Germany’s far-right AfD party defended Thursday a staged walkout by lawmakers during an official commemoration for Holocaust victims.
The populist Alternative for Germany sparked an outcry when 18 of its 22 lawmakers walked out of Bavaria's state parliament Wednesday to protest criticism from a Holocaust survivor speaking at the event.
Charlotte Knobloch, president of Munich’s Jewish community, had called out the AfD in her address, saying the party minimized the crimes of the Nazis and went against the democratic values of Germany’s post-war constitution.
“A party is represented here today that disparages these values and downplays the crimes of the National Socialists and maintains close ties with the far-right extremist scene,” said Knobloch, who as a child survived the Holocaust by hiding in the countryside.
“This so-called Alternative for Germany bases its policies on hate and exclusion ... and is not based on our democratic constitution.”
Knobloch received a standing ovation from other lawmakers for her speech, ahead of Sunday's observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Katharina Schulze, the Greens party leader in the state, thanked Knobloch for her “clear and truthful words,” while Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder condemned the AfD walkout, calling it “disrespectful.”
But the AfD stridently defended the protest and launched a furious attack on Knobloch.
Katrin Ebner-Steiner, AfD co-leader in the state, accused Knobloch of “abusing a memorial service for the victims of Nazism to defame the entirety of the AfD and its democratically legitimate parliamentary group by using awful general insinuations.”
Fellow Bavarian AfD lawmaker Ulrich Singer released a statement Thursday on behalf of the “Jews of the AfD,” accusing Knobloch of “unscrupulous behavior” and of trampling “on the graves of countless dead Jews.”
“How dare you?” read the statement. “You have repeatedly lied to the German audience claiming that the AfD will create the danger of a new Holocaust. That's a ridiculous lie!”
Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News the walkout was a calculated stunt that appeared to be playing well with the AfD’s base on two levels.
Knobloch’s suggestion that the AfD is undemocratic hit on a sensitive issue for the party, following the announcement by the country's domestic intelligence agency last week that it was putting the AfD under increased observation over concerns it is drifting towards outlawed forms of extremism.
It also announced that two factions within the AfD would be subject to a higher level of surveillance, as there was sufficient evidence to indicate they could be classified as “extremist organizations.”
Wednesday’s walkout, said Janning, represented a powerful rejection of suggestions the party was an extremist organization that should be put under surveillance.
The stunt also reflected the party’s strategy of “calculated provocation” around the explosive subject of the role of the Holocaust in German history, he said.
AfD hardliners reject the focus on the Holocaust as the defining event in German national history, and senior figures in the party have repeatedly made provocative statements questioning such a perspective.
In 2017, AfD Thuringia head Bjoern Hoecke derided Berlin's Holocaust memorial as a “memorial of shame,” while last year co-leader Alexander Gauland described the Nazis as “just birdshit in 1,000 years of successful German history.”
The lawmakers who walked out Wednesday were now “heroes” to the hardliners who sought to minimize the role of the Holocaust in the national memory, said Janning, “while at the same time they’re heroes to the broader AfD constituency because they oppose surveillance by the domestic secret service.”
Gero Neugebauer, political scientist at the Free University of Berlin, told VICE News that the party’s base was shifting to the right, as hardliners like Gauland and Hoecke essentially told those who opposed such “uncritical and sometimes Nazi-friendly” positions on German history: “Love it or leave.”
Janning said the relatively muted public outcry over the latest provocation indicated that the party was gradually normalizing its nationalist rhetoric in the public discourse — which would likely greenlight further campaigning on the issue.
“The AfD has seen some success in this regard,” he said. “It keeps poking into the same wounds. Doing it again and again leads to a gradual weakening of the response, as the German public get used to such statements.”
Cover image: Alternative for Germany (AfD)'s demonstrators holding placards and German flags gather at the main station in Berlin to attend the 'demonstration for the future of Germany' called by the far-right AfD in Berlin on May 27, 2018. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)