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A Century-Old Election Helps Explain the Danger of Germany’s Modern Far-Right

Thuringia was a forerunner to the rise of the Nazi party. Could the rise of the AfD follow a similar path?

Words: Marc Martorell Junyent
Pictures: Marc Martorell Junyent

It could hardly have been more symbolic. The date was May 8, 2024, the 79th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe. On that day, the Museum of Forced Labor dedicated to Nazi crimes opened its doors for the first time in Weimar, in the central-eastern German federal state of Thuringia. In mid-May, Weimar’s streets were crowded with election placards ahead of the local elections that took place in late May and the European elections to be held on June 9. To culminate the super-election year, regional elections to the Thuringian parliament will take place in September, with the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) poised to finish first with around 30% of the vote. Since 2014, when Bodo Ramelow became president, Thuringia has been the only federal state with a member of the left-wing party Die Linke at the helm.

The Museum of Forced Labor is located on the premises of the former Gauforum, a gigantic construction not far away from the city center. Adolf Hitler planned the building of Gauforums across Germany, which he conceived as regional sites of Nazi power that would have halls for mass rallies and crypts to bury local Nazi leaders. The Gauforum in Weimar was the only one to be built. Although slowed down by the war, construction moved forward during the conflict with the use of forced workers and the construction works were very advanced by 1945.

The recently inaugurated museum is located in the southern wing of the Gauforum buildings. That was the area destined to host the offices of Fritz Sauckel, the Nazi leader in Thuringia, and, from March 1942 until the end of the war, General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment. Sauckel was responsible for the detention and deployment of foreign workers in the German war economy. As explained in the museum exhibition, between 1939 and 1945, some 13 million persons were assigned to forced labor in Germany and the occupied territories. Half a million were forced to work in Thuringia. Some 2.5 million people, mainly Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates, died as a consequence of forced labor. Sauckel was sentenced to death in the Nuremberg Trials and executed in October 1946.

The Symbolic Contest for Weimar

Two decades before meeting his end in Nuremberg, in July 1926, Sauckel was responsible for the organization of the Nazi Party’s congress, held in Weimar. According to historian Steffen Raßloff, it appears that the smooth organization of the Weimar party congress did not go unnoticed by Hitler. One year later, Sauckel would be appointed as the Nazi regional leader, or Gauleiter, in Thuringia. It was not a coincidence that such a consequential party congress, the first since Hitler’s release from prison following his failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923, took place in Weimar. According to some rumors, Hitler considered moving the headquarters of his Nazi movement from Munich to the Thuringian city. He did not take this step but remained a frequent visitor in Weimar.

The Nazi movement appropriated Weimar’s historic symbolism, repurposing its ethos for its totalitarian ideology. The city is intrinsically connected to two giants of German literature, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who have their resting places in Weimar. Once in power, the Nazis advertised Weimar as a tourist destination in brochures that splashed a sculpture of Schiller and Goethe against the dramatic background image of the Gauforum. Meanwhile, in 1937, the Nazis established one of the first concentration camps in Buchenwald, on the outskirts of Weimar. 56,000 people had died there by 1945.

Weimar’s symbolism was not restricted to Schiller and Goethe. It was also the city that gave its name to the democratic republic founded in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. It was in Weimar’s theater, not in a convulsed Berlin deemed too politically unstable for the incipient democratic process, that the first democratically elected German parliament met and approved the 1919 German Constitution. 

A Century-Old Election

It was also in Weimar, at that time the capital of Thuringia, that the young republic first witnessed how fascist politicians could directly influence institutional politics through the co-optation of conservative political forces. After the Thuringian regional elections in 1924, the United Völkish List (VVL) tipped the scales in the parliament, allowing the formation of a conservative minority government. After the temporary ban of the Nazi Party following Hitler’s failed putsch, Nazi idealogues folded into other parties. In Thuringia, Artur Dinter, author of the 1917 antisemitic best-seller book “The Sin Against the Blood,” led the VVL. As a condition to allow the creation of a conservative government, Dinter demanded that the Thuringian government be formed only by “non-Marxist men of German blood.” The parliamentarian and Law Professor Eduard Rosenthal and the President of the regional bank Walter Loeb, both Jewish, were victims of this campaign and lost their positions. Similarly, the Bauhaus art school, founded in Weimar in 1919 and a pole of attraction for international teachers and students (among them the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky) was starved of money and had to move to Dessau in 1925.

After the 1929 Thuringian elections, the Nazi Party was no longer content with allowing the emergence of a conservative government and imposing some of its demands. Hitler himself traveled to Weimar to negotiate the entrance of the Nazi Party in the regional government. They did so with two ministries in January 1930, the first time Nazi politicians held a ministerial-level post in a regional government. Wilhelm Frick became the regional Minister of Interior and Education. He held the post for little more than a year before a motion of no confidence brought down the government. Still, this was enough time to remove Communist teachers and mayors from their positions, ban books, and introduce a process of Nazification of the regional police force.

After the July 1932 regional elections, the Nazi Party took over the government in Thuringia, the fourth regional government to fall into their hands. The first participation of Nazi ministers in a regional government in Thuringia in early 1930 was a prelude to what was to come in the whole of Germany when Hitler took power in January 1933. Frick, for example, following his ministerial role in Thuringia went on to hold a prominent national role as German Minister of the Interior and Governor of the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Frick was later sentenced to death in Nuremberg and would be hanged on the same day as Fritz Sauckel.

Weimar Conditions?

In front of Weimar’s theater, in the heart of the city, is the House of the Weimar Republic, a museum dedicated to this historical period. One of the panels in the main exhibition explains how the term Weimar Verhältnisse (Weimar conditions) has been a recurrent concept in times of crisis during the history of the German Federal Republic that emerged in Western Germany after the Second World War. We now live in one such moment, and these days it is easy to encounter the term Weimar Verhältnisse in the German press.

