By Jamie Dettmer
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency says there’s sufficient evidence to warrant labeling the country’s main opposition party, the populist far-right Alternative for Germany, AfD, as “anti-constitutional” and an organization hostile to democracy.
With nationwide elections just half a year away, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) wants a court to agree it can place the entire party under surveillance. On Friday, a court ordered the BfV to delay the surveillance until a ruling is made on a party challenge to the monitoring.
If the courts agree that designating the AfD a menace to democracy is warranted, the agency would be able to step up monitoring of the party and its members, allowing the BfV to eavesdrop on party communications and recruit informants.
AfD officials say the move is anti-democratic and a “scandalous” attempt to influence public opinion about the party ahead of multiple federal and regional elections and would undermine its ability to contest the polls on an equal footing with rivals.
But politicians from other parties say the surveillance is needed.
“The concept of a defensible democracy means naming and fighting the opponents of the free democratic basic order,” says Volker Ullrich, the interior affairs spokesman for the CSU, the Bavarian sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Green party lawmaker Konstantin von Notz told broadcaster Deutsche Welle: “We know from our history that even in a democracy, enemies of the rule of law can be elected” and “then eliminate democracy and the rule of law.”
If the BfV manages to secure court approval, it would amount to a historic move. The AfD wouldn’t be the first German political party to come under a formal surveillance regime — that distinction goes to the left-wing party Die Linke, which was monitored from 2007 to 2014 over suspicions of extremism — but it would be the first time since the Second World War that Germany’s main parliamentary opposition was officially deemed extreme.
German intelligence officials say they have no choice but to target the AfD, arguing that since its founding in 2013 as a euro-skeptic and anti-immigrant party, it has moved further to the far-right.
Mounting influence of Flügel
Much of the BfV’s worry focuses on the mounting influence within the AfD of Flügel, a faction within the party that was formally disbanded last year but whose former adherents, government officials and analysts say, are continuing to operate and whose reach and clout are expanding.
The BfV’s decision to target the AfD was taken after a year-long inquiry that produced a 1,000-page report. The study was undertaken by BfV agents, lawyers and academic experts on extremism, who examined speeches, broadcasts and social media posts of 302 AfD leaders and officials.
According to Der Spiegel magazine, which obtained a copy, the report concluded that the AfD has a questionable relationship to democracy and is dismissive of human rights. Its stoking of hatred of Muslims and immigrants is poisoning the political climate in the country and risks spawning violence, the report’s authors say. A substantial part of the party, the report says, “seeks to awaken or strengthen a fundamental rejection of the German government and all other parties and their representatives.”
The report’s authors also worry that the “perpetual defamation of and contempt for the democratic order and the party’s political opponents” risks triggering the kind of political violence seen in January in Washington, when Trump supporters from shadowy fringe groups, including the QAnon conspiracy movement, stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to disrupt congressional confirmation of Joe Biden’s election as president.
And the authors highlighted how Germany’s Bundestag was targeted in August when several hundred protesters clambered over fencing ringing the national parliament, and ran toward the entrance, some waving the “Reichsflagge” — the black, white and red flag of the German Empire, colors later adopted by the Nazis. Police pushed back the mob.
While the AfD has seen a precipitous slump in its poll ratings since the coronavirus pandemic struck — the party was polling at just 9% of support last month — officials say violent right-wing extremists, united in their opposition to what they say are illegitimate curbs on freedom, are gaining a boost from the coronavirus and strengthening their mobilization around anti-government conspiratorial narratives.
“We are doubling down on our scrutinizing of groups and individuals on watch lists and adding to the lists — especially in the wake of the storming of the U.S. Congress,” a German intelligence official told VOA last month. The BfV has been monitoring regional branches of AfD for some months.
According to researchers, Germany accounts for a large proportion of European adherents of the QAnon conspiracy movement, which believes former U.S. President Donald Trump has been waging a secret war against elite Satanists and pedophiles in government, business and the media. Q flags, which were on display January 6 in Washington, have also been spotted being unfurled at protests in Germany.
German intelligence officials have also voiced alarm at multiplying connections between the AfD and other groups they deemed extremist, including the anti-refugee “Ein Prozent” (One Percent).