A whiff of Weimar hangs over German politics. That was the growing consensus in Berlin's corridors of power on Thursday as political parties struggled to recover from a shock vote in the eastern state of Thuringia.
For the first time in the country’s post-war history, a mainstream political party accepted far-right backing in its bid for power, when liberal politician Thomas Kemmerich was elected state premier on Wednesday with the support of three parties: his own Free Democrats, the centre-right CDU and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland.
Kemmerich stepped down 24 hours later, but for many his election in the first place was a breach of the “never again” lesson of the political mistakes that led to the Nazi era. With that, they see the first cracks in post-war Germany’s firewall that forbids – no ifs or buts – political co-operation with extremists.
Experiment in democracy
Thuringia's picturesque capital Erfurt is just 20km from the state's equally pretty second city Weimar, in 1919 the birthplace of an interwar republic that still bears its name. After wartime defeat and the kaiser's abdication, Germany's first experiment in democracy started with high hopes a century ago but collapsed just 14 years later.
External economic shocks exacerbated internal structural weakness and, after elections in January 1933, German conservatives did a fatal deal to share power with Adolf Hitler’s far-right National Socialists. The fascist genie was out of the bottle and a long slide into the abyss began.
Today's Germany is – politically, economically, socially – light years from Weimar, but the shock caused by Wednesday's vote has awakened fears of old demons and rattled Germany to its political core.
The vote has strained the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), exposed leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's authority deficit and highlighted her party's unresolved internal identity crisis: continue coalitions with the centre-left or shift right?
Alternative für Deutschland
The other big victim of the Thuringian farce is the Free Democrats. Ending its power grab after just 24 hours makes fools of its local politicians and exposes its federal leader Christian Linder as a failed mini-Machiavelli.
The big winner of this perfectly engineered political storm is its mastermind, Alternative für Deutschland. Founded seven years ago as an anti-bailout party, it now sits in all of Germany’s 16 parliaments.
The AfD’s influential Thuringian leader Björn Höcke is pushing the party’s final transformation into a populist, nationalist, xenophobic, far-right party. It can only gain from the fallout from Wednesday’s vote. After wrong-footing its political rivals, and triggering a political crisis with its latest manoeuvre, it can now return to voters, presenting itself as a victim of Germany’s decadent political elite.
The Weimar playbook is back in business.