‘Tearing itself apart’: New rift in far-right AfD ahead of east German polls

The far-right Alternative for Germany, battling stagnant poll results and suspicions of illegal funding, is now torn by a deepening rift between its party leadership and its most radical wing.

'Tearing itself apart': New rift in far-right AfD ahead of east German polls
Björn Höcke speaks at Thuringia's parliament on June 14th. Photo: DPA

The turbulence comes as falling migrant arrivals have deprived the ultra-nationalist protest party of its main rallying cause, while the ascendant Greens have replaced them as the strongest opposition force.

SEE ALSO: Greens surge amid heavy losses for Germany's ruling parties in EU elections

The six-year-old AfD, which has seen splits and leadership coups before, is now torn between backers and foes of hardliner Björn Höcke, months ahead of crucial state polls in its heartland in the ex-communist east.

Höcke, 47, is party chief in eastern Thuringia state and leads the most extreme party faction, “The Wing”, which is officially under surveillance by the domestic intelligence service.

The former history teacher once called Berlin's Holocaust Memorial a “monument of shame” and has marched arm-in-arm with the anti-Islam street movement Pegida in a rally joined by neo-Nazis in the city of Chemnitz.

SEE ALSO: AfD mulls booting leader who said Germany should put WWII in past

Last weekend at a meeting of his grouping, Höcke dramatically marched into the hall flanked by flag-waving supporters and went on to sharply attack the party's national leadership.

He vowed that after the autumn elections in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia states that he would devote himself “with great passion” to the election of a new national party leadership.

'Personality cult'

Days later, 100 AfD politicians in a letter attacked Höcke's “excessive personality cult” and declared that “the AfD is not the Björn Höcke party”.

Criticism also came from AfD co-chiefs Jörg Meuthen and Alexander Gauland, who fear The Wing's hard-right rhetoric is scaring off voters who see themselves as conservative patriots worried about immigration.

AfD party chairs Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland at a Bundestag session in June. Photo: DPA

Gauland said he found both Höcke's performance “inappropriate” and argued that if the party does not act “professionally,” it will never win over the “middle-class majority we need to change this country”.

Similar battles have flared in several German regions, including Bavaria where an internal party panel declared The Wing to be in a “competitive relationship” with the AfD.

The internal rift is the latest for the AfD, which was founded as a eurosceptic party in 2013, opposing bailouts for indebted Greece and other countries.

After a first leadership coup, it increasingly railed against immigration, multiculturalism and Islam, especially after the 2015 mass influx of migrants and refugees to Germany.

Tearing itself apart'

The AfD is especially strong in Germany's east which, almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, lags the west in jobs and prosperity and has been a hotspot for xenophobia, racist hate crimes and support for far-right groups.

“Merkel must go” has been a common chant at AfD and Pegida rallies where mostly white, middle-aged men have vented their fury at what they see as a political and media elite that has betrayed them.

As public fears about immigration have abated somewhat, the AfD has increasingly campaigned on other issues — against wind farms, opposing driving bans on diesel cars, and denying man-made climate change, a position even the AfD's youth wing rejects.

In May's European Parliament elections, the AfD scored 10.9 percent, less than it had hoped for.

It is polling strongly in parts of the east but faces fresh woes after a paperwork error ahead of the Saxony state election that could mean many AfD candidates won't get assembly seats even if elected.

Amid the ideological war inside the party, the eastern newspaper Magdeburger Volksstimme wrote that “the AfD is once more tearing itself apart”.

Gauland, 78, a defector from Merkel's CDU party, said the AfD is going through a “puberty crisis” which was hindering its efforts to poach disaffected conservative voters.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily judged that “Gauland's dream of a force that would bring together conservatives and radicals is increasingly proving to be a naive illusion”.

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New army scandal: Germany vows to punish soldiers caught singing anti-Semitic songs

Germany's Defence Minister on Tuesday vowed to severely punish soldiers stationed in Lithuania who were accused of singing racist and anti-Semitic songs, if the allegations turned out to be true.

New army scandal: Germany vows to punish soldiers caught singing anti-Semitic songs
German soldiers training in Saxony-Anhalt in May. credit: dpa-Zentralbild | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

“Whatever happened is in no way acceptable,” said Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

Those implicated would be “vigorously prosecuted and punished”, she added.

The Spiegel Online news site had on Monday reported that German soldiers in Lithuania sang racist and anti-Semitic songs during a party at a hotel in April.

One had also sought to sexually assault another soldier while he was asleep, a scene which was caught on film, said Spiegel.

According to Spiegel Online, the scenes took place at a party at which soldiers consumed large quantities of alcohol. They are also alleged to have arranged a “birthday table” for Adolf Hitler on April 20th and to have sung songs for him.

It is unclear to what extent more senior ranked soldiers were aware of the incidents.

Three soldiers have been removed from the contingent stationed in the Baltic country and an investigation is ongoing to identify other suspects, said the report.

The German armed forces have been repeatedly rocked by allegations of right-wing extremism within their ranks.

Kramp-Karrenbauer last year ordered the partial dissolution of the KSK commando force after revelations that some of its members harboured neo-Nazi sympathies.

SEE ALSO: Germany to compensate gay soldiers who faced discrimination