Thuringia’s Elections: Who is Björn Höcke?

The Thuringian Landtag in Erfurt.
Original image, Wikimedia Commons user Alupus.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Cropped to 16:9 widescreen.

 

All is not well in the state of Thuringia. In my last article, I touched upon how it has become the nexus of Germany’s largest far-right network. Now, with state elections looming on Sunday, that network plans to make its next great move.

Like much of the former East Germany, Thuringia has been particularly hard-hit by the massive privatization campaign that followed national reunification. Deindustrialization and a crippling brain-drain have, cruelly, earned it the reputation of a cultural and economic backwater. The state’s current “red-red-green” coalition government — comprising the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens — has been fighting an uphill battle against these developments. But its days are numbered, according to recent polls: While Minister-President Bodo Ramelow’s Die Linke is set to displace the CDU as the largest party, the coalition will likely lose its overall majority. That would mean a hung parliament, resulting either in a Ramelow-led minority government or the unlikely prospect of a rickety popular front involving Die Linke and the CDU.[1]

The man responsible for messing up Thuringia’s electoral mathematics is one Björn Höcke. Originally an obscure history teacher from Hesse — for, despite his appeal that East Germans complete the 1989 Revolution by voting for his party, East-German he is not — Höcke has become the AFD’s enfant terrible. To those who crave respectability for the party and seek to propagate a bourgeois-conservative image of it, he is an excruciating thorn in the side. What’s more, Höcke has carved out a regional fiefdom for himself in Thuringia, becoming the metaphorical man in the not-so-high castles that dot the countryside there. Party “moderates” condemn what they describe as a cult of personality around him, but their outcries come much too late. The head of an informal far-right network within the party, known only as “the wing”, Höcke has garnered considerable clout. Nonetheless, he has slipped under the radar of international audiences, receiving next to no coverage in English-speaking media; this article thus sets the record straight on a growing threat to German democracy.

The Man

At first glance, Höcke’s background seems banal. He himself claims to have apolitically pursued his career as a teacher before entering politics in 2014 out of a deeply-felt sense of patriotic duty (the evidence, as we shall see, paints a different picture).[2] Though not initially a leading figure within the party, Höcke gained national infamy in early 2017, when he decried Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as a “monument of shame”.[3] Party colleagues scrambled to frame the comments as a straight-forward admission of Germany’s historic culpability; commendable neighbours constructed a replica of the monument in their garden.[4] Höcke’s comments were nothing out of the ordinary by his standards: In 2015, he came dangerously close to party exclusion by exonerating the NPD, Germany’s long-time fringe skinhead party.[5] But his 2017 speech transformed him into a constant source of discord within the AfD which has dogged it ever since. His role in the party has become a defining issue in its successive power struggles, exemplified most strikingly by the resignation of its former shooting star, Frauke Petry, over his continued membership in 2017. Put differently, while the AfD has sloughed off its more moderate elements step-by-step, Höcke has enjoyed a comfortable position in the party. His growth in influence, unlike the AfD’s overall trajectory, has been linear and constant.

While dog-whistling about German memory is repulsive enough by itself, the buck in no way stops there. An examination of Höcke’s ideological history reveals skeletons which are profoundly concerning.

The Federal Republic of Germany understands itself as a defensive democracy. One of the many implications of this self-identification is that civil servants are forbidden from making statements that can be interpreted as antidemocratic. In a 2006 letter to the editor of a local newspaper, Höcke relativized German atrocities during World War II and the allied bombing of Dresden. He was swiftly reprimanded by the principal of the school at which he was teaching, and no more publications appeared under his name from then on out.[6] At the same time, one mysterious “Landolf Ladig” began writing more explicit articles for neo-Nazi publications. As the sociologist Andreas Kemper has shown, these articles incorporated passages from Höcke’s earlier letters word-for-word and also share numerous unique phrasings with them. Peter Watson’s magisterial intellectual history The German Genius is consistently mis-titled as The Genius of the Germans, and both authors idiosyncratically employ the term “organic market economy” — a perverse chimera of the “organic economy” to which the National Socialists aspired and the “social market economy” of the Federal Republic’s postwar welfare state. The final verdict of Kemper’s skilfull comparative analysis is as damning as it is unsurprising: Ladig is a poorly disguised Björn Höcke.[7]

The Plan

As the Ladig-texts show, Höcke is no stranger to neo-Nazi ideology, and he brings a unique combination of rhetorical skill and pseudo-academic jargon to the table. In a 2018 book, he flaunts his ideological colours quite brazenly. Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss, whose title clunkily references Heraclitus, contains the same crazed confabulation about a supposed “Great Exchange” familiar from far-right circles all over the world. More unique, however, is Höcke’s explicit enumeration of the implications of that worldview. Germany is to be purged of “culturally alien” people, necessitating a “large-scale remigration project”. To that end, those in power must “reach to measures which would otherwise offend their moral sentiments”.[8]