Can the history of the Weimar Republic help us understand Germany’s current political crisis?

Germany currently faces challenges on many fronts. The national economy has stagnated, and war rages on in Ukraine. This has led to new debates in a country that relied on Russian energy supplies and allocated a smaller percentage of its GDP to military spending in comparison to other European countries.

Partly due to the difficulty of the task at hand, partly due to its own mistakes, the current tripartite coalition government headed by the Social-Democratic Olaf Scholz is both internally divided and deeply unpopular among broad sectors of the population. The far-right AfD, which has undergone a process of continuous radicalization since its foundation in 2013 as a Euro-skeptic party, would be neck in neck for second position if elections to the German parliament took place next week. The center-right CDU would be first and all three of the current governing parties would lose support.

The Weimar Republic was a period of profound economic crises, political assassinations, multiple changes of government, and the rise of fascism, which would ultimately put an end to Germany’s first democratic experience. Even such a troubled republic was not doomed from the beginning, though. In “The Coming of the Third Reich”, the British historian Richard J. Evans remarks that the Weimar Republic “was weak in legitimacy from the start” but also that it could have survived in other circumstances.

Lessons from History

Can the history of the Weimar Republic help us understand Germany’s current political crisis? There are strong reasons to believe so, and ignoring the historical record only because we live in different times would be short-sighted. At the same time, for history to be useful as an analytical framework we need to avoid deterministic narratives that assume that the past inevitably repeats itself. We should also stay away from the temptation of drawing direct, easy parallelisms. The AfD is not the Nazi Party. Similarly, violent attacks against German politicians have increased in recent years but cannot be equated with the murders of former Finance Minister Matthias Erzberger in 1921 or Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau the following year.

Steffen Kachel is the author of a book about the Communist and Social-Democratic parties in Thuringia between 1919 and 1949. He is also a member of the left-wing party Die Linke and a parliamentary assistant for this political group in the Thuringian parliament. During our meeting in Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, he dissected the most significant differences and commonalities between politics in current Germany and the Weimar Republic. A key divergence is the importance of the social environment in determining political behavior. In the 1920s, people were socialized in certain milieus such as factories, the church, or the military, and their party attachment normally depended on it and remained unchanged. In our current era, on the other hand,  voters are more individualistic and often switch parties.  

Nonetheless, there is an important common point between the Weimar Republic and the current context, Kachel explained. That is the prevalence of Abstiegsängste —  anxiety around social decline —- among the German population. In the Weimar Republic, the profound economic crises in 1923 and 1929 removed any sense of financial security. Nowadays, there is also a feeling in sizable sections of German society that the socioeconomic status they enjoy is under threat. Some of these fears have rational economic explanations. Prices increased by 8.7% (in line with the European Union’s average) in Germany in 2022 following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wages, however, have often not risen enough to meet the increased costs.

The Rise of Germany’s Modern Far-Right

Burdened by a constitutional provision that limits the German government’s capability to take public debt, the Scholz-led government has failed to significantly increase social expenditure or investment in public infrastructure. The AfD has capitalized on this popular discontentment over the economic situation. Even more importantly, it has also benefited from a more emotional unease among some constituents about a rapidly changing world in which traditional gender roles are contested, the fight against climate change has gained relevance in the political debate and Germany has become Europe’s largest recipient of refugees.

Refugees in particular have been framed as scapegoats. Already in 2016, AfD leaders made headlines by arguing that the police should fire against refugees trying to enter Germany — including children. In the current context, this apologia of violent xenophobia is finding renewed resonance and has been put into practice. During the last year, violent attacks against refugees doubled.

The fear of being economically left behind is more widespread in eastern Germany, in part because the departing point has always been more precarious. This year will mark the 35th anniversary of the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, and the five German federal states that belonged to it are still the five poorest, with a significant gap from the rest of the country. Three of these federal states, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Thuringia, will celebrate regional elections this September. According to the polls, the AfD will emerge as the winner of these three electoral contests.

Thuringia, Central Once Again

The case of Thuringia, however, is special for two main reasons. First, the parliamentary arithmetic means it will be difficult to isolate AfD from the negotiations to form a governing coalition following the election. Second, the AfD in Thuringia is particularly radical. Its leader, Björn Höcke, was recently convicted for using a Nazi slogan in a political rally. There is also solid research showing that Höcke wrote, under the pseudonym Landolf Ladig, several pieces in a neo-Nazi publication more than a decade ago. In one of them, Ladig argued that the Third Reich had been forced into a “preventive war” in 1939 — an apologetic argument that brushes over the devastation the Nazis wrought. This would align with Höcke’s public statements, such as his call for a 180-degree turn in Germany’s remembrance culture of critical engagement with the Nazi past.

In 1924, Thuringia’s conservative forces allowed a fascist political group to set conditions for the formation of a government. Less than a decade afterward, the Nazi Party was leading the regional government. Mario Voigt, the regional leader of the center-right CDU, promised to avoid aligning with either the far-right AfD or the left-wing Die Linke to create a government after the September elections in Thuringia. But he may have no choice. In this case, Voigt, encouraged by the national CDU leader and opposition chief Friedrich Merz, who has moved the party to the right after the Angela Merkel era, might very well be tempted to look to his right after the elections. All the more reason not to forget another Thuringian election that took place a century ago but still holds some relevant lessons for our times. 

Marc Martorell Junyent

Marc Martorell Junyent is an author and researcher based in Munich. He holds a Master in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society at the University of Tübingen, Germany.

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