In Björn Höcke the German left and the international liberal media have found their perfect bȇte noire. The 48-year-old leader of the Thuringian branch of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) is the man they love to hate. Perhaps even the devil himself. Spiegel International accused the CDU in Thuringia of entering into a Faustian pact with Höcke when they voted with the AfD to elect Thomas Kimmerich Prime Minister of the region in February 2020. The FDP man resigned the following day after Chancellor Angela Merkel had the CDU in Thuringia reverse its decision to back him. The CDU eventually abstained, thereby facilitating the re-election of Bodo Ramelow of the Left Party: the successor of the East German communist party responsible for the Berlin Wall and the shoot to kill policy on the inner German border. Such are Chancellor Merkel’s preferences. Anybody except Björn Höcke and the Thuringian AfD will do. Swiss journalist Roger Köppel has commented that if you do not demonise Höcke you will be demonised yourself. Germany’s media is notorious for its groupthink and conformism and coverage of Höcke is, of course, overwhelmingly hostile. But, as we will see, his book “Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss” (Nobody Steps into the Same River Twice) published in 2018 provides invaluable insights into his actual and more complex worldview.
Höcke was born in Westphalia in 1972, the grandson of East Prussians who had been expelled from their homeland after the Second World War. He joined the youth wing of the CDU as a teenager and studied History and Sport Science in Gießen and Marburg in the central German region of Hesse and taught history for several years in a Hessian town on the border with Thuringia. He was a founding member of the Thuringian party in 2013 and was elected to the regional Parliament in 2014. Höcke’s fiery speeches and willingness to express opinions normally confined to the private sphere enabled the AfD in Thuringia to double its vote in 2019 and become the second largest party in the regional Parliament in Erfurt.
In 2015 Höcke was a key founder of Der Flügel (The Wing), a loose network within the party that demanded a more robust stance against the German political and media establishment and stronger ties to movements such as Pegida that opposed Islamification, globalism and open borders. The platform of the Wing is set out in the Erfurt Resolution signed by Höcke amongst others in 2015. The Wing gained most support in eastern Germany and its annual meeting was held at the Kyffhäuser monument built in Thuringia in 1896 in honour of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (1152-90). Legend has it that the Emperor sleeps below the Kyffhäuser hills and will one day awaken to lead a united Germany against its enemies.
When the Bundesamt für Verfassungsshutz (BfV), the German domestic intelligence service, placed the “extremist” Wing under observation in March 2020 Höcke acquiesced in calls from the national AfD leadership for the dissolution of the network. In an interview with the online magazine Sezession Höcke says he accepted the dissolution for the sake of party unity but argued that without the Wing the Alternative for Germany would not be an alternative and would have degenerated into just another establishment party at the beck and call of Merkel. The left-wing magazine Der Spiegel meanwhile attacked the dissolution as window dressing as Wing supporters continue to hold AfD membership. BfV spooks estimate that Wing supporters make up around 20% of the AfD’s 35,000 strong membership.
Loss of Heimat is a recurring theme in Höcke’s writings and interviews. His grandparents’ loss of their East Prussian Heimat (homeland) seems to have deeply affected him and in an interview with the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche he says he has never been able to bring himself to visit Königsberg (now Kaliningrad), the former capital of East Prussia annexed by the Soviet Union after the Second World War. Furthermore, in “Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss” Höcke argues loss of Heimat can occur not only through expulsion and flight but also as a result of mass immigration and population replacement: “We must care for our Heimat because we have no other”, Höcke writes.
Influenced by the ancient Greek historian Polybius Höcke takes an essentially cyclical view of history. Polybius saw a constant alternation between the three good types of constitution, namely monarchy, aristocracy and democracy and their three bad counterparts tyranny, oligarchy and ochlocracy. By “good” is meant orientation towards the public good and by “bad” is meant a fixation with self-interest. Höcke also adheres to Machiavelli’s view that decadence begins with the elite and spreads downwards: the fish stinks from the head downwards. The symptoms of contemporary decline are, in Höcke’s view, clear for anyone with eyes to see: the collapse of a sense of community, growing group egoism, the decline of patriotism, the erosion of moral and religious consciousness and the trashing of traditional values. Germany’s party based democracy has degenerated from oligarchy into ochlocracy.
In a speech in Dresden before the youth wing of the AfD in 2017 Höcke made his most controversial comments to date: “We Germans are the only people in the world that have built a monument of shame in the heart of its capital”. Höcke was referring to the Holocaust Memorial near the Reichstag building in the center of Berlin. In the ensuing political and media firestorm the AfD man stood accused of denouncing the monument and of being an apologist for the Nazi regime. He rejected the criticism claiming the attacks on him were malicious and deliberately denigratory. In a personal declaration issued shortly after the speech he stated: “Apart from us Germans no people in the world has built a memorial to mark its atrocities. Something else marks us out: we invented printing, Martin Luther began the reformation. We are the land of philosophers, poets, composers and inventors. We sometimes lose sight of this splendid cultural treasure … A sense of guilt alone cannot create a healthy identity, only a broken one.”
In Höcke’s view the West is experiencing a fully-fledged culture war between on the one side cosmopolitan universalists who dream of world citizenship and on the other national nominalists who wish to bold on to their nation states. For Höcke, the globalists form a closed transatlantic political elite whose goal is to replace national cultures with a one world ideology.
The Thuringian AfD leader himself betrays a great sense of locality and history, lauding the Middle Rhine area where he grew up for the richness of its legends and mythology: the Lorelei, the Song of the Nibelungen and Tannhäuser. In a speech before the Wing in 2019 Höcke invoked “The Road to Somewhere” in which English commentator David Goodhart argues that a faultline has emerged between those who are comfortable with globalisation, are mobile and have constructed a personal identity (Anywheres) and those who rooted, comfortable with their traditions and view territory as sacred (Somewheres).
Whatever view one takes of Björn Höcke it is impossible to deny that he is a “Somewhere.”