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Germany: Far-right AfD, Elon Musk share complex relationship

Ben Knight in Grünheide, Brandenburg
March 16, 2024

Elon Musk has expressed support for Germany's far-right AfD party. The affection is mutual — except in the small town of Grünheide, where the local AfD has come out against Tesla's factory extension plans.

Banner put up by protesters against the Tesla Gigafactory in Grünheide reading 'El-ON El-OFF'
Protesters against the Tesla factory in Grünheide aren't fans of Elon Musk, or the far-right AfDImage: Ben Knight/DW

Billionaire Elon Musk's plans to expand his colossal Tesla Gigafactory in Grünheide on the outskirts of Berlin have attracted opposition from a remarkably eclectic range of protesters — and they don't always get along.

The factory has already caused concerns because of its water usage, and the threat of pollution it brings with it. Around 100 protesters have occupied the forest that the electric car company wants to buy from the state of Brandenburg, suspending treehouses between the pines and setting up a mini-community in just two weeks.

This disparate collective of environmental activists, united under the banner "Tesla stoppen" ("Stop Tesla"), have largely found support from the people of Grünheide, who donate food to the camp, and even offer their homes to protesters so they can shower and do their laundry.

Tesla head Elon Musk is seen outside the Tesla Gigafactory as he arrives to address employees on March 13, 2024 near Gruenheide, Germany.
Elon Musk visited the Tesla plant earlier this week, following an arson attack that left the factory without electricityImage: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Less welcome is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), even though the party is the only one in the Brandenburg state parliament that opposes the expansion of the Tesla factory.

Uneasy alliance between protesters, AfD

Steffen Schorcht, spokesperson for the Grünheide Bürgerinitiative ("Grünheide Citizens' Initiative"), which represents the local opposition to Tesla's plans, is annoyed that the organization he represents is sometimes publicly associated with the AfD.

"We're a very broad alliance of environmental protection organizations, climate activists, local politicians, scientists at the Technical University in Berlin and businesses, but from the start we've been confronted with the accusation that we were at least close to the AfD," he said. "Of course that's total nonsense. We distanced ourselves from the start — the people who work with us come predominantly from the green and left movements."

Schorcht also accused the AfD of cynically exploiting the political situation in Brandenburg. The state government — a centrist coalition of the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats and Greens — has welcomed the potential economic boost from the Tesla factory, but is also worried about the project's unpopularity among locals.

Steffen Schorcht in Grünheide protest camp, next to a protest banner
Steffen Schorcht, spokesperson for the Grünheide local opposition to Tesla's plans, is annoyed at occasionally being publicly associated with the AfDImage: Ben Knight/DW

"The AfD is always jumping on issues," Schorcht added. "We've noticed this from talking to other initiatives, that the AfD always tries to take a position on local problems that corresponds with the majority and which brings votes. We put our own issues out there, and if the AfD tries to take some of them over then so be it. We can't change that."

'We're not on the same side as the AfD'

Max, an activist in the protest camp who didn't want to give her last name, bristled at the idea that they might be considered on the "same side" as the AfD.

"We're not on the same side as the AfD in any capacity," she said. "The AfD is a very right-wing party, they're extremely transphobic, homophobic, sexist, racist. We're not aligned with them in any capacity."

The antipathy is mutual. For her part, Kathi Muxel, an AfD representative in the Brandenburg state parliament and a Grünheide local, dismisses the forest occupiers as "wandering demonstrators" — in other words, not locals.

"I'm not sure I like to see the Antifa flag flying there, and 'capitalism out' or whatever," she told DW. "That's not our line. We don't a radical situation here." Antifa, short for anti-fascists, is a decentralized left-wing movement.

The AfD has found a way to fit the Tesla story into its favorite anti-immigration narrative, claiming that many of the factory's 12,000 workers commute to Grünheide from neighboring Poland or Berlin, so the economic benefits allegedly don't benefit the local community.

The AfD also likes to portray electric cars as a part of an "ideological" energy transition, which it opposes.

Kathi Muxel in Grünheide, standing on a road near the protest camp
Kathi Muxel, an AfD representative in the Brandenburg state parliament, is dismissive of the forest occupiersImage: Ben Knight/DW

And yet, Elon Musk has shown sympathy for the AfD and its positions before. In October last year, the entrepreneur used his social media platform X, formerly Twitter, to disseminate unproven accusations that AfD leaders had been victims of "assassination attempts."

He also republished a post in September that said "let's hope the AfD wins the elections" because efforts to fund migrants being rescued from the Mediterranean Sea were "subsidized by the German government."

The AfD was clearly delighted with these posts, and Muxel was reluctant to condemn Musk himself. "We're not against Tesla per se, we're against the location," she said. "The responsibility for where Elon Musk builds a factory is not his, the responsibility is with the politicians. How is he, from America, supposed to know what the circumstances are here? I don't think he can."

Sabotage forced production to stop for a week

All of the organizations in Grünheide have distanced themselves from the act of sabotage that took place earlier this month, when a far-left group calling itself the Vulkangruppe ("Volcano Group") set fire to an electricity pylon a few kilometers away. The sabotage knocked out the power supply to the factory, as well as a few hundred nearby homes, and production was forced to halt for a week.

The attack dampened local support for the forest camp for a while, though activist Max insisted that the general mood remains positive. The camp denied any knowledge of, or participation in, the attack, saying in a statement: "There are various actors who are resisting the exploitation and destruction by this company in their own way."

"What motivates me is frustration," said Max. "Growing up in the climate crisis, and seeing all these deadlines and seeing them be pushed back time and time again, all these steps not being taken to protect our environment. And I have this sense that I don't know what else to do other than use my physical body to try to protect the water here and the forest that's on top of it."

How new Gigafactories are staining Tesla's brand

The whole situation has stirred up a hornets' nest in the Grünheide district council, which has to decide whether to permit the extension, though ultimately the state or even the federal governments could intervene.

Grünheide Mayor Arne Christiani, an independent who has been in office for more than 20 years, could soon be ousted by the rest of the council. He is in favor of the factory extension, even though a nonbinding vote in February found that over 60% of local residents were against it.

Whatever discord there may be between Tesla's various opponents, the protests seem to have had an effect. At a local council meeting earlier this week, Christiani announced that Tesla had revised its plans and now only wanted to clear 47 hectares (about 115 acres) of forest, rather than the original 100.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight