Sonneberg, Germany — Mike Noth is thrilled that the candidate of a far-right populist party has recently won district administration in his hometown in rural eastern Germany for the first time since the Nazi era.
Bustani despises the established parties in the country, does not trust the media and feels that there are too many immigrants in the country. He hopes the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party will improve all that is not going well in his eyes in Sonneberg, located in the southeastern state of Thuringia.
“I think the fact that so many people voted for the AfD really gave it legitimacy,” Knuth, 50, said during an interview this week as he walked his dog down the city’s deserted main shopping street.
But some in Sonnberg were not won over by the AfD’s nationalist and anti-democratic rhetoric.
Margrethe Storm, an optometrist whose family has been selling glasses in Sonneberg for nearly 60 years, expressed her concern in an interview with a public television station.
“I told them I didn’t think it was a good idea to vote for the AfD. Everyone who votes for the AfD should know that they are being pulled by the Nazis,” Storm told the Associated Press in an interview at her store.
Sturm can barely comprehend what happened after the interview aired last week.
“We got hate mail, threatening phone calls, every minute. We were insulted by people we didn’t know, who didn’t know us, who didn’t know the business.”
The threats were so relentless that Storm’s husband even installed security cameras inside the store.
But Sturm, 60, said she would not allow anyone to silence her.
“People here are afraid to take a stand against the AfD and that makes us more anxious than anything else.”
She said that other residents who oppose the AfD no longer want to voice their criticism publicly.
This is exactly the kind of intimidation that results primarily from the machinery of hate and incitement and then unfortunately spreads. “And that really worries me,” Stefan Kramer, head of Thuringia’s local intelligence agency, told the Associated Press in his office in the state capital, Erfurt.
Kramer has warned for years that the Thuringia branch of the AfD is particularly extremist and has placed it under official surveillance for more than two years as a “proven far-right” group.
Knuth is not bothered that the AfD is under scrutiny for its ties to right-wing extremists.
“She was democratically elected, and I don’t find anything offensive about her,” he said.
Tackling immigration and fighting crime are not topics that belong in a local district manager’s job description, but Robert Sisselmann of the AfD has successfully campaigned on these topics.
Sonnberg has a population of 56,800, but the victory was a landmark for the AfD.
Unemployed Radoslav Schneider, 39, also expects things to improve now that Siselmann is in charge. He said that the AfD “believes that there is something that also needs to be done for Germans”, and that foreigners should not get preferential treatment anymore – which, he believes, will now happen with the AfD gaining power.
Now for a decade, the party has been polling at record levels nationwide with between 18% and 20% support.
Meanwhile, the ruling coalition of centre-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz with environmental Greens and pro-business Liberal Democrats faces strong headwinds from high immigration, a plan to replace millions of home heating systems and a reputation for infighting, while inflation remains high.
The leader of the Alternative for Germany party in Thuringia, Bjorn Hocke, espoused revisionist views of Germany’s Nazi past. In 2018, he called Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame” and called on Germany to “make a 180-degree turn” when it comes to the way it remembers its past.
In the early 1930s, Thuringia was one of the first power bases of the National Socialist Party led by Adolf Hitler.
Nowadays, the AfD especially appeals to people in communist and less prosperous eastern states, such as Thuringia.
The coronavirus pandemic, the Russian war in Ukraine and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees into Germany have also contributed to the success of the AfD, Katarina Koenig-Preuss, a state legislator for Thuringia’s Left Party, said during an interview in the state parliament. in Erfurt.
She said the AfD blames many problems on immigrants or the national government.
said Koenig-Preuss, who is one of the AfD’s most outspoken critics and has received several death threats.
Schulz has tried to downplay the recent rise of far-right populists.
“Germany has been a strong democracy for a long time now, since World War II,” Schulz told reporters in Berlin last week after being asked what he was doing to prevent a resurgence of fascism in the 77 years since Hitler’s demise.
It was the Nazi rule of Germany, which led to the deaths of 6 million European Jews and others, and more than 60 million dead in World War II, that made Kramer sleepless nights.
“When I look at this development in Germany, a country where industrial mass killing has been carried out to perfection, this is different from all other countries,” he said.
In the fall of 2024, state elections will be held in Thuringia. The AfD leads in opinion polls by more than 30%.
If the AfD, which is still currently shunned by all other major parties in Germany, becomes part of the state government, Kramer, who is Jewish, will leave the country with his family.
He said, “We’ve seen before in history where that can lead. And I must honestly admit, I have no desire to wait for that to happen again.”
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