Germans in a “Zusammen Gegen Rechts” rally in Republic Square, Berlin, February 2, 2024 (Paul Mazet)

Sunday evenings in Berlin’s institutional district are normally tranquil. But on January 21, it pulsed with excitement. Defying a frigid breeze, masses headed towards the capital’s Republic Square, between the Bundestag and the Chancellery. They joined up to 350,000 others.

Almost two weeks later, with a slightly less challenging temperature but more rain, the people rallied again. This time, the crowd oscillated between 150,000 and 300,000.

Berliners had made a prominent appeal for the protection of democratic principles. They had established their opposition to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), after the revelation of its members participating in a secret meeting to plan mass deportation of people based on their origins, including native nationals.

And the mobilization was not just in Berlin. The success of the “Zusammen Gegen Rechts” (Together Against The Right) movement lay in local implementation beyond the metropolis, with large turnouts in the marketplaces as well as town hall plazas of smaller cities and towns.

In Birkenwerder just north of Berlin, on the evening of January 29, one anthem was the anti-inaction manifesto Deine Schuld from the punk-rock group Die Ärtze: “It’s not your fault that the world is the way it is. It would only be your fault if it stayed that way”.

Among the crowd were Holger and Gisela, from neighboring Oranienburg, and Christoph, a resident accompanied by his young family. They embraced activism by opposing the visit of AfD representative Stephan Brandner to a meeting of his party’s local branch.

Holger, Gisela, Christoph, and the 100,000s in Berlin were staking out their space against a far-right political organisation, Alternative für Deutschland, which gained 10% of votes in the last general election and had polled around 20% in recent surveys. If their challenge arose from deep concern, or even fear, there is now hope of bringing this AfD expansion to an inflection point.

Rise and Radicalization of the Far Right AfD

Founded in 2013, AfD positioned itself as the replacement for established parties. Its initial presentation — by lawyers, economists, civil servants, and other activists — was an anti-Europe project.

“The beginners of the AfD wanted to be an alternative to the government of the time, whatever that meant….But there was enormous right-wing pressure within the party,” explains Claudia, one of those demonstrating on February 3 in Berlin.

As the 2010s unfolded, marked by the historic surge in refugees, the AfD made hostility to immigration its priority. The radicalization opened way to successes: the party rose from 0 to 87 seats in the Bundestag by 2017. It maintained that level through 2021, while winning less seats, and bolstered its rise in 2023 by winning first municipal and local council votes.

As 2024 started, the investigative outlet Correctiv published the explosive story, “Secret Plan Against Germany”. The report unveiled a secret meeting in a hotel in Potsdam on November 25, with prominent business figures, neo-Nazis, and high-ranked individuals of the AfD. Among the attendees was Roland Hartwig, an aide of AfD leader Alice Weidel, and Gerrit Huy, an AfD member of the Bundestag. The gathering established a plan for the mass deportation of millions of non-nationals and Germans considered “non-assimilated” out of Germany.

Precisely documented, the long-form article underlined the echoes of German history. Martin Sellner, an Austrian neo-Nazi, suggested the allocation of territory in North Africa to receive forcibly displaced populations — a reminder of the Nazi plan in 1940 to move all Jews to Madagascar. The meeting was convened a few kilometers from Wannsee, where Nazi officials approved the “final solution” to kill millions in death camps.

The Correctiv article “scared a lot of people”, explains Gisela in Birkenwerder. The disturbing déjà-vu had rung the Nie Wieder (Never Again) moral alarm.

“We Are The Firewall”

On February 2, at the pillars of Brandenburg Gate and a few meters away at the massive Republic Square’s demonstration, there were organizations for refugee help and initiatives to assist non-nationals with difficulties in their integration. One of their representatives recalls facing increasingly anxious questions about deportation.

In Birkenwerder, beside Gisela, Holger expresses an “unspoken fear” which is now being voiced. Both cite the guilt of inaction, defined by Die Ärtze’s anthem ringing through the crowd. “We also don’t go out enough,” admit the duo.

That may be changing. The emergence of the Zusammen Gegen Rechts movement is the backlash of a silent majority in Germany, frustrated with seeing the AfD flourish on their TV screens. “I’m older, I’m not so scared anymore. But it’s about the younger generation in general,” says Claudia in Berlin.

“We are the Brandmauer (firewall)” is the recurrent motto, in signs, in chants, in paintings on faces. There is the demand to be recognized, linked to the contest against the far right’s conspiracy theories. “I’m not an image manipulation. I was there a fortnight ago, and a lot of people were there,” reads Claudia’s cardboard sign.

Far-right activists and high-ranked politicians such as Björn Höcke, had cast doubt on footage of one of the movement’s landmark demonstrations – a gathering of 180,000 in Hamburg, on January 19. Many debunked those deceitful far-right’s allegations of inconsistencies in pictures. “We are not fake news,” says Claudia bluntly.

In being seen, the demonstrators are animating the risk of the present through the refrain of the past. The loudest chant in Birkenwerder and Berlin is “Nazis Raus (Nazis Out)”.

