rise of the far-right

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Demonstrators in Chemnitz

Socialist Review spoke to left wing German MP Christine Buchholz about growing campaigns aimed at stopping the rise of the far-right

In terms of the situation in Chemnitz, it’s not just the AfD but other forces as well that have been involved on the far-right. What is the relationship between the AfD, the streets forces and the mainstream in terms of the growth there and what happened?

The rise of the AfD changed everything. Five years ago, the Nazis gave up their annual march in Dresden which tried to exploit memories of the town’s destruction by Allied bombers for their cause. They were stopped by a huge mobilisation that resonated in many other towns. The dwindling forces of the Nazis looked more and more like a joke then.

The rise of the AfD on a tide of racism against refugees and Muslims, mainly instigated by Pegida which started weekly mass mobilisations in the Saxon capital Dresden in late 2014, gave a massive boost for fascists of all kind.

In 2017 the AfD got more than 90 MPs in the federal parliament. Since then, it has been able to set the agenda because the conservatives are split right through the middle with one section around minister for the interior Horst Seehofer openly feeding into racist sentiments against Islam and refugees.

The AfD used to be a collection of right wing liberals, reactionary Christian fundamentalists and outright fascists such as Björn Höcke. It was fascists organised around a manifesto and a structure called “The Wing” who were able to get the upper hand. In Chemnitz, they were in the front line the week after a racist mob rampaged through the town chasing foreigners and left wingers.

There is a particular situation in Saxony, the state Chemnitz is in, which has similarities to developments in other states but also specificities.

The first thing is that it has been a long term strategy of the fascist right to build in the east, to build in Saxony and Thuringia. So it’s nothing new that we have a big, well organised and very militant and violent Nazi scene there. It is also the area where the AfD is strongest and attempting to build a movement on the ground.

Höcke, who is by far the most popular of its leaders, is trying to build around the model of the Nazi Party in the 1920s. He even threatened “to take things in our own hands” against left wing opponents, though it is far from having an organised street army like the storm troopers.

In Chemnitz there are several different Nazi groups. In the local parliament there is Pro Chemnitz, a merger between Nazi and right wing populist forces, which plays an important role. On the other hand we have the militant Nazi scene marching on the streets.

There’s no straight line between the Nazi scene and the AfD. Some in the AfD have open links to the Identitarian movement associated with the “alt-right”. Some have open links to other Nazi groups. The leading figures in Chemnitz for example were part of the anti-refugee campaign “No to the home” (Nein zum Heim) and took part in the violent demos in Einsiedel. They also have close links to “Pegida Chemnitz and Westsachsen”. There were AfD politicians participating in the demonstration in late August, which ended with Nazis rampaging through the streets of Chemnitz chasing migrants.

The head of the AfD group in parliament, Alexander Gauland, said, “You have to understand that people freaked out [when the death of the young man in Chemnitz happened].”

The AfD has common mobilisations with the street Nazi-szene. This is despite the fact that the AfD issued a resolution in 2016 officially rejecting cooperation with the Identitarians. It had a similar bar on working with Pegida, but this was broken all the time, especially in Saxony.

The second specific factor in Saxony is the right wing government we have had for over 25 years. There was a very right wing CDU government that’s always ignored the activities of the far-right and criminalised the activities of anti-fascists and anti-racist protesters. This created a fertile environment in which the AfD and the far-right could merge or cooperate, directly or indirectly.

There is a debate going on in the AfD now over whether it should just demonstrate on its own in future because it can see that it causes problems for it if it marches with people giving the Hitler salute or other open Nazis. The head of the Saxon AfD rejected that notion.

There was another demonstration organised by Nazis on 9 September in Köthen, a small city in Saxony-Anhalt, a federal state neighbouring Saxony. A young man had died of a heart attack after he had an argument with some Afghan refugees, though it is very clear that he died not due to external influence but from pre-existing heart disease. The hardcore Nazis organised about 2,500 people to march through the town, some shouting racist slogans, even “National Socialism, now, now, now”.

The AfD has a problem at the moment. In one way it needs the links to the fascist street scene; at the same time this creates problems because this dismantles its bourgeois face. But Chemnitz shows that the AfD has moved further to the right. Tillschneider, a leading AfD MP, wrote in an article that it can dissolve the Patriotic Platform (a völkisch-nationalist platform inside the AfD) because there is nothing the Patriotic Platform couldn’t do inside the AfD anyway.

Aufstehen gegen Rassismus (Stand up to Racism) is organising counter-mobilisations at the moment in Chemnitz. It is important to bring as many people as possible onto the streets against the far-right, because Pro Chemnitz has now called for a demonstration every Friday for 40 weeks. It wants to emulate the Pegida movement, which marched every week in Dresden in 2014. And it wants to dictate the narrative as far as the revolution of 1989 is concerned. It shouts “we are the people” and want to “complete” the 1989 revolution as a right wing revolution.

Many people who are angry with the social situation and disappointed about the outcome of the revolution — they still feel like second class people nearly 30 years after the wall came down — put their hopes in this movement. But it is racism that holds everything together.

