Halle an der Saale, Germany (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) –– On the morning of April 18, in front of the district court in Halle, it became evident that not many people had taken up Björn Höcke’s invitation to support him before a trial. Höcke, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the central-eastern state of Thuringia and power broker at the national level, had unusually posted in English on his “X” account (Elon Musk’s rebranding of Twitter) on April 6. He had done so to invite people “to come to Halle and witness firsthand the state of civil rights, democracy and the rule of law in Germany.”

Outside the court, at most twenty people could be counted as being there to support Höcke at some point during the morning. In their conversations, they complained that the procedure against Höcke was politically motivated. This had been Höcke’s message from the very beginning. Meanwhile, around 600 demonstrators had protested against the radical right politician earlier on the morning, before the start of the judicial process. There will be hearings until mid-May, but it is already clear that the most severe punishment for Höcke would be the payment of a fine. 

Höcke, who rivals Donald Trump in his mastery of self-victimization, failed to explain in his initial “X” post why he had to appear before a court in Halle. The AfD politician, who can be openly described as a fascist according to a German court, had to answer for his use, on at least two occasions, of the slogan “Alles für Deutschland” (Everything for Germany). The phrase was employed by the paramilitary National Socialist group SA (“Sturmabteilung”, or Storm Division). Using National Socialist slogans and symbols is a punishable crime in Germany. 

Höcke, a former history teacher, promised he did not know the origins of the slogan. His repeated use of expressions with strong National Socialist connotations, such as “entartet” (degenerate) or “Volkstod” (death of the nation) in public speeches and his 2018 book, belie this claim. Furthermore, the German sociologist Andreas Kemper has long established that there are striking parallels between Höcke’s public statements and different articles that appeared under the pseudonym Landolf Ladig in neo-Nazi publications more than a decade ago. One of these articles argued that Germany had been forced into a “preventive war” in 1939. 

The lack of open support for Höcke in front of the court in Halle was all the more embarrassing because the radical right politician had been given an incredibly powerful loudspeaker by Elon Musk, the billionaire and owner of Twitter/ “X”  since October 2022. Musk reacted to Höcke’s “X” post denouncing what in his eyes was a restriction on freedom of speech and asked him, “What did you say?”. After Höcke explained he had said “Everything for Germany”, Musk asked why the phrase was illegal. “Because every patriot in Germany is defamed as a Nazi, as Germany has legal texts in its criminal code not found in any other democracy,” replied Höcke. He forgot to add that no other democracy is the successor state of a regime that killed 6 million Jewish people and set the European continent on fire, with up to 20 million deaths in six years in Europe alone. 

Al Jazeera English Video: “German far-right politician on trial for alleged use of banned Nazi slogan”

Höcke has made abundantly clear in public statements how he understands Germany’s National Socialist past. He has referred to the monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin as a “monument of shame” and said that history is not black-and-white when asked to comment about Nazism. Elon Musk’s apparent support for Höcke should not come as a surprise given their shared antisemitic and Islamophobic views. The South African businessman has launched antisemitic tropes against Hungarian-American billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. According to Musk, Soros “wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.” The AfD, like so many other far-right movements around the world, has also targeted Soros. Furthermore, Musk recently espoused the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jewish communities push “hatred against Whites.” Musk’s Islamophobia does certainly not lag behind. The “X” owner agreed with a far-right blogger who said France has been conquered by Islam. Again, Musk’s Islamophobia is a perfect fit for the AfD. The party was accurately described as having “a manifestly anti-Muslim program” by an independent commission established after a right-wing terrorist killed nine people with a migration background in Hanau in February 2020. 

Musk and the AfD have supported each other in the past. In September 2023, the billionaire criticized the German government’s funding of NGOs rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and called people to vote for the AfD. Three months later, the co-leader of the AfD, Alice Weidel, said Musk’s takeover of Twitter was good for “freedom of opinion in Germany.” One of the deputy leaders of the AfD group in the German parliament, Beatrix von Storch, has supported Musk in his ongoing confrontation with the Brazilian Justice Alexandre de Moraes. The judge is demanding that “X” close accounts spreading fake news in Brazil. Since then, Musk has become a hero for the Brazilian far-right backing former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. 

The mutual sympathies between Musk and German-speaking far-right radicals also extend to the Austrian political scene. According to Harald Vilimsky, a member of the European Parliament for the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Musk’s overtake of Twitter represented an end to censorship. The FPÖ, founded in 1955, has a far longer history than the AfD, established in 2013. Their political programs, however, defend similar far-right positions and both parties are members of the Identity and Democracy Party group in the European Parliament, one of the two far-right groups at the European level.

Meanwhile, in March 2024, Martin Sellner, the leader of the radical right group Identitarian Movement in Austria, was interrupted by the local police while delivering one of his racist speeches in the small Swiss municipality of Tegerfelden, close to Germany. When Sellner posted about the police action against him, Musk replied by asking whether this was legal. Sellner, taking a page from Höcke’s self-victimization, said that “challenging illegal immigration is becoming increasingly riskier than immigrating illegally.” The local police were simply enforcing a legal provision that allows them to force people out of the region if they “behave in a prohibited manner.” Sadly enough, Sellner is used to spreading his racist propaganda with impunity.

Martin Sellner and the Identitarian Movement’s hatred against migrants knows no limits. This transnational group of radicals hired a ship in 2017 to prevent NGOs in the Mediterranean from assisting boats in distress. Once they ran into technical problems, the Identitarians were helped by Sea Eye, a German NGO that normally rescues migrants instead of radical racists. The Identitarians have directly benefited from Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. After Musk bought the company, Sellner’s account on the social platform, and also that of his Identitarian Movement, were reinstated. Twitter had blocked the accounts in 2020 as they violated the rules to prevent the promotion of terrorism and violent extremism that the social platform had in place back then. In his first post after his Twitter account was reinstated, Sellner explicitly thanked Musk for “making the platform more open again.” