Germans thought they were immune to nationalism after confronting their Nazi past. They were wrong

People gather on Jan. 20 to protest the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD party, and right-wing extremism in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. The sign reads "Never again 1933," a reference to the year the Nazis came to power. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)

BERLIN — When Sabine Thonke joined a recent demonstration in Berlin against Germany’s far-right party, it was the first time in years she felt hopeful that the growing power of the extremists in her country could be stopped.

Thonke, 59, had been following the rise of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, with unease. But when she heard about a plan to deport millions of people, she felt called to action.


“I never thought such inhuman ideas would be gaining popularity in Germany again. I thought we had learned the lessons from our past,” Thonke said.

Many Germans believed their country had developed an immunity to nationalism and assertions of racial superiority after confronting the horrors of its Nazi past through education and laws to outlaw persecution.

They were wrong.

If an election were held today, the AfD would be the second largest party, according to polls.

But national polls camouflage an important division: the AfD has disproportionate support in the formerly communist and less prosperous eastern states of Germany.

After the fall of communism in 1989 and the unification of East and West Germany a year later, many people in the five eastern states lost not only their jobs but their collective past, leaving them disoriented and helpless in the capitalist system.

The AfD’s rise has been propelled by anger over inflation and, above all, rising immigration. The EU received 1.1 million asylum requests in 2023, the highest number since 2015. Germany got by far the largest number of claims — more than 300,000 — mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Turkey. The country has also taken in more than a million Ukrainian refugees displaced by Russia’s invasion.

Voters in Germany and across Europe are increasingly empowering far-right nationalist parties who promise to restrict immigration and, in some cases, constrain democratic freedoms of religion, of expression, of the right to protest.

The lessons of World War II

After 1945, West Germans grew up with the guiding principle that there should “never again” be a dictatorship on German soil. West German leaders made visits to Israel and apologized to the countries occupied by the Nazis, while schoolchildren were taken to see concentration camps or Holocaust memorials.

In the East, a self-declared anti-fascist society, young people were also taken to concentration camps, but the lessons did not focus on culpability. Instead, the lessons emphasized that they were the descendants of the Nazis’ victims.

Thonke, who works at Berlin’s water utility, grew up in Bavaria, which was part of West Germany before reunification in 1990. She said she did not speak much with her grandparents — the Nazi generation — about what happened during the Third Reich, but learned about Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the Holocaust in school.

Today’s far right is using similar tactics, she said, exploiting people’s fears to win their trust and their votes.

“I understand that many people are worn out from all these crises — the coronavirus pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the many migrants, inflation — and that they are afraid that things are going to get worse,” Thonke said. “But the solutions the AfD offers won’t solve any of these problems.”

Polls show the AfD as the top party in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia, with roughly 35% support in each. Both states have elections this fall, along with the eastern state of Brandenburg, where the AfD is also expected to make strong gains.

The AfD’s appeal is particularly strong among men — about two-thirds of its voters are male — and, increasingly, younger voters. In the last state elections in Hesse and Bavaria in October, AfD made significant gains among voters 24 and younger.

The party is far more internet-savvy than its rivals, making use of social media to get its message out to young people. At the same time, AfD officials often avoid talking to mainstream media reporters and sometimes don’t accredit journalists they perceive as too critical to their party conventions.

The party has benefited from voters’ deep frustration with Chancellor Olaf Scholz. His government came to power over two years ago with a progressive, modernizing agenda, but now is viewed by many as dysfunctional and incapable.

The AfD’s Thuringia branch is particularly radical and was put under official surveillance by the domestic intelligence service four years ago as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.

AfD’s Thuringia leader, Bjoern Hoecke, has at various times espoused revisionist views of Germany’s Nazi past. In 2018, he called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and called for Germany to make a “180-degree turn” in the way it remembers its past.

A wake-up call

Since January, a wave of protests against the far right has swept across Germany, triggered by a report that right-wing extremists met to discuss the deportation of millions of immigrants, including some with German citizenship.

AfD members were present at the meeting, along with Martin Sellner, a persuasive young Austrian with neo-Nazi links and convictions for violent extremism.

The meeting, in November, bore an eerie resemblance to the Wannsee Conference, when the Nazis agreed to the so-called “final solution” — the systematic round-ups that led to the murder of 6 million Jews.

Just like in the winter of 1942, when senior Nazi officials met covertly in a villa by a lake outside Berlin, the recent meeting also took place in secrecy at a villa not far from the German capital.

AfD party leaders have sought to distance themselves from the meeting, saying the party had no organizational or financial links to the event, that it wasn’t responsible for what was discussed there and members who attended did so in a purely personal capacity.

AfD chief whip in parliament, Bernd Baumann, complained that his party faces a “devious campaign by politicians and journalists from the ruined left-green class.”

“Little private debating clubs are being blown up into secret meetings that are a danger to the public,” he said.

Still, week after week, millions of Germans have turned out to protest, attending events with slogans such as “Never Again is Now,” “Against Hate” and “Defend Democracy.”

More than 2.4 million people have so far joined the anti-AfD protests which began in mid-January, according to the German interior ministry. The organizers of the demonstrations estimate more than 3.6 million people have participated.

Among them was Thonke, who went to two pro-democracy rallies in Berlin, relieved that the country was, as she put it, “waking up.”

“I no longer have this feeling of powerlessness that I had during the last years while watching the rise and success of the AfD,” she said.

Earlier waves of protests against the anti-Islam and anti-immigration movement PEGIDA eventually ran out of steam, although they weren’t as large as the anti-AfD movement that is building.

Still, the AfD is riding high. In December, it marked another milestone, when for the first time its candidate won a mayoral election in a midsized town: Pirna, in Saxony.

Now the party is setting its sights on elections for the European Parliament in June.