AfD – 6 months on

On September 24, 2017, a nationalist, anti-immigration party called Alternative for Germany won 12.6 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, coming third behind the center-left Social Democrats and Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc.

The result sent shock waves through German politics and drew intense scrutiny abroad because of the country’s Nazi past. Yet attention soon moved on to the difficulties Merkel was having in forming a new government. The activities of AfD, as it’s known, took a back seat.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been any news. The party now has seats in more than a dozen regional assemblies and the national parliament. Its lawmakers have been speaking in debates, in the media and on social networking sites, voicing opinions that were previously considered beyond the pale in German politics and prompting some of its more moderate members to leave the party.

Some AfD politicians’ history has also been catching up with them in unflattering ways.

So for those who haven’t been able to follow the fate of AfD for the past few months, here’s a roundup of some of the things the party’s been up to lately.

Legal woes

  • Jan-Ulrich Weiss, a 42-year-old AfD lawmaker in Potsdam, was convicted Feb. 16 of smuggling 2.9 million cigarettes into Britain. The court concluded that he had “considerable criminal energy” and gave him a suspended prison sentence of 22 months. Along with a co-defendant he was also ordered to pay over half a million euros in taxes. He is appealing the verdict.
  • AfD politician Jeanette Ihme was convicted of incitement to hatred for calling refugees “primates.” Her party colleagues Kay Nerstheimer, a legislator in Berlin, was also convicted of incitement to hatred for describing gay people was a “degenerate species.”
  • Johannes Biesel, an AfD politician in Saarland (where the party’s local chapter has long had ties to far-right circles), posted on social media that he’d prefer 14-year-old girls over 18-year-olds. He later claimed it was a joke.
  • AfD’s leadership decided not to expel Bjoern Hoecke, the party’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia known for his firebrand rhetoric, revisionist ideas and use of Nazi language, after he suggested that Germany should stop spending so much time acknowledging its Nazi past.

Bundestag boo-boos

  • Its deputies made basic mathematical errors in their proposals for tax reform.
  • AfD proposed a bill for something the government has already done.
  • Its caucus leader Bernd Baumann voted in favor of a government motion by mistake.
  • AfD politician Sebastian Muenzmeier complained bitterly about not being allowed to join the Bundestag football team. Rival lawmakers pointed out that he’s been convicted of hooliganism.
  • When Parliament voted on whether to appoint Angela Merkel as chancellor (for a fourth term), AfD lawmakers unsurprisingly said ‘no.’ But like in any election, posting a picture of your ballot papers is forbidden. That didn’t stop one AfD lawmaker from doing so – and probably getting a €1,000 fine from the speaker.

Far-right friends

  • The party gave up all pretense of not supporting PEGIDA, the anti-Muslim group from Dresden co-founded by petty criminal Lutz Bachmann. Bjoern Hoecke (see above) recently spoke at a PEGIDA rally. Bachmann returned the favor by taking part in a Hoecke event.
  • A Bavarian lawmaker was found to employ two people associated with the Identitarian Movement, a white nationalist group that’s under surveillance by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency; turns out, he wasn’t the only one. German media have exposed dozens of regional and national lawmakers and AfD staff with Identitarian links.
  • German weekly Die Zeit counted at least 27 AfD staff in the Bundestag who are members or supporters of far-right groups. There are far-right activists in Lower-Saxony’s parliament too.
  • Even Alexander Gauland, the party’s co-leader, seems to have employed a former leader of the banned neo-Nazi group HDJ since 2015.
  • In Mecklenburg Western-Pommerania, long a stronghold of the far right, AfD’s members and supporters seem to overlap with those of extremist groups such as Blood & Honour and the nearly banned National Democratic Party (NPD).

Racism and anti-Semitism

  • Tino Chrupalla, an AfD lawmaker from eastern Germany, recently spoke at a town hall event in Oppach, where his party received 45.7 percent of the vote in last year’s election. During the event one person in the audience reportedly voiced his fear that in the new future there will only be “light brown Germans” and later referred to “our boys who were hung at Nuremberg.” Yes, he referred to Nazis as “our boys.” Chrupalla, according to the report, didn’t object, but instead jumped on the bandwagon by talking about the “Umvolkung” (race replacement) AfD fears is taking place in Germany.
  • Jens Meyer, an AfD lawmaker from Saxony, called tennis legend Boris Becker’s son a “half-N.” – then promptly blamed an unidentified member of staff for having sent the tweet. Becker is suing.
  • Wolfgang Gedeon, a regional lawmaker in Baden-Wuerttemberg known for anti-Semitic comments, criticized the Stolpersteine (‘stumbling blocs’) art project that seeks to remember Jews deported by the Nazis.
  • During a Holocaust memorial event in the Bundestag, AfD lawmaker Hansjoerg Mueller refused to stand up for a Holocaust survivor.

Despite (or perhaps because of) all of the above, AfD seems to be heading for another double-digit result in this fall’s Bavaria state election. That will swell the party coffers even further. Thanks to its election successes so far, the party is receiving a lot of public money. First, there’s money they get for each vote in their favor – worth millions a year. Then there’s the money they get for parliamentary work – millions more to pay for staff, offices etc. And finally, AfD can expect public funds for its foundation, a charitable outfit every German party has intended to further its ideological goals – in this case that’ll be ethnocentric nationalism.

