The Ghosts of Germany’s Past Face Off in Heartland Election

Bodo Ramelow doesn’t hesitate when asked about Thuringia’s decision to welcome 25,000 refugees from Syria and other conflict-torn nations. And the 63-year-old minister-president of the state government draws on history in his support.

After World War II, the state in what became East Germany had to absorb 850,000 “strangers,” as they were called, Ramelow reminds the audience at a campaign event in the spa town of Bad Langensalza ahead of Sunday’s elections. “They came from Silesia, and all over the former …” Interrupting, a voice booms from the back of the neat rows of chairs in the primary school auditorium: “They were GERMANS!”

“Seriously?” Ramelow calls the remark “arrogant,” launching into an explanation of how, back then, those expelled from postwar Poland were unwelcome, such that they and their Catholic churches were relegated to the outskirts of towns where they settled. When new asylum seekers arrived in 2015, the families of those 1940s refugees “didn’t talk about who’s German and who’s not,” Ramelow says. “They supported them. I’m very proud of them.”

Thuringia Confirms New Government

Bodo Ramelow, head of the leftist Die Linke party faction in the Thuringia state parliament.

Source Jens Schlueter/Getty

It’s an exchange that captures the deep divisions and painful history that are shaping the politics of the only state where Die Linke (The Left), Ramelow’s party, is leading a government. Thuringia has been a Left stronghold ever since the 1920s. In 2014, Die Linke, the descendant of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) that ruled East Germany with an iron fist, came to power in Thuringia through a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the left-leaning Green Party.  

But now, Thuringia’s most popular party is locked in a battle with a new force that’s also shadowed by the ghosts of Germany’s history: the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). In Brandenburg and Saxony, two other states where it was in power as part of a coalition, Die Linke suffered major setbacks in September state elections, while AfD made dramatic gains — though not enough to gain power just yet.

it has an echo of the 1930s.

Kai Arzheimer, political science professor

Could Thuringia be next? It was in Thuringia 90 years ago that the Nazis first entered a governing coalition. Ahead of Sunday, AfD posters around Erfurt, the capital of Thuringia, extol “Freedom of opinion,” which for many Germans is a dog whistle for the nationalism and intolerance repudiated after the defeat of Nazism.

“It’s not totally mistaken to say that it has an echo of the 1930s,” says Kai Arzheimer, a political science professor at the University of Mainz.

In the 2017 federal elections, AfD got roughly 23 percent of the vote to Die Linke’s 17 percent among Thuringia voters — a dramatic shift from the 2014 state elections, when AfD had won just shy of 11 percent of the vote against Die Linke’s 27 percent. The right-wing party siphoned away enough votes of the centrist Christian Democratic Union (CDU) nationally to threaten Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ability to build a governing coalition — but she refused to consider AfD or Die Linke as partners.

For now, the math has changed. AfD has seen its meteoric growth curve sputter as authorities report a rise in anti-Semitic and racist incidents like two live-streamed Oct. 9 killings outside a synagogue in Halle in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, just to Thuringia’s north. AfD’s critics blame its rhetoric for encouraging such violence, as well as day-to-day expressions of intolerance. Björn Höcke, Thuringia’s leading AfD candidate, has in the past called the Berlin holocaust memorial a “monument of shame” — though he has since walked back that statement.

Right-Wing AfD Political Party Holds Federal Congress

Björn Höcke of the right-wing AfD gives an interview at the beginning of the AfD’s federal congress in Augsburg, Germany.

Source Lennart Preiss/Getty

The latest polls in Thuringia are showing Die Linke with 27 percent, leading even the long-dominant CDU (26 percent) — the single largest party in 2014 — and AfD with 20 percent, according to German broadcaster ZDF. Even AfD’s state-level party spokesman, Torben Braga, admits that Die Linke isn’t “going anytime soon. … A number of voters are very loyal to them and won’t change parties just like that.”

But AfD’s thrust this year may have particular resonance in Thuringia, where the coalition-leading party talks up socialism and absorbing refugees. In 2015, thousands attending anti-immigrant rallies in eastern cities chanted “Wir sind das Volk!” (“We are the people!”) — borrowed from anticommunist rallies of the late 1980s. Now AfD hopes to harness that spirit with its slogan “Vollende die Wende.” That translates to “complete the turn,” or finish the process of German reunification that began with the Berlin Wall’s opening on Nov. 9, 1989.

Braga says that while Die Linke wants to boost support for refugees, AfD is campaigning for more police. “If we close our borders,” he says, the state will save enough money to hire 1,000 police officers. It’s the kind of logic both parties use to justify their bread-and-butter promises. Both sides promise more teachers to fill chronically empty positions. The AfD says refugees equal more crime; Die Linke says they provide much-needed labor.

With the unique opportunity Thuringia offers to actually govern rather than rail from the opposition benches, Die Linke is showing it can be “quite pragmatic,” says Arzheimer. Ramelow, for instance, admits that the SED “didn’t allow dissent and choked on its own slogans,” and Die Linke members say theirs is a socially conscious party that simply sees market-driven solutions to society’s problems as ineffective. “They’ve evolved quite a lot” in spite of their “very problematic history,” says Arzheimer.

It’s a history that Steffen Dittes, 46, knows well. Born in Weimar in Thuringia, he was 16 when the Iron Curtain fell. But the celebration was muted at home, where his mother was a teacher and his father worked for the communist party.

“It could have been a new evolution of socialism,” Dittes says, but it was instead a crash course in capitalism resulting in a crippled local economy. “That’s when I became political,” organizing and facing off with neo-Nazi youth through the tumultuous 1990s.

Now with a short salt-and-pepper beard, he’s the state-level campaign organizer for Die Linke, and he’s not happy with the evolution he’s witnessed. What were disjointed, powerless far-right groups have now “become mainstream,” he says. “They have one voice.” And it’s threatening a repeat of history — for Thuringia and Germany.