„Never again“ is now: What can the demonstrations against right-wing extremism achieve?

Interview with PD Dr Martin Kahl

Several tens of thousands of people protested against right-wing extremism in Hamburg city centre on 19 January 2024. Due to the unexpectedly large crowds, the police had to call off the demonstration for security reasons. (c) dpa Picture Alliance | Jonas Walzberg

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in many cities across Germany in recent days to protest against right-wing extremism. It was triggered by a report about a secret meeting of AfD politicians with leading members of the so-called Identitarian Movement and representatives of other right-wing extremist groups. Plans for the mass repatriation of migrants are said to have been discussed. PD Dr Martin Kahl is Deputy Scientific Director of the IFSH and heads the research area Social Peace and Internal Security and answers key questions on current events:

How close are the AfD and the Identitarian movement? What connections are there between the two groups?

Martin Kahl: "The AfD's federal executive board passed a resolution in 2016 rejecting cooperation with the Identitarian Movement (IB). However, the AfD of today is no longer the AfD of 2016 and there have been repeated meetings and mutual exchanges between representatives of the AfD party youth organisation "Junge Alternative" and AfD functionaries with the IB in the past and to this day. Some of them are also organised in the same associations. The IB thus operates alongside other associations and organisations in the run-up to the AfD. Terms used strategically by the IB such as "population exchange" or "remigration" are used by AfD speakers at public appearances, and "remigration" is also mentioned in the AfD party programme."

In many cities, so many people have taken part in the marches against the right in recent days that the police have had to end the demonstrations early for security reasons. What signal does this high turnout send out and what can the mass demonstrations achieve politically?

Martin Kahl: "The question of direct political impact is probably not a priority for the people who are taking to the streets right now. They want to make it clear that they do not agree with the extreme aims of the meeting in Potsdam. The demonstrations are really about sending out a signal: there are many people in Germany who strictly reject such goals, they are the majority and not the extreme right-wing circles in Potsdam and elsewhere. This creates a counter-image, but is not yet a strategy. Nevertheless, you can see the effects: The topics of right-wing extremism, mass deportations and the AfD's hostility to the constitution are currently dominating public discourse and politicians are giving more thought than before to legally permissible measures against extreme right-wing activities. The self-exposing reactions from the AfD to the demonstrations also show that they are having an effect. Whether all this will impress the party's supporters, however, remains an open question."

Is it even possible to still reach people with a deep-rooted right-wing ideological attitude with arguments?

Martin Kahl: "People with entrenched extreme right-wing attitudes cannot simply be swayed by demonstrations or arguments in any other form. This is clear from the defence with which right-wingers react to the demonstrations. Attitudes take a long time to solidify and processes of disengagement usually take just as long. In principle, changes in attitude must come from the people concerned themselves, through distancing themselves from previous thought patterns, triggered for example by irritation or disappointment in their right-wing environment, but also through changes in their own life circumstances, new friendships or partnerships, for example. People with less stable attitudes are more likely to be reached by arguments, but whether and how they work varies greatly from person to person. Close friends have a greater influence than the exchange of arguments on the street."

How do people with a conservative world view become supporters of right-wing nationalist and far-right parties?

Martin Kahl: "People with right-wing nationalist or extreme right-wing attitudes also vote for parties from the "centre" or even from the left spectrum. Ultimately, it is also a question of what is on offer: if people with such attitudes used to feel represented by the established parties or did not go to the polls because they did not feel addressed by any party, they now have something to choose from with the AfD. Attitude surveys suggest that although this party is also voted for out of "protest", many of its supporters have a cohesive far-right world view. It is not as if conservatives are now suddenly voting for the AfD, but rather that people with right-wing nationalist or extreme right-wing attitudes are migrating to the AfD. It has not helped the traditional conservative parties to take up the AfD's issues in order to win back their voters, as the AfD presents these positions more convincingly to its supporters. Rather, it seems that taking up these issues has caused a shift in the opinion corridor that strengthens the AfD. Extreme right-wing attitudes have not increased as significantly over the years as is often assumed. It is only in the past two years that a clearer increase has been recognisable. However, the AfD had already achieved electoral success before that."

There are currently loud discussions about banning the AfD. How useful would such a party ban be?

Martin Kahl: "There is a legal and a political side that needs to be considered. Legally, the question is whether a ban procedure has any chance of success. The hurdles here are very high. The failure of a ban procedure would give the AfD a boost in legitimacy. Politically, undesirable side effects must also be considered: The initiation of a ban procedure would make it easy for the AfD to portray itself as a victim and the procedure as undemocratic. This could give it further support. After a ban, there would be no fewer people with extreme right-wing attitudes. It is often argued that these people could become even more radicalised. But I think that is an open question. It is important not to lose sight of other possible courses of action beyond the question of a ban. We could start with the ideological background of the party, the associations and networks that support it and restrict its activities: for example, by banning associations or activities, entry bans for its representatives or - as far as legally possible - drying up its sources of funding."