A German county elected a far-right candidate for the first time since the Nazi era, raising concern

Stephan Kramer, the head of Thuringia's state domestic intelligence agency uses for a photo in his office at German federal state Thuringia capital Erfurt, Wednesday, July 5, 2023. If the far-right Alternative for Germany party, AfD, which is currently still shunned by all other mainstream parties in Germany, will become 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, I have no desire to wait for it to occur again." (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

A election campaign poster of far-right AfD candidate Robert Sesselmann remains at a street at the outskirts of the small city Sonneberg at the German federal state Thuringia, Wednesday, July 5, 2023. The Alternative for Germany, or AfD, candidate Robert Sesselmann won the runoff election for a local county administrator in Sonneberg county on June 25, 2023. Sonneberg has a relatively small population of 56,800, but the win is a symbolic milestone for the far-right populist party AfD.(AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

SONNEBERG, Germany — Mike Knoth is more than thrilled that a far-right populist party’s candidate recently won the county administration in his hometown in rural eastern Germany for the first time since the Nazi era.

The gardener despises the country’s established parties, he doesn’t trust the media and he feels there are too many migrants in the country. The far-right party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, he hopes, will improve everything that’s not going well in his eyes in Sonneberg, which is in the southeastern state of Thuringia.

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“I think the fact that so many people voted for Alternative for Germany has already given it legitimacy,” Knoth, 50, said during an interview this week as he walked his dog down the town’s deserted main shopping street.

But some in Sonneberg haven’t been won over by the AfD’s nationalist and antidemocratic rhetoric.

Margret Sturm, an optometrist whose family has been selling glasses in Sonneberg for almost 60 years, voiced her concern in an interview with a public television station.

“I told them that I don’t think it’s good to vote for the AfD. And whoever votes for the AfD must know that they have the Nazis in tow,” Sturm told The Associated Press in an interview in her store.

Sturm can barely fathom what happened after the interview was aired last week.

“We got 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.”

She said that other residents who oppose the AfD no longer want to voice their criticism openly.

“That’s exactly the kind of intimidation that basically results from the machinery of hatred and incitement and then sadly spreads. And that really worries me,” said Stephan Kramer, the head of Thuringia’s state domestic intelligence agency, told the AP at his office in the state capital, Erfurt.

Kramer has warned for years that the AfD’s Thuringia branch is particularly radical and put it under official surveillance more than two years ago as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.

It doesn’t bother Knoth that the AfD is under surveillance for its ties to far-right extremists.

Knoth expects the AfD to take a law-and-order approach, curb immigration and make Germany safe.

Tackling migration and fighting crime are hardly topics that belong to the job description of a local county administrator, but the AfD’s Robert Sesselmann campaigned successfully on these themes.

The runoff election in Sonneberg county last month pitted Sesselmann against center-right rival Jürgen Köpper. Official figures showed that Sesselmann won by 52.8% to 47.2%.

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