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The man who laid the foundation for radical Germany

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Late last year, right-wing ideologue Björn Hoch told a crowd of followers on a small stage in a bar in a forest town in eastern Germany the story of his upcoming trial. He faced charges for saying “Everything for Germany” at a political rally – violating a German law against shouting Nazi slogans.

Despite the looming court date, he looked down at the crowd and motioned to them with an impish grin. “What is all this for?” he asked.

“Germany!” they shouted.

After a decade of testing the limits of German political discourse, Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Peter Höch no longer has to push the envelope himself. The masses do it for him.

That moment made it clear why Mr. Höch is seen by his critics as a threat not only to the political order but to German democracy itself.

Mr. Hoch has been methodically working for years to remove the ban Germany has imposed on itself to prevent it from being taken over again by extremists. Germany has a tougher stance on free speech than many Western democracies, a legacy of the painful lessons of the 1930s, when the Nazis exploited democratic elections to seize power.

By reclaiming the slogan “All for Germany,” which was once engraved on the swords of Nazi stormtroopers, Höch’s opponents say he is trying to make fascist ideas more acceptable in a society where such expressions are not only taboo but illegal.

In May, a judge found Hawke guilty of intentionally using a Nazi slogan and fined him $13,000. On Monday, Hawke will go on trial in the same court for using the same slogan again, following a speech he gave at a bar.

It is one of a series of legal cases he is currently facing – all of which appear to have done little to slow the resurgence of Mr Hawke or his party. In this month’s European Parliament elections, the AfD came second in Germany, ahead of any of the country’s governing parties.

Not long ago, Mr Hawke was on the fringes of a fringe party. He brought the Party closer to himself.Experts believe that this process will cause Germany’s entire political landscape to shift to the right.

To his opponents, he personifies the far-right’s disgusting efforts to erase the stigma of the country’s Nazi past.

To his supporters, he was a linguistic freedom fighter seeking to rehabilitate unjustly maligned words and, more broadly, to preserve their conception of German national culture.

On his last day in court in May, Mr. Hawke, 52, with a shock of silver hair and a slim-fitting dark suit, stood before prosecutors and a packed courtroom and passionately argued his innocence.

Although a former history teacher, he insisted he had no idea he had used the “Stormtrooper” slogan. He said the words came to him accidentally – although he has twice persuaded crowds to repeat the Nazi slogan for him since he was charged.

“Do we want to ban the German language because the Nazis spoke it?” he asked the judges. “How far do we want to go?”

The trial of Höch, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is part of a new struggle over the narrative of Germany’s recent history and over who can call themselves German in an increasingly diverse country anxious about new economic and strategic challenges.

If Hawke’s goal is to sow the seeds of a new nationalism, echoing fascism, he may be achieving subtle gains.

Before the trial, many Germans had never heard of the Nazi slogan “All for Germany.” Today, it is discussed and repeated on talk shows and in articles across the country.

History plays a big role in Mr Hawke’s life.

Mr. Hoke was born in East Prussia to a conservative family that was one of millions of Germans who fled the Red Army’s advance and lived in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II and sought refuge in western Germany.

In Mr. Hawke’s view, the story of German displacement and loss has been overshadowed by the national reckoning with Nazi war crimes and the Holocaust.

He tapped into that lingering resentment by appealing to Germans — especially those in the former communist East — who feel they have been cheated by history and deprived of national pride and expression.

He accused the victorious Allies of robbing Germans of their roots. “There are no longer any German victims. There are only German perpetrators,” he said in a 2017 speech.

Hoch moved to the eastern German state of Thuringia in 2013, where he helped found a chapter of the AfD party. He has since risen to prominence in a series of language controversies.

He called former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s officials the “Tatter elite,” as SS officers called themselves. He has repeatedly questioned why Lebensraum,The term “living space,” which the Nazis used to refer to territorial expansion in Eastern Europe, is still shunned by Germans today. He called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.”

References to Nazi-era ideas are so numerous that a court once ruled that a critic’s description of Mr Hawke as a fascist was not defamation but a “value judgment based on fact”.

Even his own party has tried to marginalize him for years, and his allies now hold two-thirds of its leadership posts.

Political analysts say the rise in Hawke’s support reflects the AfD’s transformation from a small, conservative, Eurosceptic party to a more radical one.

The argument currently promoted by the party’s leaders is that nationhood is based on blood and that only a harsh expulsion policy can prevent Germany and other Western societies from being taken over by immigrants.

Today, the AfD considers itself anti-global. It is skeptical of urban elites and believes the government has gone too far in fighting the coronavirus pandemic and climate change. Many of its leaders embrace conspiracy theories and question the legitimacy of Germany’s post-World War II government.