One might think that this publication essentially “spoils” the Ladig revelations: here we have an arguably more damning set of programmatic statements right from the horse’s mouth. There is, however, an additional, deeply worrying dimension to Höcke’s pseudonymous texts. The publications for which they were written are owned by Thorsten Heise. In addition to presiding over the NPD’s most rabidly racist and violent wing, Heise is also closely linked to the German branch of Combat-18 and regularly organizes the neo-Nazi music festival “Sword and Shield” (the initials aren’t an accident).[9] In 2018, Höcke’s neighbours testified that Heise had helped Höcke with his move to Bornhagen, the Thuringian village in which he now lives. Subsequently, the two were regularly seen conversing on Höcke’s terrace. Heise, it stands to reason, was closely involved with Höcke, and has plenty of dirt on his former associate.[10] As Kemper emphasized in a recent interview, “Höcke is open to blackmail by one of the most dangerous neo-Nazis in Germany”.[11]

We must do what we can

All is not lost for Thuringia. Höcke’s AFD currently polls at 20-25% — an indictment, but not a majority. A left-wing minority government could weather the storm; however, it would be heavily dependent on help from the CDU, which, in its decided anticommunism, has heretofore treated Die Linke as radioactive. In the long run, Höcke’s megalomania and extremism might cause his party to fracture and fade into electoral irrelevance. That would not eliminate the far-right threat in Germany, but it would buy German democracy some much-needed breathing space. Whether and in what way this will come about depends in no small part on what happens on Sunday.

 

 

 

[1] ‚Mohring nennt Höcke einen „Nazi“‘, Spiegel Online (24 Oct. 2019), https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/thueringen-mike-mohring-nennt-bjoern-hoecke-einen-nazi-a-1293076.html (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[2] Andreas Kemper, ‘Ist Björn Höcke (AfD) “Landolf Ladig”? Teil 1’ (13 Jan. 2017), https://www.youtube .com/watch?v=AtGGL24U_-U&feature=youtu.be (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[3] ‚AfD-Mann Höcke löst mit Kritik an Holocaust-Gedenken Empörung aus‘, FAZ (18 Jan. 2017), https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/afd-geht-nach-umstrittener-rede-auf-distanz-zu-hoecke-14686499.html (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[4] Sebastian Leber, ‚Björn Höcke bekommt keine Ruhe‘, Der Tagesspiegel (14 Feb. 2018), https://www.tagesspiegel.de/themen/reportage/stelenfeld-in-bornhagen-bjoern-hoecke-bekommt-keine-ruhe/20958826.html (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[5] Michael Backfisch, ‚Thüringer AfD-Chef Höcke distanziert sich nicht von der NPD‘, Thüringer Allgemeine (06 May 2015), https://www.thueringer-allgemeine.de/politik/thueringer-afd-chef-hoecke-distanziert-sich-nicht-von-der-npd-id220887017.html (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[6] Harald Lachmann, ‚Der Rechtsaußen der AfD: Björn Höcke im Porträt’ SÜDKURIER (13 Feb. 2017), https://www.suedkurier.de/ueberregional/Der-Rechtsaussen-der-AfD-Bjoern-Hoecke-im-Portraet;art1350068,9130046 (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[7] ‘Ladig-Höcke-Synopse’, Homepage Andreas Kemper (23 Jun. 2019), https://andreaskemper.org/2019/06/23/ladig-hoecke-synopse/ (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

Andreas Kemper, ‘Björn Höcke Teil 1’

Andreas Kemper, ‘Ist Björn Höcke (AfD) der Neonazi “Landolf Ladig”? Teil 2’ (13 Jan. 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_lO–gJ_Po (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[8] Hajo Funke, ‘Höcke will den Bürgerkrieg‘, Zeit Online (24 Oct. 2019), https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2019-10/rechtsextremismus-bjoern-hoecke-afd-fluegel-rechte-gewalt-faschismus (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[9] ‘Ladig-Höcke-Synopse’

[10] Hannes Vogel, ‘Alte Kameraden‘, Zeit Online (12 Sept. 2019), https://www.zeit.de/2018/38/bjoern-hoecke-afd-neonazi-freundschaft-rechtsextremismus (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)

[11] Tilo Jung, ‚Andreas Kemper über “Landolf Ladig” alias Björn Höcke (AfD) – Jung & Naiv: Folge 442‘ (20 Oct. 2019), https://youtu.be/5r1bzvO4E6k (Acc. 25 Oct. 2019)