News | Racism / Neonazism - Political Parties / Election Analyses Is There No Alternative for East Germany?

Die Linke’s Katharina König-Preuss on the growing far-right threat in the eastern states


Posters for Alternative für Deutschland candidate Robert Sesselmann in Sonneberg, Thuringia. His election to distrist council administrator on 25 June 2023 marked the first time the far-right party won an executive position. Photo: IMAGO / Jacob Schröter

For the last ten years, the right-wing populists of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have gradually expanded their parliamentary foothold across Germany. Beginning as a Eurosceptic formation seeking to unite disgruntled supporters of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the party radicalized as time went on, and is now largely dominated by a far-right, ethnonationalist faction around Thuringian party leader Björn Höcke. Although many of the party’s voters are not necessarily dyed-in-the-wool fascists, the party itself more and more serves as the parliamentary arm of a broader far-right movement that is growing at an alarming rate.

Katharina König-Preuss is a member of the Thuringian state parliament for Die Linke, where she serves as spokesperson for antifascist policy.

The AfD has proven particularly successful in the eastern states that joined the Federal Republic in 1990. Here, higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of civic engagement, and a general distrust of public institutions have combined to create a toxic brew in which extremist sentiments can flourish. In June of this year, the party broke new ground when AfD member Robert Sesselmann was elected district council administrator in the Thuringian town of Sonneberg – the first time a far-right politician captured an executive position in modern German history. His election was particularly alarming given that Thuringia is only the only state where Die Linke, a democratic socialist party with close ties to the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, heads up the governing coalition.

What does the election tell us about the far-right threat in eastern Germany, and what does it mean for the people who live and work there? We spoke with Katharina König-Preuss, a deputy in the Thuringian state parliament for Die Linke who has devoted decades of her life to fighting the extreme Right, about the AfD’s growth in the region and how residents are fighting back.

Katharina, shortly after AfD politician Robert Sesselmann was elected district council administrator in Sonneberg in late June, becoming the first AfD member in the country to hold that position, you shared a video on Twitter of a man handing out blue balloons. What was happening in that video?

On the Monday after the local election, a neo-Nazi in an Imperial German Army t-shirt with a white van bearing the phrase “Voluntary Deportation Assistant” showed up outside a kindergarten in the Sonneberg region and handed out blue balloons. These balloons were most likely from the AfD election party from the evening before. Naturally, the children happily accepted the balloons, and the nursery school workers didn’t stop them.

In my opinion, this video exemplifies the feeling of power the Right has in the region: they want to demonstrate that they hold the region in the palm of their hand. Neo-Nazis aren’t just invited to move around freely wearing these t-shirts, but are also driving around the region unchecked in vans with hate slogans on them and openly distributing AfD material to children in kindergarten as if it were normal.

Although I already knew that it was normal to see people in Sonneberg going about wearing Nazi t-shirts, seeing this video shocked me.

How did the AfD candidate end up with 52 percent of the vote, particularly when other parties backed the CDU candidate in the runoff?

Sonneberg is part of the constituency where Hans-Georg Maaßen[1] was the CDU candidate in the federal election. This shows the opinions held by large sections of the CDU in the region, opinions and positions that are hardly distinguishable from those of the AfD, particularly with regard to issues like how to deal with refugees, climate policy, social policy, and gender policy.

The time for using social or financial disadvantages to justify voting for the AfD is over.

Hans-Georg Maaßen and the AfD overlap on all these issues. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for the CDU in the district — in the end, this similarity even encouraged them to choose Maaßen as their candidate. In the Sonneberg region, there are hardly any perceivable differences between the CDU and the AfD anymore. In the past, the CDU managed to fill seats in the district with right-leaning CDU stances on issues. In this instance, locals opted for the original over the imitation, so to speak.

Does that mean there is a right-wing milieu already established in the region?

The neo-Nazi scene has been deeply and firmly rooted in the region for decades. Not only were well-known Holocaust deniers like the so-called “Volkslehrer” [a notorious far-right influencer] in Sonneberg for the AfD election night party, but the Volkslehrer is even registered there, voted in Sonneberg, and has been seen there with people like Axel Schlimper, also a Holocaust denier and former local leader of [now-defunct far-right organization] Europäische Aktion.

There is also a relatively newly formed far-right group in Sonneberg called the Treubund. There are Nazi bands, Nazi venues, and the old Kulturhaus Haselbach [a well-known far-right venue]. So, the AfD is not the only right-wing structure in Sonneberg.

Some people have pointed to the financial situation of local residents to explain the AfD’s success in Sonneberg. Is that something you think affected the vote?