Experts say the party’s popularity has influenced the country’s political discourse as a whole. Over the past year, mainstream politicians across the spectrum have adopted the same stance as the AfD, opposing immigration and even environmental policies.

The leader of the Alternative for Germany party said critics were completely wrong.

“There was no shift to the right,” said Torben Braga, a spokesman for the AfD in Thuringia, who worked for Mr. Hoch for many years and has a photo of the politician on his desk. “What happened is that certain beliefs — political demands that have always existed in society — finally found a voice after being suppressed for decades.”

Followers of the AfD party see the lawsuit against Mr. Hoch as a witch hunt aimed at preventing that awakening.

This sense of persecution permeates Hawke’s rhetoric. At a rally last month, he compared himself to Socrates, Jesus and Julian Assange — fellow dissidents “beaten by the stick of justice.”

Coincidentally or not, history also plays a role in the country he represents.

A hundred years ago, Thuringia was the first state where far-right politicians won a majority in state parliament. Later, it became the first state where the Nazis seized power.

In September this year, the Alternative for Germany party is expected to win the most votes in the Thuringia state election.

“A year ago, I would have said that there was no way Hoch would become governor of Thuringia,” said Jens-Christian Wagner, a historian at the Buchenwald concentration camp memorial in Thuringia.

“Now, I say it’s unlikely,” he said. “But ‘unlikely’ means it’s possible.”

In 2012, German sociologist Andreas Kemper began researching the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric in German politics. This sparked his interest in the Alternative for Germany party and the speeches of a then-unknown Björn Höcke.

Mr. Hoch uses the term “organic market economy,” which seems to echo the term “organic order” used by the Nazis in their 1934 economic reorganization.

Kemper said he searched online for other people who had used Hawke’s phrase and found “only one” — Landolf Ladig, the pseudonym of a writer for a neo-Nazi magazine.

In an article, Radigue described the Nazis as the “first anti-globalization” movement that, if successful, “would have found imitators around the world.” Some people, he said, still cling to these ideals today: “The embers here have not yet been extinguished.”

Mr Kemper found other similarities in the two men’s remarks. The strangest was a quote from a book that Mr Hawke mentioned in a speech – and both men misquoted it in exactly the same way.

He eventually published an analysis with the shocking accusation that Randolph Radigg was Björn Höcker. “It was just too much of a coincidence.”

In 2015, the AfD leadership asked Mr Hoecker to sign an affidavit to clear up the controversy, stating that he had not written or co-written articles under the name Landolf Ladig.

he rejectHe told German media at the time: “This is not because I have anything to hide” but because it was “an attempt to defame me.” He insisted he never wrote under a pseudonym.

Germany’s domestic intelligence service later cited Kemper’s work when it classified the Thuringia chapter of the Alternative for Germany party as a far-right group in 2021.

Several other AfD chapters and the youth wing have since been classified as extremist. AfD leaders dispute those classifications but say it has not hurt their growing popularity. Mr. Blaga, the party spokesman in Thuringia, said it may even help them.

He said: “My answer to this oft-repeated assertion is: Keep writing.”

Before his trial in May, Mr. Hoke took part in a televised debate in which he insisted that he had been deliberately misrepresented. He insisted that he condemned the Nazis. Moreover, he argued that many people before him had used the slogan “All for Germany” incorrectly — even a Deutsche Telekom ad.

The claim came to the attention of the telecom company, but it denied it and issued a cease and desist order to him.

It also forced Wagner, the Buchenwald historian, to look through a pile of books in his office published by a right-wing publishing house run by the writer Götz Kubitschek, who is seen as the ideological godfather of Hoch and the AfD.

One of Mr Kubitschek’s essays is titled “Trivialization of the Self.” It lays out strategies for attracting supporters.

The first step is to establish a linguistic “bridgehead” using controversial words. The second step is to “connect with the enemy” — highlighting examples of mainstream figures who use the same words — to question how radical an idea really is.

The third step is to “make oneself harmless” by insisting that these views conform to mainstream norms.

The article ends with a warning: Our goal is to appear harmless, not to actually be harmless.

Mr Wagner believes the case against Mr Houck has become increasingly important as many efforts to fight the AfD have failed.

“If politicians can’t draw the line, then at least the judiciary can,” he said.

However, if there is a line, Mr. Höcke is still testing it.

In another speech in early May, in the western city of Hamm, ahead of European Parliament elections, he told the crowd that times were changing in his homeland, adding: “The signs are that a storm is coming.”

People who are familiar with German history should be familiar with this sentence. A Nazi newspaper used this sentence on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

Christopher F. Schutz Reports from Halle, Germany also contributed.

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