Björn Höcke, right-wing demagogue and leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Thuringia, is a hugely divisive character in the party. He is known for incendiary speeches to his extremist core in the east, and has been described as a ‘pin-up figure for the right’; but in other sections of the party, particularly in many parts of the west, Höcke is abhorred as a dangerous radical.
In March 2020, after long-running accusations of extremism, both Höcke and the leader of the AfD in Brandeburg, Andreas Kalbitz, were labelled right-extreme by Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). The head of the BfV, Thomas Haldenwang, announced that Höcke’s nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel, had been put under observation, paving the way for surveillance by security services. The Flügel had around 7,000 members – 20% of the AfD membership – and even before the BfV announcement in March, it had already been classified as a ‘suspected case’ of right-wing extremism by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which analyzed the “ethno-nationalist ideology” of Höcke, Kalbitz and their colleagues.
A few days after the BfV ruling, a video of Höcke making a joke about Auschwitz emerged. In the face of the bad publicity received from this and the BfV ruling, a party executive agreed that the Flügel should be disbanded. Höcke moved to pre-empt party action and announced that the Flügel had been ‘historicised’. However, there are serious doubts that this is anything more than a cosmetic exercise: Thuringia’s head of the BfV, Stephan Kramer, for example argued that the dissolution of the wing was “a chess move.”
Born in 1972 in the western region of Westphalia, Höcke grew up in Rhineland-Palatinate. After completing military service, he studied sports and history at university and then did a masters in school management. He was a secondary school teacher in Hesse until 2014, when he was elected to the state parliament in Thuringia. He founded the AfD in Thuringia in 2013, and following his election to the state parliament in 2014, was elected as leader of the party in the state.
Höcke made his mark early in AfD history with the founding of the Flügel in 2015. His co-founder was André Poggenburg, who was forced to resign in 2018 after an outcry following his Ash Wednesday speech in which he called Germans of Turkish origin “fatherless vermin.” Poggenburg said, “These camel drivers should go back to where they belong, far beyond the Bosphorus, to their mud huts and multiple wives.” His speech caused outrage, but it should have been no surprise: in 2017, a leaked WhatsApp chat had revealed his use of the neo-Nazi slogan “Germany for the Germans”.
The Flügel’s ‘Erfurter Resolution’ rallied right-wingers in the party It declared disappointment about the “AfD’s lack of commitment to a fundamental political change.” It reiterated the party’s aim, “as a movement of our people against the social experiments of the last decades (gender mainstreaming, multiculturalism etc)” and “as a resistance movement against the further erosion of sovereignty and the identity of Germany.” The signatories, it said, were committed to ‘fundamental political change in Germany’ and do not fear the conflicts that would come with “the old parties, the media and those responsible for the devastating social experiments.” The strength of the Flügel led to the defeat of AfD founder Bernd Lucke and his exit from the party.
In January 2017, Höcke gave an infamous speech to the party’s youth wing in which he said that a “180-degree reversal on the politics of remembrance” was needed. Referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, he said that Germans are “the only people in the world who have planted a monument of shame in the heart of their capital.” Although Höcke subsequently sought to play down his comments, he was widely criticised and denounced as a “right-wing extremist, nationalist demagogue” by the Chair of the SDP parliamentary group.
In July 2019, following a speech in which Höcke criticised the party executive and seemed to imply that as leader of the Flügel, he was the leader of the party, more than a hundred high-ranking AfD officials issued a joint statement against Höcke. The statement said that the AfD is not and will not be a ‘Björn Höcke Party,’ and that Höcke was “not democratically legitimised to speak for the AfD as a whole.” It rebuffed his leadership ambitions with a rejection of “the excessively displayed personality cult of Björn Höcke.” This accusation, commented Die Welt, “weighs particularly heavily, since personality cult is usually only attested to dictatorships.”
Höcke is reported to have links with a range of far-right figures, groups and publications, including the anti-Islam movement Pegida, publisher Götz Kubitschek and the Austrian Identitarian leader Martin Sellner. The Identitarian movement is a European-wide movement of nationalist right-wing extremists whose ideas have been imported into the AfD by Höcke and other extremist members. The Identitarians oppose globalisation and fear the eradication of European national and cultural identities. Their slogan is the “great replacement”, by which they mean the replacement of the national population by migrants and refugees, as well as a takeover by Islam and Muslims.
Moderate AfD members failed to halt Höcke’s rise; it remains to be seen whether the BfV intervention and the dissolution of the Flügel has any long-term impact on the power of the extremists. Following the bad publicity Höcke was generating for the party, one of the party’s national leaders, Jörg Meuthen (previously a friend of the Flügel), initiated a discussion about splitting the party into two, but quickly rowed back from this suggestion after it became clear that he may have provoked civil war in the party.
The extremist faction is still strong, and still there. As the Tagesspiegel commented, “Höcke and Kalbitz are not thinking of moderating themselves…..The two front men of the Flügel are die-hard right-wing extremists and racists; neither their right-wing histories nor their crusade against refugees and Muslims raise any doubts.” The paper pointed out that because of their successes in the state elections in Thuringia and Brandenburg, Höcke and Kalbitz “will not abandon their goal of conquering the AfD and positioning it as a right-wing extremist opposition to the “system” of the Federal Republic.” Last week, the party executive – despite massive criticism from party members – saw no reason for disciplinary measures against Höcke for his Auschwitz joke. Instead, the party’s federal executive board voted against by 10 to 2 votes. The extreme right is alive and well in the AfD.