Björn Höcke interview: Cologne a ‘tipping point’ for Germany

Hard-right AfD politician Höcke believes Merkel must review her policies about refugees

Björn Höcke has had quite a year, successfully surfing Germany’s growing immigration wave as the most provocative politician in the hard-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

A 43-year-old teacher and self-described “concerned citizen”, he entered politics in 2013 and last year led the victorious AfD into Thuringia’s state parliament in Germany’s east.

As 1.1 million people sought asylum in Germany last year, Höcke has perfected a unique political sound and style of provocation.

He appals some and appeals to others, including national conservative voters who feel abandoned by the centrist politics of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

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Political pressure over migration was already building on CDU leader Angela Merkel, but that has intensified exponentially since the physical and sexual attacks on women in Cologne on New Year's Eve, with asylum applicants reportedly among the perpetrators.

An opinion poll on Friday found 51 per cent of respondents thought Merkel's migration policy mistaken. Bild asked on its Sunday front page, "Is Merkel still the right one?"

Höcke believes Cologne is Germany’s tipping point after decades of stilted public debate, drenched in what he calls a “mildew” of postwar political correctness.

"People were already dissatisfied with a lack of freedom of thought and speech here, and mainstream politicians and media were afraid to speak the obvious for fear of breaching the PC rules they created," he told The IrishTimes.

Höcke and the AfD spent most of last year warning that migration of 1.1 million people – including many young Muslim men – would eventually go wrong.

“That it happened so quickly, I wouldn’t have thought that,” he said.

With Germany’s borders still open, he says Germany will “unfortunately see other events this year that recall Cologne”.

Merkel’s plight

When Merkel was written off in the past, she has either performed a daring political U-turn, or plundered her opponents’ policies. What’s to stop her doing the same now: closing Germany’s borders and stealing the AfD’s law-and-order clothes?

Höcke believes Merkel is trapped in a no-win situation: either the estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants in Germany will resurface in 2016 and drive away further right-wing voters, or ugly images of forced deportations and closed borders will erode her centrist support.

“Public frustration with mainstream politicians has reached a point where they can no longer reclaim their credibility,” he said.

Höcke’s rapid rise has been driven by a series of well-calculated controversies. Last October he attracted a blizzard of headlines when he produced a German flag on television and laid it on the arm of his chair during a talk-show appearance.

His public speeches are so full of volk und vaterland language that German television ran a quiz – generating further free publicity – asking viewers which quotes were his and which originated with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.

Provocative language

The provocation peak came with his warning that Africans had “life-affirming expansionist” policies that would eventually overwhelm the “self-negating European” culture.

Other AfD leaders attacked his remark as openly racist, but Höcke enjoys walking a tight line of provocation.

At a Wednesday-night rally in Erfurt, Höcke called on Merkel to change path on migration – or be bundled from office in a straitjacket.

It was another of the calibrated provocations he deploys to ensure media coverage. Another is his thesis that “Germany is not up for negotiation”, and the argument that Germany can only survive by welcoming immigrants who share its values, not a religion like Islam with an “archaic attitude to women”.

When I ask what he thinks of T-shirts from the Pegida group bearing the word "Rapefugees", he says: "That is a sweeping statement that I reject."

As striking as his political arguments is the contrast between his wide-eyed political persona and his soft-spoken private self.

As our interview wraps up, Höcke seems surprised that no one in Germany has yet seen through his strategy to gain attention and build political support.

“I am actually a remarkably introverted person, not extrovert at all,” he said.

“But I have had to learn that, in this country’s political system, provocation is essential. It’s not possible any other way.”