AfD politician confronted about reviving ‘Nazi language’

Björn Höcke rattled by reporter’s questions about his use of terms such as ‘living space’

Björn Höcke, a former history teacher and no a politician for Alternative für Deutschland. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty

Björn Höcke, a former history teacher and no a politician for Alternative für Deutschland. Photograph: Carsten Koall/Getty

 

Five years ago Björn Höcke was a shy secondary-school history teacher. Now the 47-year-old is a senior figure in the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), expediting his political rise with the liberal use of jargon linked to the Nazi era.

On Sunday evening German public television aired an interview confronting him with his repeated use of terms such as “entartet” (degenerate). He halted the recording after the journalist declined to restart the interview.

Mr Höcke is party head in the eastern German state of Thuringia, in second place with 25 per cent in opinion polls ahead of next month’s election for a new state government.

He is also the leading light of the AfD’s extremist, nationalist wing that is gaining influence within the party.

During the interview, he was shown footage of AfD parliamentarians in Berlin being read quotes from Mr Höcke’s recent political memoir and asked if they were from him – or Adolf Hitler’s 1925 tract, Mein Kampf.

All were unsure and one said: “If I’d to guess, then more from Mein Kampf, I’d say, not from Mr Höcke.”

Watching his party colleagues struggle to separate his language from the Nazi dictator’s, Mr Höcke became visibly nervous and uncomfortable as the camera rolled. 

He dismissed claims that, as a former history teacher, he was playing with language he was well aware was loaded in Germany.

“These are all coincidences. Language cannot be linked to one particular time. All terms existed beforehand and after,” he said. “I don’t think there is one singular definition of what Nazi-era language is.”

Living space

Last year Mr Höcke gave a speech referring to “Lebensraum” (living space) – a term the Nazis used to justify their military attack on countries to the east. In another speech, in an apparent nod to the Nazis’ promise of a “thousand-year Reich”, he hoped Germany had a “thousand-year future” ahead of it.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler warns of “hebräische Volksverderber” – an antiquated term meaning “Hebrew ruiners of the people”; in 2016 Mr Höcke revived “Volksverderber” to attack the then foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel.

In a 2016 study, just a year into Mr Höcke’s political career, a western German language institute found at least 13 direct parallels between his jargon and that of the Nazis, in particular propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

That same year Mr Höcke told The Irish Times his verbal provocation strategy was carefully planned to secure attention and build political support.

“In this country’s political system, provocation is essential,” he said. “It’s not possible any other way.”

At a public rally an hour later, he told cheering supporters that chancellor Angela Merkel should be bundled out of the chancellery in a straitjacket.

‘Political correctness’

On ZDF television on Sunday night, recovering from his visible shock as the camera rolled, he suggested Germany had a “tendency . . . to narrow the opinion corridor and that is not good for our country”. 

A majority of Germans were afraid to discuss certain topics for fear of blowback from the “political correctness police”, he suggested, indicating that “something is rotten in our democracy”.

Eventually his press spokesman could be heard off camera demanding the interview be restarted so Mr Höcke would be better prepared for the questions. The journalist refused, something Mr Höcke said he might live to regret. 

Asked if this was a threat, the AfD politician said: “We don’t know what’s coming and I may become an interesting . . . political person in this country.”

Germany’s Journalist Union described the interview as “another dark chapter in the AfD’s disturbing dealings with freedom of the press in general, and critical journalists in particular”.