"The Many" against the AfD

Even before the mass protests against the AfD in 2024, a cultural movement was forming against the rise of the far right
Even before the mass protests against the AfD in 2024, a cultural movement was forming against the rise of the far right in Germany (image: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

Germany's right-wing AfD continues to gain ground in the polls. Many involved in the country's cultural scene fear the party will restrict artistic freedoms following the next election and have therefore launched their own campaign

By Stuart Braun

As the populist, anti-immigrant AfD (Alternative for Germany) party were rising fast in the German polls in 2023, the national culture collective "Die Vielen" (The Many) decided to act. The alliance of some 4,500 theatres, galleries and cultural institutions had been on hiatus since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But Die Vielen members saw the upcoming European elections, to be held from 6 - 9 June, along with local and state ballots and a 2025 federal vote, as an existential threat to the pluralist democracy that allows artistic expression to flourish.

Having initiated protests against the AfD in the run-up to the 2019 European elections, Die Vielen's new campaign – "Shield & Shine" – brings grassroots art collectives and curators together with high-art orchestras, stagehands, opera houses and audiences to create cultural events that double as open forums for debate. The goal, as articulated at a campaign launch in April, is to "stretch thousands of democratic protective umbrellas over all federal states" and hence neutralise the "normalisation of right-wing extremist politics in democratic parliaments".

With the AfD second in the polls, swing voters and young people, many voting for the first time, will be encouraged to join the umbrella movement – a metaphor also used by pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

In February, there were nationwide mass protests against the AfD and right-wing extremism, including in front of the Reichstag in Berlin
In February, there were nationwide mass protests against the AfD and right-wing extremism, including in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, as shown here (image: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP/picture alliance)

Fear of censorship by the AfD

Many of the 5,000-odd participants were especially galvanised to sign the "Declaration of the Many" after it emerged that AfD members sat with neo-Nazis at a secret meeting in November and called for the deportation of millions of migrants from Germany – even if they held German passports.

Mass protests ensued – also in the name of "protecting democracy" – giving impetus to Die Vielen's call to fight far-right exclusion through inclusive and creative democratic platforms. Bjoern Hoecke, an AfD leader is now facing trial for using a Nazi slogan.

There is a fear that if the AfD become the country's second-biggest party after the 2025 federal election, there could be a purge of pro-democratic cultural voices. In the eastern state of Saxony, where the AfD have long topped the polls, arts practitioners are already self-censoring their work in anticipation of wins in upcoming regional and state elections, noted Philine Rinnert, a Berlin-based Die Vielen board member.

One theatre festival in Saxony is already under threat of losing its funding, she said. Meanwhile, curators and artistic directors are concerned they could be forced out of their jobs if their work is deemed at odds with the AfD's monocultural and xenophobic agenda. 

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European elections pivotal in stopping far-right momentum

Daniel Brunet, the producing artistic director of English Theater Berlin, which has been a member of Die Vielen since its inception in 2017, said AfD members in the current Berlin state parliament have been monitoring artistic institutions by requesting "itemised lists of recipients of cultural funding". He fears potential censorship if the AfD make gains in upcoming elections. "Why precisely do they want that information, it makes us nervous," he admitted, implying a vendetta against culture organisations who promote liberal or progressive agendas.

Die Vielen has planned a "Week of Action" in early June before the European elections, where what Rinnert calls "very diverse and different art institutions" will fashion democratic umbrellas in events and performances across the country. 

Brunet is anxious that far-right political factions that include the AfD, Marine Le Pen's National Rally in France and Hungarian populist president Viktor Orban's Fidesz party – who has famously made partisan appointments in state cultural institutions – could soon dominate the European Parliament.

The English Theater Berlin wants to interrupt this momentum by inspiring greater participation in elections in which only about 60% of eligible voters cast their vote, noted Brunet.

He is concerned that the AfD, whose party's branches in eastern Germany including Saxony and Thuringia have been classified as "proven to be right-wing extremist" by the German intelligence agency, are running election ads featuring white people with slogans like "we can make Germans ourselves" – as opposed to naturalising immigrants.

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The power of TikTok

With young people aged 16 potentially allowed to vote in future elections, the Die Vielen campaign is looking to compete with the AfD to inspire the next generation to come under the democratic umbrella of "the many". "Real men are right-wing," Maximilian Krah, a right-wing extremist and the AfD's lead candidate in the European elections, said in one of a series of AfD posts aimed at young people on the video-sharing platform TikTok.

In a bid for the youth vote, Krah has cast himself as both a politician and dating expert who dolls out love advice to young men. "Real men have ideals, real men are patriots," he added in the clip. "Then you'll get a girlfriend." The video went viral.

Following complaints that Krah was also spreading conspiracy theories and racist views, TikTok restricted his channel in March 2024 and blocked some of his videos. Still, many other clips are getting hundred thousands of views; political communication experts believe the TikTok strategy could influence the vote.

For Daniel Brunet, Germany "is a beacon of hope in the EU" due to its postwar commitment to pluralism and free artistic expression, and the fact that it is a net immigrant country.

"Never again must theatres, operas and orchestras, museums, libraries, literary and cultural institutions or cinemas put their work at the service of anti-democrats and fascists", Die Vielen stated in a campaign statement that referenced the Nazi era. "It is time to take a stand against contempt for humanity and the destruction of our democratic culture".

Stuart Braun

© Deutsche Welle 2024