The Man Softening the Ground for an Extremist Germany

From the small stage of a pub in a wooded town of eastern Germany, the right-wing ideologue Björn Höcke regaled a crowd of followers late last year with the tale of his imminent trial. He faced charges for saying “Everything for Germany” at a political rally — breaking German laws against uttering Nazi slogans.

Despite that approaching court date, he looked down at the crowd, and gestured to them with an impish grin. “Everything for?” he asked.

“Germany!” they shouted.

After a decade of testing the boundaries of political speech in Germany, Mr. Höcke, a leader of the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, no longer needed to push the limits himself. The crowd did it for him.

That moment crystallizes why, to his critics, Mr. Höcke is not simply a challenge to the political order, but a threat to German democracy itself.

For years, Mr. Höcke has methodically chipped away at the prohibitions Germany has imposed on itself to prevent being taken over by extremists again. It takes a tougher stance on free speech than many Western democracies, a consequence of the bitter lessons of the 1930s, when the Nazis used democratic elections to seize the levers of power.

“Everything for Germany” was the slogan once engraved on the knives of Nazi storm troopers. By reviving such phrases, Mr. Höcke’s opponents say, he has sought to make fascist ideas more acceptable in a society where such expressions are not only taboo, but illegal.

In May, judges found Mr. Höcke guilty of knowingly using a Nazi slogan, fining him the equivalent of $13,000. On Monday, because of his pub speech, Mr. Höcke will go on trial in the same court for using the same slogan, again.

It is one of the string of legal cases he is now facing — none of which appear to have slowed the resurgence of Mr. Höcke or his party. In the elections this month for the European Parliament, the AfD came in second in Germany, outperforming any of the country’s governing parties.

Not long ago, Mr. Höcke stood at the fringe of a fringe party. Over time, he has pulled the party ever closer to him, making it even more extreme — and, experts argue, tilting Germany’s entire political landscape rightward in the process.

To his opponents, he personifies an invidious effort by the far right to destigmatize the country’s Nazi past.

To his supporters, he is a kind of linguistic freedom fighter, trying to reclaim unfairly maligned words, and more broadly, to preserve their conception of an ethnic German culture.

On his final day in court in May, Mr. Höcke, a silver-haired 52-year-old in a slim dark suit, stood before the prosecutors and a packed courtroom and made a passionate plea of innocence.

Though he is a former history teacher, he insisted he had not known he was using a storm trooper slogan. The words came to him unplanned, he said — ignoring the fact that since he was charged, he has twice persuaded crowds to repeat the Nazi phrase for him.

“Do we want to ban the German language because the Nazis spoke German?” he asked the judges. “How far should this go?”

The trials of Mr. Höcke, who declined a request to be interviewed for this article, are part of a new struggle of narratives over recent German history and who exactly can call themselves Germans in an increasingly diverse country anxious about new economic and strategic challenges.

If Mr. Höcke’s goal is to plant the seeds of a new ethnonationalism, with its echoes of fascism, then he may be making subtle gains.

Before the trial, many Germans had never heard of the Nazi slogan “Everything for Germany.” Now the phrase is debated and repeated routinely on talk shows and in articles across the country.

History has played an outsize role in Mr. Höcke’s life.

Mr. Höcke was born into a conservative family of East Prussians who were among millions of Germans living in Eastern Europe who fled Red Army advances at the end of World War II and sought refuge in western Germany.

This story of German displacement and loss has, in Mr. Höcke’s view, been overshadowed by the national reckoning over Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust.

He has used the lingering bitterness to appeal to Germans — particularly in former Communist East Germany — who feel cheated by history and that they have been denied the right to national pride and expression.

He has accused the victorious Allies of World War II of robbing Germans of their roots. “There were no longer any German victims,” he said in a speech in 2017. “There were only German perpetrators.”

Mr. Höcke moved to the eastern state of Thuringia in 2013. There, he helped establish a chapter of the AfD. He has since risen to prominence amid a string of controversies over language.

He called former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s officials a “Tat-Elite,” as SS officers described themselves. He has repeatedly questioned why “Lebensraum,” the word for “living space” employed by Nazis to mean territorial expansion in Eastern Europe, is still shunned by Germans. He has called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.”

The invocations of Nazi-era ideas are so numerous that a court once ruled it was not defamatory for critics to describe Mr. Höcke as fascist, but a “value judgment based on facts.”

For years, even his own party sought to sideline him. Now, his allies hold two-thirds of party leadership positions.

The ascent of Mr. Höcke’s supporters, political analysts say, reflects the evolution of the AfD from a small, conservative party skeptical of the European Union to a far more radical one.

Its leaders now promote the argument that nationhood is based on bloodlines and that only tough deportation policies can prevent Germany and other Western societies from being overrun by immigrants.

