Over 1 million Germans demonstrate against AfD across country

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BERLIN — Demonstrations against the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party swept across the country this weekend, strengthening calls to ban the party, following a report that its members had discussed plans for mass deportations.

After months of surging popularity of the AfD, the report appears to have served as a wake-up call for the Germans opposing the group and an estimated 1.4 million people hitting the streets over the weekend.

In Hamburg and Munich, rallies had to be dispersed due to significantly more people attending than expected. Aerial images from around the country showed masses of people braving Germany’s bitter January temperatures to fill city squares and avenues. According to police figures, in Berlin on Sunday, some 100,000 people gathered on the lawns of the Reichstag, which houses Germany’s lower house of parliament.

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Placards at the protests stressed Germany’s particular responsibility to stand up to the far right, given the country’s dark history under Nazi rule, which led to the Holocaust. “Never again is now” and “Now we can see what we would have done in our grandparents’ position,” read some banners.

The protests were prompted by an investigative report earlier in January, revealing that AfD members met with far-right extremists in Potsdam in November to discuss a “remigration” plan should the AfD come to power. According to report by nonprofit research institute Correctiv, Martin Sellner, a far-right extremist and leader of the Austrian “Identitarian Movement,” proposed a “master plan” that would “reverse the settlement of foreigners.” The focus would be asylum seekers, non-Germans with residency rights and “non-assimilated” German citizens, the report said.

The idea of sending people to a “model state” in North Africa was also reportedly discussed — similar to a 1940 Nazi plan to deport millions of Jews to Madagascar.

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With less than six months to go until Germans head to the polls in European parliamentary election, the AfD continues to maintain its months-long hold on second position in national polls. At around 22 percent, the party is only single digits behind the conservative opposition, the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, known as the CDU/CSU.

The approval ratings of the center-left governing coalition, meanwhile, have plummeted to record lows amid higher costs of living, a budget crisis and the debate over migration.

Protests over the last week have underlined the sense of urgency among many voters to ban the AfD before regional elections this fall. In September, voters will head to the polls in three eastern states — Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia — where the AfD is currently polling as the strongest party.

Asked last week whether the Interior Ministry was surprised by the Correctiv report, a ministry spokeswoman, Britta Beylage-Haarmann, told journalists that “we cannot comment on intelligence here.” The country’s domestic intelligence “has its eye on these things,” she said.

Following publication of the report, comparisons were immediately drawn with the 1942 Wannsee Conference, also in Potsdam, at which senior Nazi officials formulated the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”

Leading legal organizations in Germany strongly condemned the extremist plans, warning that the meeting should not turn out to be a “second Wannsee Conference.”

“It is an attack on the constitution and the liberal constitutional state,” a group of six organizations, including the German Judges’ Association and the German Lawyers’ Association, said last week. “The legal legitimacy of such fantasies [of mass deportation] must be prevented by all legal and political means.”

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Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, urged extreme caution when making comparisons with the Wannsee Conference, however.

“The industrial mass murder of European Jews is unique in history in its coldbloodedness and madness,” Schuster told the German Press Agency on Monday. He added, however, that the “meeting in Potsdam between AfD officials and the Identitarian Movement is without question evidence of a brutality in thinking that is directed against the foundations of our democratic society.”

Politicians, including Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who attended one of the initial protests in his constituency of Potsdam, condemned the far-right meeting. Any plan to expel immigrants or citizens alike amounts to “an attack against our democracy, and in turn, on all of us,” he said.

Domestic intelligence services consider the AfD as “right extremist” in three of Germany 16 states. But the legal hurdle to actually ban the party is extremely high. Germany’s constitution allows for bans of parties that “seek to undermine or abolish the free democratic basic order,” and the country’s constitutional court has only done it twice.

The Socialist Reich Party, a successor to the Nazi party, was banned in 1952, and the Communist Party of Germany in 1956. In 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) was too insignificant to prohibit, despite meeting the ideological criteria for a ban.

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German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said last week, however, that she doesn’t “rule out” a procedure to ban the AfD, even if the hurdles for this “constitutional last resort” are high. Such a step would be the “sharpest sword” available, Faeser told regional broadcaster SWR. The country’s democratic parties should first address the content of the AfD, Faeser said.

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German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann has expressed skepticism about possible ban proceedings, however.

You have to be “100 percent sure that it will be successful” if you want to pursue such a procedure, Buschmann told the German weekly Welt am Sonntag. “If such a procedure were to fail before the Constitutional Court, it would be a huge PR victory for the AfD.”

A shift in rhetoric has also been visible among leading German CEOs who have long dodged questions regarding a surge in support for the AfD. Lars Redeligx, CEO of Düsseldorf Airport, said the findings of the Correctiv investigation made it necessary to speak out.

“These thoughts that are a threat to the constitution are poison for Germany as an economic location,” he said. “It threatens our peaceful coexistence, it threatens our prosperity, and sends out a fatal signal to the world.”

The Potsdam revelations have increased concerns that Germany’s image as an attractive destination for foreign investment and skilled workers could be jeopardized at a time when an aging population and a shortage of domestic skilled workers are hindering growth.

The AfD says prohibiting the party would be “undemocratic.” In the aftermath of the Correctiv report, it has sought to play down the meeting. At a news conference last week, party co-leader Alice Weidel accused Correctiv employees of infiltrating and spying on the private meeting “using secret service methods in disregard of personal rights.”

Large-scale protests against the AfD were last seen in 2017 and 2018 after the party was elected into the Bundestag — marking the first time in nearly six decades that a far-right party entered parliament. The turnout then, however, was dwarfed by the numbers over this weekend.

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