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East Germans take a stand against the far right

Hans Pfeifer in Saalfeld, Thuringia
February 2, 2024

Germany is seeing an ongoing wave of protests against the far right. Amid the demonstrations, new alliances are emerging in the state of Thuringia, in the country's east.

A man in a group of protesters holds up a protest sign, a red stop sign with the words "Stop Nazis"
Hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting against right-wing extremism across GermanyImage: David Young/dpa/picture alliance

Saalfeld in the eastern German region of Thuringia is a stronghold of the extreme right. Neo-Nazis, far-right fight clubs and the symbols of the anti-democratic group the Reichsbürger can be seen all over the town.

The far-right-wing movement has been able to establish fixed structures here, and has been virtually unchallenged for years. And the populist far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD) enjoys considerable support in Saalfeld, and in Thuringia as a whole. Opinion polls show it may become the strongest party in this autumn's regional election.

But a report published on January 10 on a clandestine meeting of neo-Nazis and a few members of the AfD has sparked unprecedented nationwide protests which have also reverberated in this region. The publication "Correctiv" reported that the participants had discussed plans for the expulsion of migrants and even German nationals if they are from immigrant families.

Since then, protests in Germany against the far right haven't let up, with millions of participants across the country. It's palpable on the streets: something has been brewing in mainstream German society as the AfD has seen an unstoppable rise in voter support, despite some party members' constant racist provocations and ties to far-right and even neo-Nazi circles.

Protesters in Saalfeld
More than 1,000 people came out to the anti-far-right rally in Saalfeld Image: Hans Pfeifer/DW

"All these demonstrations that have been happening all over the country have made us think that we need to stand up here in Saalfeld and Rudolstadt as well, that we definitely need to take a stand against the AfD and this shift to the right," said Katharina Fritz, who lives in the district of Saalfeld-Rudolstadt.

Neo-Nazi networks have a long tradition here. "Young people sometimes openly give me the Hitler salute," said Fritz.

In the mid-1990s, neo-Nazis gathered here to glorify the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler and formed what became known as the Thuringia Homeland Defense. Years later, this group made headlines worldwide when three of its members formed the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which carried out murders, bombings and robberies throughout Germany from 1999 to 2007, resulting in the death of 10 people.

The terrorists were motivated by racism, and had a large network of supporters and sympathizers. And they still do today, also in Saalfeld.

But Fritz, who is active in the youth organization of the socialist Left Party, isn't prepared to abandon the region to far-right extremists. Together with other youth associations, she has organized the protest against right-wing extremism and the AfD in Saalfeld.

Three young people stand in front of a demonstration, smiling for the camera
Katharina Fritz (left) of the Left Party has closed ranks with Lisa-Marie Püchler from the SPD youth organization and Eirik Otto from the conservativesImage: Hans Pfeifer/DW

A place where it takes courage to protest

In January, many Saalfeld residents joined the wave of protests against the far-right threat. Some 1,500 gathered on the town's picturesque market square, despite the pouring rain and wintry cold. 

In large cities, the protests provide a genuine but, at the same time, casual reassurance that people will not stand idly by and watch the rise of right-wing extremism. But it takes real courage to show your face against right-wing extremism in Saalfeld. The list of threats against politicians, journalists and demonstrators in Thuringia is long — as is the list of racist attacks and insults against refugees, people of color and immigrants.

The protests here are "a very positive sign from the democratic center of society," David Begrich, the spokesperson for the Miteinander (Together) group in the eastern city of Magdeburg, told DW. "All the more so because it requires courage in small and medium-sized towns to take a public stand against the AfD and right-wing extremism." Miteinander is an organization that pushes for an open and democratic society and provides support to victims of far-right violence and to social institutions. 

How much do neo-Nazi views influence Germany's AfD?

Now, even young conservatives in Saalfeld have begun to be worried. "Little by little, people here are realizing that the problem of right-wing extremism won't go away on its own," said Eirik Otto, the chairman of the Junge Union in Saalfeld, the youth organization of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). "And they are realizing that those who don't normally go to demonstrations also need to start showing their faces."

That is why Otto and the Junge Union have joined the call. And that's why members of the left-wing Antifa (Anti-fascist Action) are standing alongside their political opponents from the Junge Union. Antifa is also controversial here. Some see them as an important network in the fight against right-wing extremism, but political opponents see them as extremists from the left.

"Of course, there were lengthy discussions about this," said Otto. "And we have to be completely honest: We are not going to be striving for the same political goals tomorrow as well." But when it comes to "fundamental questions of democracy and decency," the left and the conservatives have to point out the red lines in a democracy — and who is on the outside, namely the AfD.

But Begrich isn't sure how sustainable and successful the fight against anti-democracy and racism will be in Saalfeld. "This commitment must now be converted into a commitment to democratic culture on a local level. In associations, in initiatives, in the pre-political sphere," he said.

By the end of the demonstration in Saalfeld the rain had stopped, and people were dancing to fight the cold. Some 1,500 Saalfeld residents swayed along to the Spanish summer hit "Macarena" — young conservatives, Antifa supporters, families, church members, cultural workers and ordinary people from Saalfeld.

This article was originally written in German.

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Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha