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[this is related to John Reimann's post "surprise election results in
eastern Germany"]

Events this week in German politics were horrifying. But they shouldn’t
have been a surprise.

By Lukas Hermsmeier

Mr. Hermsmeier is a journalist.

Feb. 7, 2020, 11:30 a.m. ET

BERLIN — Sometimes, it takes an earthquake to reveal what’s below the

In the eastern German state of Thuringia this week a regional election
displayed the disastrous state of Germany’s political center — and how far
the country now stands from the anti-fascist consensus it proclaims to

On Wednesday, the state Parliament of Thuringia elected Thomas Kemmerich of
the Free Democratic Party as the new governor. The only reason Mr.
Kemmerich was able to win, though, was because he received the backing of
the far-right Alternative for Germany party, known by its German initials
AfD. The Free Democrats in Thuringia, along with members of Chancellor
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, agreed to the deal to ensure
Mr. Kemmerich took office.

In doing so, the center-right parties broke a taboo that has been in place
in German politics since the end of the Nazi era. Mr. Kemmerich became the
first high-ranking German politician since World War II to be elected by
relying on votes from a far-right party.

The centrists’ decision to side with the far right is especially worrying
in Thuringia, where the AfD is not only the second strongest party in the
regional parliament, but also more extreme than in any other state. The
AfD’s boss there, Björn Höcke, is the leader of a hard-line movement inside
the party known as “Der Flügel” — The Wing. In a 2018 book, he warned of
the “coming death of the nation through population replacement.” Last year,
a court ruled that he could legally be termed a fascist

The events in Thuringia have shaken German politics. Ms. Merkel called the
outcome “unforgivable.” Lars Klingbeil, the secretary general of the Social
Democrats, spoke of a “low point in Germany’s postwar history.” Even the
conservative tabloid Bild called the result a “disgrace.” After a wave of
public fury — including protests across the country — Mr. Kemmerich
announced on Thursday that he would resign in order to allow new elections.
(It’s far from clear that a new election wouldn’t produce even stronger
results for the AfD, however.)

But what led to these shameful machinations goes far deeper: the increasing
normalization of the radical right in German politics. Even if Germany’s
conservatives and liberals have not previously entered into formal
agreements with the far right at the federal level, and are unlikely to let
the AfD into a future government, they have nonetheless helped it gain
power and far too often set the agenda. That dynamic won’t disappear soon.

This was not the first time that centrists have collaborated with the AfD.
There have been at least 18 cases in which Ms. Merkel’s party has
cooperated with the AfD on a local level, it was reported last fall. In the
state parliaments of Berlin and Brandenburg, for example, the two parties
have voted together on legislation. Leading Christian Democrats from
several states have declared their willingness to work with the far-right
party. In Saxony-Anhalt, the two parties teamed up in 2017 on an “inquiry
on left extremism.” And in the same state, two Christian Democratic members
of Parliament wrote a position paper last year in which they considered a
coalition with the AfD. “We must reconcile the social with the national,”
they stated, echoing neo-Nazi rhetoric.

The AfD has grown consistently since its founding in 2013 and is now
present in the parliaments of every one of Germany’s 16 states. The parties
of the center, meanwhile, have all shifted rightward. Both the Free
Democrats, under their leader Christian Lindner, and the Christian
Democrats have moved their policy platforms in an anti-immigrant direction.
Neither Ms. Merkel nor the party’s new leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer,
have created clear boundaries between their party and the far right. But
many voters, especially in the east of Germany, would rather buy the
original product than its copies.

How did it come to this? One major factor is the obsession of many German
centrists with the so-called horseshoe theory of politics, where the far
left and the far right are equivalent.

Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have been guided by this theory. In an
official resolution, the party stated that it will never enter coalition
with either the Left Party or the AfD. In Thuringia, it was this unmovable
opposition to the left — demonized in its entirety by conservatives and
liberals, citing the Left Party’s history as successor to the East German
Communist Party — that laid the groundwork for the latest scandal. To
prevent a relatively moderate and highly popular Left Party politician,
Bodo Ramelow, from taking power in a minority government, the Christian
Democrats and the Free Democrats instead colluded with the AfD.

One day after the disaster in Thuringia, Friedrich Merz, a Christian
Democratic politician whom some believe could be the next chancellor,
appeared on a late-night talk show. After condemning his party’s decision
to collaborate with the AfD in Thuringia, Mr. Merz also felt the need to
warn of the “left scene” in Berlin torching cars; he went on to equate the
Left Party with the AfD. Should Mr. Merz really become Ms. Merkel’s
successor, we can expect a red scare to become ever more part of the
centrist program.

For the far right, this week has been an outstanding success. AfD’s leaders
have long predicted — and hoped for — a convergence with centrist and
conservative parties. On Wednesday, when shaking hands to congratulate the
newly elected Thuringia governor, Mr. Höcke smiled. The scene reminded many
Germans of a famous picture from 1933 in which Adolf Hitler greets Paul von
Hindenburg, Germany’s president at the time.

Germany in 2020 is not Germany in 1933. But German politics have shifted in
recent years in a disturbing way. Centrists and the far right share talking
points on immigration. They share what they perceive as a common enemy in
the left. And now, for the first time in decades, they even share a

Lukas Hermsmeier (@lukashermsmeier) is a co-editor of the political online
magazine was wäre wenn and a contributor to Zeit Online, Der Tagesspiegel
and The Nation.


(The photos of the handshakes, mentioned in the penultimate paragraph of
the piece, can be found at

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