The political alarm bell rang in an unlikely place. Football manager Christian Streich used his SC Freiburg press conference to issue a wake-up call: “Germans should remember their history lessons, and stand up to the far-right AfD (Alternative für Deutschland).”
Germans heard him, loud and clear. Hundreds of thousands of them attended demonstrations from Hamburg to Heidelberg.
In my new hometown of Leipzig, I could scarcely believe the size of the crowd. The traffic was diverted. No trams were running. There were black-clad anti-fascists with huge red flags, megaphones and aggressive slogans, of course. Yet they were far outnumbered by families with small children in pushchairs or riding on dads’ shoulders, dogs on leads, pensioners with walking frames, grannies against the rightwingers, lesbians waving rainbow flags, teenagers, doctors, refugees from Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan, and Christians waving homemade placards with Bible quotes.
Seventy thousand people braved an icy wind that made our faces ache, in a town of only 628,000. In Munich, a quarter of a million people – ten times the expected number – turned up to protest. One hundred thousand thronged the centre of Berlin. Most surprising was that in the AfD heartland of Saxony, Chemnitz (formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt) and Dresden also saw a huge turnout.
But it wasn’t really the SC Freiburg manager who shocked us all into action. It was the investigative reporters at Correctiv! magazine. Their research laid bare the hidden agenda of the AfD.
They had met in secret at a villa near Potsdam with some Christian Democrats (CDU). The venue is just 8km away from the villa on the Wannsee lake where Hitler’s henchmen planned the Final Solution. The AfD also has a plan: mass deportation of all people in Germany with an immigrant background. They call it remigration.
History reminds us that this is not new. Fifteen million ethnic Germans were driven out of Poland and Czechoslovakia after the second world war. Nine million starved or froze to death on the journey to the new Germany.
Ethnic German orphans were ordered by the Soviet Red Army to go west, to Lithuania. They lived in the woods and became known as “wolf children”. The lucky ones were adopted by Lithuanians who defied orders not to help the “fascist brats”. These foster parents forbade them from speaking German and gave them new identities.
The AfD has decided that attack is the best form of defence. Its leaders are accusing the undercover reporters from Correctiv! of using Stasi tactics to spy on a private meeting and spread “lies” about their plans.
But they are looking isolated. Friedrich Merz, leader of the Christian Democrats, is distancing himself from those colleagues who attended the meeting. Chancellor Olaf Scholz (Social Democrat) and the foreign secretary, Annalena Baerbock (Green Party), have joined anti-AfD street demos.
Meanwhile, former AfD members have even denounced the party in a TV documentary. One explains how his grandparents were among the ethnic Germans who were driven out of Silesia – now Poland – after the second world war. Another comes from a family of Italian Gastarbeiter, or “guest workers” – skilled labourers who were enticed into West Germany from southern Europe to power the “economic miracle” of the 1960s.
A young Dresden resident tells of how the AfD scared her into believing that Muslims would soon be in a majority, and she would be forced to give up her job and wear a hijab! All of the interviewees felt, at first, that the AfD offered new hope for Germans who were disadvantaged or “left behind”.
But 2024 is a big year for regional, European and Bundestag elections, and floating voters, who once chose AfD as a protest vote, will have two new options on the ballot papers. The ultra-left MP Sahra Wagenknecht has founded her own party, immodestly named after herself, and the Potsdam plotters from the Christian Democratic Union are establishing a “Values Union” splinter party.
The philosopher George Santayana once remarked: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. One placard at the Leipzig demo, crayoned on a shoebox, read “The AfD is sooo 1933”. Christian Streich would be proud. Some of us do remember our history lessons.