The AfD today considers itself antiglobalist. It is suspicious of urban elites and what it sees as the government’s overreaching efforts to combat the Covid pandemic and climate change. Many of its leaders embrace conspiracy theories that question the legitimacy of Germany’s post-World War II government.

The party’s popularity, experts say, has affected the political discourse of the entire country. In the past year, mainstream politicians across the spectrum have adopted the AfD’s hostility toward immigration and even environmental policies.

AfD leaders say the critics have it backward.

“There was no shift to the right,” said Torben Braga, the AfD spokesman in Thuringia, who worked for Mr. Höcke for years and keeps a photograph of the politician above his desk. “What happened is that certain convictions — political demands that have always been present in society — have found a mouthpiece after being suppressed for decades.”

AfD followers see the court cases against Mr. Höcke as a witch hunt to stop this awakening.

That sense of persecution pervades Mr. Höcke’s rhetoric. At a rally last month, he compared himself with Socrates, Jesus and Julian Assange — fellow dissidents “beaten by the club of justice.”

Coincidentally or not, history also plays an outsize role in the state he represents.

One hundred years ago, Thuringia was the first place where far-right politicians gained a majority in State Parliament. It later became the first state where Nazis seized power.

This September, the AfD is expected to gain the largest share of votes in Thuringia’s state election.

“A year ago, I would have said it’s impossible that Höcke could become prime minister of Thuringia,” said Jens-Christian Wagner, a historian at the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial in Thuringia.

“Now, I say it’s not likely,” he said. “But ‘not likely’ means it could be.”

In 2012, a German sociologist named Andreas Kemper began studying rising anti-immigrant rhetoric in German politics. That triggered his interest in the AfD and the speeches of a then relatively unknown Björn Höcke.

Mr. Höcke used the term “organic market economy,” which seemed to echo “organic order,” a term used by the Nazis in their 1934 reorganization of the economy.

Searching online for others using Mr. Höcke’s phrasing, Mr. Kemper said, he “got exactly one hit” — Landolf Ladig, the pen name of a writer in a neo-Nazi magazine.

In one article, Mr. Ladig described the Nazis as the “first antiglobalist” movement that “would have found imitators everywhere” had it succeeded. Some, he said, uphold those ideas today: “The embers have still not gone out here.”

Mr. Kemper found other similarities between the men’s words. The oddest was a Ladig citation from a book Mr. Höcke mentioned in a speech — both misquoted it exactly the same way.

He eventually published an analysis with a shocking accusation: Landolf Ladig, he said, was Björn Höcke. “It was just too many coincidences.”

In 2015, the AfD leadership asked Mr. Höcke to clear up the controversy by signing an affidavit saying he neither wrote nor collaborated on articles under the name Landolf Ladig.

He refused. “Not because I have something to hide,” he told German media at the time, but because it was “an attempt to defame me.” He insisted he never wrote under a pseudonym.

Germany’s domestic intelligence service later referenced Mr. Kemper’s work in 2021 when it classified the AfD Thuringian branch as right-wing extremist.

Since then, several other AfD chapters and the party’s youth wing have been classified as extremist. AfD leaders dispute these classifications, but say they have not hurt their growing popularity. Mr. Braga, the Thuringian party spokesman, said it may even be helping them.

“My answer to this constantly repeated assertion would be: keep writing it,” he said.

Before his May trial, Mr. Höcke appeared in a televised debate, where he insisted he is intentionally misrepresented. He deplores the Nazis, he insisted. And besides, he argued, many before him have mistakenly used “Everything for Germany” — even Deutsche Telekom advertisements.

That claim caught the attention of the telecommunications company — which denied it and filed a cease-and-desist order against him.

It also compelled Mr. Wagner, the Buchenwald historian, to dig back through a stack of books in his office by the right-wing publishing house run by the writer Götz Kubitschek, who is seen as the intellectual godfather of both Mr. Höcke and the AfD.

One of Mr. Kubitschek’s essays, is called “Self Trivialization.” It lays out a strategy for attracting supporters.

The first step is to make verbal “bridgeheads” by using controversial words. The second is “interlocking with the enemy” — highlighting examples of mainstream figures who use those same words — to sow doubts about how radical an idea actually is.

The third step is “making oneself harmless” by insisting such views are within mainstream norms.

The essay ends with a warning: The goal is to appear harmless — not to become so.

With so many efforts failing to counter the AfD, Mr. Wagner sees court cases against Mr. Höcke as ever more important.

“If politicians can’t draw the line,” he said, “then at least the judiciary will.”

If there is a line, however, Mr. Höcke is still testing it.

In early May, he gave another speech in the western city of Hamm ahead of European elections. Times were changing in the fatherland, he told the crowd, adding, “The signs are pointing to a storm.”

That phrase is familiar to those who know German history. It was used by a Nazi newspaper in 1933 on the eve of Hitler’s coming to power.

Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Halle, Germany.

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