April 19, 2024 - 1:55pm

For most political organisations, it would be a major scandal if one of their leaders were on trial for using a Nazi slogan in the 21st century. Not so for Germany’s second most popular party, the Right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). One of its most prominent faces, Björn Höcke, arrived in court yesterday, accused of borrowing a campaign slogan from the Nazis’ SA stormtroopers. Yet the most pertinent question is not how far to the Right the AfD has drifted, but why this doesn’t seem to have harmed its electoral prospects.

There have been so many revelations about far-Right extremism in the AfD recently that the Höcke trial is struggling to make headline news in Germany. A report earlier this year made public that high-ranking AfD members had attended a meeting of neo-Nazi activists where a “master plan” was discussed that involved mass deportations from Germany should the party come to power. Large street protests followed, but neither they nor the report itself seemed to invalidate the AfD as a voting option for nearly a fifth of the German electorate.

The Höcke trial is also unlikely to shock voters away from the party, but it’s significant for the fact that the politician could face up to three years in prison. Later this year, there are European elections and regional elections in three of Germany’s 16 states: Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. All three are in the former East Germany, where the AfD is currently polling as the strongest political party. Höcke himself is running to become Minister-President of Thuringia — a powerful position in Germany’s federal system that devolves areas such as education to the states.

So what Höcke will say and do in the course of this trial matters. Denying that he ever said the words Alles für Deutschland, or “Everything for Germany”, is difficult because the 2021 speech where he is accused of having used the slogan was public. He also knows, like every German, that the symbols of unconstitutional organisations are illegal in Germany, and that goes for swastikas as it does for Nazi phrases.

Alles für Deutschland was so central to the SA’s ideology that it was even engraved on its service daggers. Having moved in far-Right circles for years, Höcke will be well aware of that. He is also a trained history teacher. Yet he chose to claim ignorance, turning up in the courtroom with a history book under his arm, presumably to show that it doesn’t mention the SA phrase.

This strategy is interesting because it seems to indicate that the AfD is still trying to build respectability in the same way that other Right-wing figures such as Marine Le Pen have done to stretch their parties’ appeal into the centre of society. The AfD now chooses words such as “normal” and “conservative” to describe its positions. In his recent TV appearance, Höcke also tried his best to frame AfD policies in a way that took the hard-Right edge off of them.

But whether Höcke even needs to watch his language beyond ensuring that he stays out of prison is doubtful. The last few months have shown that AfD voters will not return to the political centre ground because party politicians are shown to embrace extreme positions. The established parties really ought to have strategies up their sleeves which go beyond banking on the “demasking” of the AfD. The truly shocking fact about the Höcke trial is not that someone regarded as a far-Right extremist by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency may actually be a far-Right extremist, but that he is still on track to win his election regardless.

Katja Hoyer is a German-British historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990.