The Political Prankster Taking on Germany’s Far Right
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Dresden is the world’s first city to declare its far-right problem is as serious as the climate crisis.
By Jessica Bateman
Some people enter politics because they want to make the world a better place. Max Aschenbach, a city councillor with Germany’s “joke” political party Die Partei, has a slightly different aim. “I wanted to piss off all those assholes who ruined everything,” he says.
Die Partei — which translates as “the party” — was founded in 2004 by a group of German comedians, and satirizes the world of politics with humorous campaigns and policy suggestions. After Aschenbach was elected in the East German city of Dresden, however, the political prankster soon made headlines around the world for a very serious reason. He put forward a successful motion declaring that Dresden has a “Nazi emergency,” meaning that the city, which is home to the anti-Islam Pegida movement and where a quarter of the population voted for the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, has a problem with extremism on a level with the climate emergency. “I’ve been interviewed by Russians, Canadians — everyone!” he says.
Die Partei is known in Germany for its joke policies, such as a pledge to annul votes if voters cannot answer questions such as “What is the capital of Paris?” It prints posters with slogans such as “Yes to Europe! No to Europe!” But last year it won enough votes to gain two seats in the European Parliament and attracted 9 percent of the youth vote.
What we want is for other parties to do their jobs properly, so we don’t have to exist.
And as it enters the world of real-life politics, its stunts have taken a more serious turn, and it is quickly emerging as a thorn in the side of Germany’s far right. In 2017, Die Partei members took over 31 of AfD’s Facebook groups a week before the country’s election. And after finding out the party was exploiting a loophole in Germany’s political financing rules by selling gold coins and bars online, Die Partei began selling 100 euro notes for 105 euros. This led to AfD being reprimanded.
“I think satire can be more honest because it doesn’t have to struggle for favor,” says Aschenbach, a lanky figure who teams his politician’s shirt and tie with battered DM boots and frayed jeans. “And if you do satire in Germany, then you can’t really get past the Nazis.”
The 34-year-old grew up in the neighboring state of Thuringia and moved to Dresden to study art before working as a sculptor. However, he didn’t become politically active until his son was born five years ago. “It made me feel I had to do something for the future,” he says. “I wasn’t just responsible for myself anymore.”
However, he felt disillusioned by the country’s mainstream parties, believing they were responsible for welfare cuts and the neglect of local infrastructure. He went to a Die Partei meeting, found them to be a “cool group” and kept at it.
Aschenbach entered Dresden city hall in September as one of 70 councillors after Die Partei received 1.8 percent of the local vote. And even though he was representing a satirical party, he was keen to spark real action.
The Nazi emergency status began as a prank attempt to push local Green politicians into declaring a climate emergency, which they had failed to do, “but then I thought about it properly and decided it was a good idea,” he says. He’s received what he describes as “funny” emails from some far-right extremists, but doesn’t feel threatened by them.
It’s not hard to see the far right’s influence in Dresden. Nazi graffiti can be spotted in many neighborhoods. In the multicultural, student-heavy area of Neustadt, many businesses have put up bright pink “No neighborhood for fascists” stickers in their windows.
“At first we did not know what to expect from Max as a satirical politician,” says Dana Frohwieser, the head of the local Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany’s main center-left party. “But when we spoke, I realized he was very serious about the idea of the Nazi emergency. I decided it was a good motion to support.”
The motion is largely symbolic, although Aschenbach also hopes it will open up more funding for education and social inclusion projects. He’s struggling to round up support for his next goal: banning Pegida from the city center. He says a long-term political career does not interest him. “I’m looking for the best way to deal with the societal insanity,” he explains. “Maybe in five years’ time I will be running for the European Parliament, writing a book, going in the armed underground or all three at once. Or something completely different.”
He laughs when asked what Die Partei would do if voted into government. “That won’t happen,” he says. “What we want is for other parties to do their jobs properly, so we don’t have to exist.”
Werner Patzelt, a political scientist at the University of Dresden, does not believe Die Partei can ever bring about real policy change because it will attract few votes. “What they are good at though is getting media attention,” he says, which can draw attention to critical issues.
East Germany has suffered huge unemployment and a lack of infrastructure investment since the country was reunified 30 years ago, fueling the rise of groups like AfD and Pegida. “The far right has a clear position — it’s a shitty position, but it’s a position,” Aschenbach says. “We need better social policies and better education.”
He is not lost on the joke that this same dissatisfaction with the system is what also drives voters to back Die Partei, adding: “We are two symptoms of the same problem.”
OZY’s Five questions with Max Aschenbach
- What’s the last book you read? Der Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse.
- What do you worry about? The climate apocalypse and the threat of fascism. Although the former is probably messed up forever.
- What’s your one must-have tool? A pocket knife.
- Who’s your hero? I don’t believe in heroes.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? I don’t have a bucket list. But if I did, I think it would be defeating capitalism and cleaning out my study. Seems hopeless on both counts.
- Jessica Bateman, OZY Author Contact Jessica Bateman