If we want to dig deeper into this way of explaining it, we need to ask: what do the social issues or the employment situation look like in Sonneberg? From my perspective, this analysis comes up short when people suggest that Sonneberg is one of the wealthiest regions and that everyone is doing well there.

It is true that Sonneberg is one of the richest regions in Germany, and that as a municipality it has to pay the “wealth tax”. Nonetheless, a significant segment of the population in Sonneberg earns the minimum wage. Those who are not employed at minimum wage often work outside of Sonneberg in Franconia, which is to say in the “old states”, which raises the average wage. Those who do work for minimum wage are currently experiencing inflation and finding that some things are unaffordable, and they are anxious about that.

The culture war against the Left not only rejects progressive changes in society but wants to reverse these changes back to a point that is no longer attainable.

Nonetheless, that is no reason to vote for the AfD. The time for using social or financial disadvantages to justify voting for the AfD is over. For me, this excuse has never been valid, and I don’t think it is relevant in Thuringia anyway, because it was not just the AfD that was up for election but Björn Höcke’s AfD, and the AfD candidate, Robert Sesselmann, is not just a follower but a Höcke supporter who shares Höcke’spositions — and Sesselmann was elected.

What issues drove the local elections in Sonneberg? 

If you look at the debates that have been going on over recent weeks and months, both in Thuringia and at the national level, and compare them with the issues in the region, it is obvious that the AfD have made national politics their main campaign issue. Of course, the CDU supported the whole narrative — whether intentionally or unintentionally through their policy of extreme opposition to the Greens, against recognizing the climate crisis, and against the green transition. That has nothing to do with the district, but instead triggers something latent in the population.

However, I would say that it is too soon to conclusively say why people voted for the AfD candidate. What is certain is that people in the region wanted to vote for a far-right candidate. For me, the Right’s extreme focus on culture wars in both Thuringia and other rural areas in general is a decisive factor in these decisions: right-wing forces are trying to push back against the progressive victories we’ve seen in recent years and decades, labelling those as the source of people’s problems. The Right promises to solve these imagined problems if people vote right, and convinces voters that everything will be better if they do.

When he took office, CDU leader Friedrich Merz claimed that he would reduce AfD approval ratings, an idea he now uses to justify the CDU’s rightward trajectory. Recently, Merz singled out the Greens as the main opponent of the CDU’s political programme. In what way is this tactic helpful for local politics?

Really entirely unhelpful! Die Linke and the Greens put up a joint candidate for the local election, and she didn’t even get 5 percent of the vote.

If Merz thinks that he can push back against the AfD by blaming their election on the Greens and creating corresponding policies against them, one can only say that Merz has a completely false analysis of the situation in Thuringia, in East Germany, and in Germany as a whole. Moreover, Merz’s strategy raises false hopes and expectations, because it will be impossible to undermine support for the AfD with policies that target the Greens.

What will happen instead?

This strategy will make the AfD stronger. I am not to saying that Green policies can no longer be criticized, of course, but what Merz has stated is essentially the slogan “Power to the AfD” and I really mean that. Declaring the Greens the enemy means not declaring the AfD the enemy. The AfD has already declared the Greens their enemy.

Thus, Merz’s CDU is allying itself with the AfD to form a coalition party in the federal government. In doing so, the CDU is strengthening the far-right culture war that the AfD has been pushing for years. This credo won’t strengthen the CDU or weaken the AfD, it will benefit the AfD. The example of Sonneberg illustrates this: in the end, people voted for the original.

In recent years, Hans-Georg Maaßen and the CDU in the region have repeatedly participated in this demonization of the Greens, giving it more power in the process. In Sonneberg, you can see where this strategy is leading. I can’t understand why the CDU is taking a path that is helping to anchor the AfD further in the region.

The sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer recently described the much discussed anti-woke culture wars as a crystallization point for the entire international Right. How strongly do you think this culture war has impacted Thuringia? Or are fears about the future due to inflation and unaffordable heating bills more important for thinking about the AfD’s election result?

Voters in the region are probably motivated by a mixture of right-wing culture war discourse and worries about being forced to reinstall heating systems because the “Heizungsstasi” — a term coined by the Thuringian CDU meaning “heating Stasi” — is coming.

There are many ways to create a moment of solidarity.

I think many of these narratives and ideas are interrelated: that the Greens are getting rid of everything, that inflation is consuming everything, that pensions won’t be enough, that the house can’t be paid for, that you’ll lose your job, that the climate crisis is contributing to the fact that you won’t be able to do some things in the future, that increasing numbers of people are coming to Germany and they will get everything while local people get nothing.

On Twitter, you said that you are calling for a firewall against the Right instead of a culture war against the Left. What do you mean by that?