A final song for Coco Schumann

I’m sure every journalist has some stories they regret not getting round to. I know I’ve got a few.

One involved a German-Jewish musician whose life story is so amazing it’s hard to understand why they haven’t made a Hollywood movie about him yet.

Coco Schumann dodged the Gestapo as a teenager, playing ‘forbidden’ swing in Hitler’s Germany, then survived three Nazi camps and became a noted musician after the war.

For years I’d planned to interview Schumann about his life, even managed to get hold of a home phone number. But somehow other work always got in the way and there was never any great interests from the editors I’d pitched the story to, which might have prompted me to cold call him. When I did, last week, nobody picked up the phone. I wrote to his agent to check that I still had the right number.

“Regrettably Mr. Schumann isn’t available for interviews anymore due to dementia,” his agent replied. On Monday, as I was lying at home with the flu, news arrived that Coco Schumann had died.

I suppose if I’d managed to speak him, I would have asked Schumann, who was born in Berlin in 1924, more about what life was like here back then. In German-language interviews he recounts his fascination with Nazi torch marches and his excitement at the prospect of Hitler Youth camping trips _ until someone made clear that he couldn’t join, because he was Jewish.

I would have asked to hear his stories about Berlin’s underground jazz scene in the 1930s, at a time when the Nazis were cracking down on “degenerate art.” In an autobiography published in 1997, Schumann wrote that he began to hang out in bars from the age of 12, and landed his first job as a musician playing the drums when he was 15. That would have been in 1939 _ the year World War II erupted and a year after the Night of Broken Glass made clear to everyone what consequences Nazi ideology would have for Jews.

And yet, Schumann, the son of a Jewish seamstress, somehow played on. As Europe was going up in flames, young Coco and his bandmates would jam through the night, always keeping two lookouts at the door to watch for men wearing the telltale leather coats and wide-brimmed hats of the Gestapo. As soon as the feared secret police appeared, Schumann told an interviewer years later, the lookouts would whistle “and we’d play a polka or some German nonsense.”

It helped that Schumann was tall and blond, but in 1943 he was summoned for deportation. Schumann was already standing in a line destined for Auschwitz when his father, who was considered ‘Aryan,’ managed to convince an officer to send his son to Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ “model camp,” instead.

Theresienstadt was a perverse spectacle created to mislead the world about what was happening in all the other concentration camps and further the lie that Jews were being treated humanely _ even allowed to have fun in their own little ghettos. Schumann, like many others, survived by playing along, but in his case that also meant performing precisely the kind of music the Nazis hated. His band _ the Ghetto Swingers _ included several famous musicians. A remarkable fragmentary recording of one of their performances was found in Israel after the war. You can hear it in this Austrian interview with Coco Schumann from about 20:30 onward.

When Theresienstadt was closed, Schumann and his bandmates were deported to Auschwitz, whose chimneys were billowing smoke when they arrived.

“We though these were factories until the SS-man accompanying us with a dog (…) said: ‘Just so you know where you are, you’re in the extermination camp Auschwitz. Here’s the entrance through the gate, and look, over there are the chimneys, that’s the exit.’ That’s when we realized why it smelled so bad. Human flesh, burning.”

Again, he somehow managed to get into a band, playing a guitar left behind by a Romani inmate who had been gassed. As death became an everyday occurrance, Schumann and his fellow musicians clung to their sanity through music.

Most of the Ghetto Swingers were murdered but Schumann was taken to Dachau, and then _ he’d contracted typhoid_ forced to march toward Austria where the Nazis planned to simply shoot the surviving detainees in a remote valley. The U.S. Army caught up with them first, just in time.

What must it feel like to have to have come so close to death so many times? From everything I’ve read and heard about Schumann, he wasn’t a bitter man. But he didn’t mince his words when it came to calling out those responsible for all the evil either. In one of his accounts of Auschwitz, Schumann described the guards as “trained monsters” who would happily consort with the camp elders _ hardened criminals who were put in charge of policing the other inmates.

“But a highly decorated Jewish surgeon who had saved countless lives was considered dirt,” he said.

Schumann’s only explanation was that our species evolved its brain faster than its heart. “We humans can fly to Mars, and we can fly to the Moon, but in the back of our minds we’ve still got the cave man’s cudgel.”

Twenty-one when the war ended, Schumann returned to Berlin and reunited with some of his old bandmates. He reportedly became the first person in Germany to play an electrically amplified guitar, spent several years in Australia, and had a flourishing career as a jazz and swing musician that lasted into the 21st century.

Schumann told his own story better than anyone else. He didn’t need another interview. Still, I wish I’d called him soon after I got that number.

How to turn carbon dioxide into fertilizer, fuel or plastic

A couple of weeks ago I wrote carbon capture, a process whereby CO2 is removed from the air and either stored safely underground or used to make other useful resources.

One of the companies working on this is Thyssenkrupp. The steelmaker has a vested interest in reducing its carbon footprint and will be opening a new CCU plant at its site in Duisburg next spring.

Here’s a diagram showing how they hope to turn carbon into a fertilizer, fuel (methanol) or plastic:

Thyssenkrupp Carbon2Chem diagram