The Importance of the Local Rallies

Inside Birkenwerder City Hall, the AfD’s Stephan Brandner may have been struggling to be heard. Outside, the music, slogans, whistles, and rattles resounded, growing louder when a car brought a guest to the door of the administrative building’s door. “Don’t feel secure, don’t feel comfortable”, as Christoph puts it, was the message to the far-right party’s officials from the southern Brandenburg region.

They had gathered for a “citizen dialogue”, an expression questioned by demonstrators who said the phrase had lost its meaning.

One of those protesters was Torsten Lindner, the president of Mit Courage (With Courage). This association, promoting democratic values and fighting racism in several of Brandenburg’s communities bordering northern Berlin, organized the January 29 rally.

Mit Courage regularly opposes AfD policies through discussions, displays, and gatherings. For Lindner, the Correctiv’s report had “not brought anything new to light” about the underlying racism and danger of AfD and its leaders. But it had “shaken many people up again” — a popular reaction channeled by the democratic association that evening.

Stephan Zimniok has been Birkenwerder’s mayor since 2015. Last year, he was returned to office with 70% of the vote. As Brandner and his fellows trampled the town council’s hallways, Zimniok stood among the protestors both as a local representative and as a citizen defying AfD: “I talk to the people and explain why they [AfD representatives] are allowed to be there. They are still an authorized party in Germany. They are allowed to be there.”

But that legal responsibility does not mean indulgence of a party claiming 10% of voters in the Bundestag elections in 2021. “We just have to take to the streets. We have to be there. We have to show them that we don’t want them, the Nazis, here.”

In Berlin’s Republic Square, Claudia and Silvia express their gratitude to people like those in Birkenwerder.

You’re anonymous here, thinking “nothing happens to me”. But, in smaller communities, everyone knows each other. People are conscious of who flock to the streets shouting “Nazis raus”. This can have consequences: in encounters while shopping, in the relationship between neighbours, at work with colleagues, or even among the kids at school.

“You risk more when you take part in demonstrations in Thuringia or Saxony,” they note.

Implementing “Nazis Raus”

But how can “Nazis Raus” be set in motion with respect to AfD?

Marco Wanderwitz, a Christian Democrat member of the Bundestag, Parliament, is trying to convince the needed 5% of his colleagues to begin the process of banning AfD. More than 800,000 citizens have signed petitions for a possible interdiction.

But many protesters believe a ban would boost AfD, rather than solving the problem of far-right populism. Holger and Gisela fear that the interdiction would nurture anger, meaning that “people will then vote even more” for the extremists. Mayor Zimniok says, “I believe that the AfD likes to feel like a victim in its Opfermäntelchen [a ‘victimhood coat’],” cloaking its extremist image. Mit Courage’s Lindner does not rule out the ban but says, “It will take years to decide whether that will go through in court.”

An alternative is to concentrate on individual politicians, such as Björn Höcke, AfD’s leader in its strongpoint of Thüringen — an “official fascist”, according to Claudia and Silvia.

In Birkenwerder, Holger confides, “He is really a Nazi”. Meters away, a sign asks, “Björn, where is your moustache?”, putting Hitler’s on a photo of Höcke.

Almost 1.700.000 people have signed a petition asking the Federal Government to start proceedings in the Constitutional Court, under Article 18 of the German Constitution, to remove Höcke’s eligibility and capacity to exercise a public mandate. “Björn Höcke is a truly dangerous enemy of the liberal democracy,” the petition asserts.

The stakes are high: with AfD garnering up to 30% in polls about voting intentions, the politician wanting to do a “180-degree reversal on the [Holocaust] politics of remembrance” could gain the premiership of Thüringen in the next elections.

Republic Square, Berlin, February 2, 2024

“This Has to Continue”

Lindner reflects:

The important thing, I think,…is that people finally start to become active again….We have to understand that democracy is everyday work; that you have to be very active every day….

I hope that many people have now understood that you have to disagree, especially in everyday life, when right-wing slogans are advocated.

In a morass of concerns, the turnout in the Zusammen Gegen Rechts rallies is bringing a glimmer of that prospect. Christoph says in Birkenwerder, “There is perhaps a little hope because there have been so many people on the streets against the AfD since last week.” Claudia and Silvia echo in Berlin, “There is always hope when a lot of people come together and speak out.”

Lindner smiles as he watches the rally he organized with his colleagues, “This is definitely good. I have rarely seen so many people in Birkenwerder.” After he finishes discussions with the last of the demonstrators, Zimniok comes back home “very proud”: “Today the fear has become a little less.”

The hope is also developing as the polls give signs of AfD setbacks. At the start of January, the party had a high-water mark of about 23% in surveys of voting intentions for the next Bundestag elections in autumn 2025. As February unfolded, it was at 19% to 20%. When the figure was announced at the Berlin protest, the crowd cheered loudly.

Claudia urges, “This has to continue,” as Germany enters an intense year of voting. By her side, Silvia completes the thought, “It’s good if it’s regular. That has a different signalling effect”.

In Birkenwerder, Holger and Gisela hold up signs, “Nur Kamele brauchen Höcker (Only camels need bumps)”, a play on words evoking the AfD’s Höcke.

The duo underline both a specific target and a wider message: a healthy society does not need those politicians singling out and threatening “others”. Instead, the call should be for humanity, in a country that knows all too well the consequences of politically-structured hate and a public passivity allowing it to thrive.