The CDU always says that it has a firewall protecting it from the Right, but at least in eastern Germany it no longer exists. In view of the large amount of overlapping political content between the CDU and the AfD, and their use of combined majorities, there is effectively no firewall against the Right anymore. That is why we have to create a firewall against the Right! The right-wing culture war is a culture war against the Left.

How has this anti-left culture war manifested itself in Thuringia over recent months?

This is a very basic example, but at the end of last year, the CDU, in collaboration with the AfD, passed a bill in the Thuringian state parliament banning the use of gender-inclusive language, which applies not only to the administration of the state parliament and ministries, but also to universities and researchers. Although the CDU and AfD always say that the red-red-green coalition of Social Democrats, Die Linke, and the Greens in Thuringia is trying to tell them what they can and can’t say, they are the ones who are now banning the use of gender-inclusive language.

The culture war against the Left not only rejects progressive changes in society but wants to reverse these changes back to a point that is no longer attainable. When the AfD and CDU continuously promise to restore something like specific forms of language to their voters and members, they fail to recognize that the realities we live in make these reversals impossible.

How is the mood among politically active Sonneberg residents after Sesselmann’s election? 

If the right-wing threat hadn’t already destabilized politically active people in Sonneberg before the election, then the election results definitely scared a lot of people. They are afraid that events they organize will no longer be approved by the town council, like if they want to organize a punk rock concert or anything that could be classified as alternative. They are afraid of scrutiny because of their support for refugees. They are afraid that the 52 percent of voters who elected the AfD will turn up on the streets, in pubs, as colleagues at work, as neighbours, or in schools.

As people who speak up for others and for an alternative sociocultural landscape, they are afraid that they no longer have any protection. The people I spoke to were born in Germany and were not affected by racism, but what about refugees? If 52 percent of locals voted for the AfD, who will intervene if someone attacks a refugee?

A firewall against the Right also means that we have to protect people who are committed to volunteering to create an alternative sociocultural landscape in rural regions, so that the shock of the election doesn’t lead them to renounce their commitment out of concern for their own safety. That’s where we are at in Sonneberg.

How can we support people in the region?

At the local level, progressive forces need to create networks in order to counter the sense of isolation and fear that is spreading among left-leaning people in the region, so that they realize they are not fighting this alone.

Sonneberg was the first region where an AfD politician was elected to public office. However, we have to assume that there are other regions where the AfD will occupy posts in the future, and not just in Thuringia.

Those who want and are able to offer support from outside can donate to groups and initiatives that do solidarity work in the region. You can also show up by sending an email to the people working at associations and initiatives or by calling them and letting them know that you are thinking about them, sending them strength so that they can hold out. Let them know: we are watching what is happening there and we will also protest against this.

In the best case, we will travel to Sonneberg and support people there. There are many ways to create a moment of solidarity.

What institutional challenges do progressive forces face?  

At the Thuringian state level, it’s important to observe what is happening politically in Sonneberg and ask questions like where do the state parliament or ministries have to intervene?

In principle, in the district administration, for example, there is the possibility that they will now adopt new, repressive ways of dealing with refugees. Thus, we have to be careful that refugees aren’t treated like garbage under the banner of “payment in kind instead of cash”. We cannot rule out the possibility that a system exactly like that will be advocated for there.

Another example is monitoring gun licenses, which is the responsibility of the local weapons authorities and thus the district administrator. In reality, AfD members in Thuringia should be reviewed, as they do not meet the criteria for obtaining a gun license. But if the district administrator himself is from the AfD, and his weapons authority is supposed to investigate his own milieu...

For this process, district administrator Sesselmann receives documents from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence service, which means that there is a direct exchange of information between the two offices. Suppose we were to learn that the district administrator is interfering with intelligence investigations and thus hindering or even preventing a consistent disarming of the right-wing milieu in Thuringia. How would we respond? These questions will be raised in parliamentary spaces eventually.

To what extent do you think Sonneberg could represent a turning point in preventing the AfD from making further inroads at the municipal level? 

Sonneberg was the first region where an AfD politician was elected to public office. However, we have to assume that there are other regions where the AfD will occupy posts in the future, and not just in Thuringia.

That’s why I think it is absolutely necessary to unite and continuously push back against the AfD. We must succeed in bringing together a large number of committed bodies like trade unions, churches, anti-fascist groups, and civil society groups and associations, and clearly voice our outrage.

The example of Thuringia shows that the normalization of the far right has progressed to the point that speaking out is not enough. We must stand together and demonstrate that we will continue to fight together to oppose the growing Right!

Translated by Eve Richens and Joseph Keady for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

[1] Hans-Georg Maaßen (CDU) served as President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution from 2012 to 2018. In the last few years, he has made headlines for expressing increasingly far-right views and endorsing fringe conspiracy theories.