One story which is quite interesting: Nazis started to “police” people in the park, saying “we are here for security because the authorities fail”. They went there and asked “what are you doing here?” and they wanted to force people to show their passports. They were like vigilantes walking around, threatening people, and even surrounded a group of refugees, attacked them and injured one of them. At their demo last Friday, Pro Chemnitz started openly organising “community policing”. The AfD is vacillating between distancing itself from this kind of behaviour and at the same time maintaining links with Nazis in terms of their supporters and membership.

In Germany and Britain we are seeing debates on the left now, with Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke launching a new organisation, Aufstehen, that panders to the right. How is that playing out?

It is quite natural that there is a debate about how to react to the rise of the AfD and to the threat of a fascist mass party in Germany. Of course there are many people at the moment organising for the rights of migrants, against racism, and against the far-right.

For example, on 17 September 7,500 people marched in Frankfurt against Horst Seehofer, the minister of the interior, who has backed comments by the president of the secret service Hans-Georg Maassen. Maassen claimed that videos that showed the chasing of migrants in Chemnitz could be fake. He said that he had no proof, and that it could be that people wanted to avoid talking about the murder — even though it was clear at the time that it was manslaughter and there had been many attacks on refugees and left people. Maassen met with the AfD. He has a right wing agenda and Seehofer is protecting him. Maassen was finally dismissed as president of the secret service but got a job in the ministry of interior.

So this demonstration happened quite spontaneously in Frankfurt, and there are a lot of demonstrations like this. We have many people, immediately reacting to Chemnitz but also to Seehofer, to the AfD, to everything that’s happening. In Chemnitz itself we had a counter demonstration a week after the racist rampage that effectively stopped Höcke and others from marching. Then two days later in that town there was an anti-fascist gig with 65,000 people. Even some of the more unlikely celebrities of German popular music such as Helene Fischer who attracts millions of people spoke out against racism.

Actually the whole summer is full of unexpected events. In Berlin, 70,000 demonstrated against 5,000 AfD supporters in late May. In Hamburg, 178 fascists were outnumbered by more than 10,000 a week after Chemnitz. During the summer holidays we had a big solidarity movement in many places with the Seebruecke movement — people who are in support of the civil sea guardian organisation that saves the lives of refugees in the Mediterranean, who are criminalised.

There is a huge movement against the right, against racism, for migrants and so on, and I think this is a very good response. If we want to push back the AfD and the right we have to mobilise against them but also against racism in general and this policy of Fortress Europe.

When we talk about stopping the AfD, of course Die Linke has more to offer than “no to racism” or “open borders”. It’s very important to have this position but we also talk about political alternatives, how to organise people in social struggle and so on.

The problem is that Wagenknecht’s initiative doesn’t relate at all to this very real movement. She and her husband Oskar Lafontiane think that racism is caused by immigration. And they think that the AfD is actually a “workers’ party”. These notions are completely false.

Sahra Wagenknecht, and her followers argue that we shouldn’t call all the AfD voters racist. And that we shouldn’t talk too much about racism, address the AfD voters’ fears because they are afraid of the future, and so on.

Of course there’s a bit of truth in it, but I think it’s the wrong reaction to racism and to the function of racism, to divide people, to separate the political and the economic questions. So the whole Aufstehen project is politically not adequate to counter the AfD and the variety of reasons why the AfD is growing at the moment.

Wagenknecht leaves it unclear, or it’s not openly spoken about, what the aim of Aufstehen is. If it is intended to be a movement on the street I don’t think it will work, because it has no organic links with social movements, it’s just top down.
She has compared Aufstehen to Momentum, which I think is a misconception. Momentum was created from the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid. It was intended to influence Labour from the left and to organise people to push Labour to the left and to support Corbyn. If she talks about Aufstehen as a kind of Momentum, the only consequence could be to mobilise people from the right, like those in Die Linke who don’t agree with the position of open borders and anti-racism. The effect will be to influence Die Linke from the right.

At the moment Wagenknecht has no majority to change the party position on migration. We just had a 99 percent vote at our party conference for the position of open borders. Launching Aufstehen could be her strategy to change the position, bringing in people to pull it to the right.

The third option could be that she wants to create another electoral alternative and this would mean a split in Die Linke. It could create a dynamic which leads to a weakening of the left in general. Actually, Die Linke could be already in a much stronger position if Wagenknecht as the leader of the parliamentary group would act more like a Corbyn and relate to the mass anti-racist movement.

So I’m very critical about this “Aufstehen”. I know that some people signed the call for other reasons hoping that it will create a larger left wing bloc in society. But this is an illusion.

The correct answer to the threat from the right is to have bold and good anti-racist campaigns such as Aufstehen gegen Rassismus, but many more. We have a big demo in Berlin on 13 October by 500 different organisations against the threat of the right. We must also strengthen Die Linke as a political alternative, not seeking unprincipled alliances with forces to the right of the party.

The regional elections in Baeyrn and Hesse in October will only further deepen the crisis of the bourgeois and social democratic parties with an all-time record low for the SPD to be expected in Bavaria. The danger is that the AfD will gain further strength unless we help build a nationwide anti-racist movement to turn the tide. This happened before, in 1993/94, when millions stopped the then rising fascist Republican Party from building. I think we can do it again.

Christine Buchholz is a member of the German parliament for Die Linke