Mike Knoth is beyond thrilled that the candidate for a far-right populist party recently won county administration in his hometown in rural eastern Germany for the first time since the Nazi era.
The gardener despises the established parties in the country, does not trust the media and feels that there are too many migrants in the country. He hopes the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, party improve everything that does not go well in your eyes in Sonneberg, which is located in the south-eastern state of Thuringia.
“I think the fact that so many people have voted for Alternative for Germany has already given it legitimacy,” Knoth, 50, said during an interview this week as he walked his dog along the city’s deserted main shopping street.
But some in Sonneberg have not been convinced by the nationalist and anti-democratic rhetoric of the AfD.
Margret Sturm, an optometrist whose family sells glasses in Sonneberg for almost 60 years, expressed his concern in an interview with a public television channel.
“I told them that I don’t think it’s good to vote for the AfD. And whoever votes for the AfD should know that he has the Nazis behind him,” Sturm told The Associated Press in an interview at his store.
Sturm can barely comprehend what happened after the interview aired last week.
“We get hate mail, threatening phone calls, every minute. We were insulted by people we don’t even know, who don’t know us, who don’t know the business.”
The threats were so relentless that Sturm’s husband installed cameras surveillance inside the store.
But Sturm, 60 years oldshe said she would not allow anyone to silence her.
“People here are afraid to take a stand against the AfD and that worries us even more than anything else.”
She said that other residents who oppose AfD they no longer want to express their criticism openly.
“That is exactly the type of bullying that basically results from the hate and incitement machinery and then unfortunately spreads. And that really worries me,” Stephan Kramer, head of Thuringia’s national intelligence state agency, told the AP at his office in the state capital, Erfurt.
Kramer has warned for years that the Thuringian branch of the AfD it is particularly radical and placed it under official surveillance more than two years ago as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.
Knoth is not bothered that the AfD is under surveillance for its links to far-right extremists.
“He was democratically elected and I don’t find anything offensive about it,” he said.
Knoth hopes that AfD take a law enforcement approachstop immigration and make Germany a safe place.
Tackling migration and fighting crime are not topics that belong in the job description of a local county administrator, but the AfD’s Robert Sesselmann successfully campaigned on these issues.
The runoff election in Sonneberg County last month he pitted Sesselmann against his center-right rival Jürgen Köpper. The official figures showed that Sesselmann won by 52.8% to 47.2%.
Sonneberg has a relatively small population of 56,800.but the victory was a symbolic milestone for the AfD.
Unemployed Radoslaw Schneider, 39, also hopes things will improve now that Sesselmann is in charge. He said that the AfD “believes that something should be done for the Germans as well”, and that foreigners should no longer receive preferential treatment, which will happen now with the AfD in power, he thinks.
Alternative for Germany first entered the national parliament in 2017 after an anti-migrant campaign in response to the massive influx of refugees in Europe.
Now a decade old, the party has been in the polls at record levels nationwide with between 18% and 20% support.
Meanwhile, center-left Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s coalition government with environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats is facing strong headwinds over high immigration, a plan to replace millions of home heating systems and a reputation for infighting, while that inflation remains high.
The leader of the AfD in Thuringia, Björn Höcke, has taken revisionist views of Germany’s Nazi past. In 2018, he rated the Holocaust memorial in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and called on Germany to do a “180 degree turn” in how it remembers its past.
In the early 1930s, Thuringia was one of the first power bases for Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party.
Today, the AfD especially attracts people from the eastern states, formerly communists and less prosperous, like Thuringia.
The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees into Germany have also contributed to the success of the AfD, said Katharina König-Preuss, a state lawmaker from the Left party in Thuringia, during an interview in the state parliament. in Erfurt.
AfD has been blaming many problems directly to immigrants or to the national government, he said.
“I would say that a lot of these racist narratives, which do not correspond to reality at all, have now caught on with a larger part of the East German population,” said König-Preuss, who is one of the most outspoken critics. of the AfD and has received several death threats.
Scholz tried to downplay the recent rise of far-right populists.
“Germany has been a strong democracy for a long time, since World War II,” Scholz told reporters in Berlin last week when asked what he was doing to prevent a resurgence of fascism 77 years after the fall of Hitler.
It was the Nazi government of Germany that led to the murder of 6 million European Jews and others, and more than 60 million dead in World War II, giving Kramer sleepless nights.
“When I look at this development in Germany, the country where industrial mass murder was brought to perfection, then this is different from all other countries,” he said.
In autumn 2024 there will be state elections in Thuringia. The AfD leads the polls with more than 30%.
If the AfD, which today is still shunned by all the other major parties in Germany, becomes part of the state government, then Kramer, who is Jewish, will leave the country with his family.
“We’ve seen before in history where that can lead,” he said. “And I must honestly confess that I have no desire to wait for it to happen again.”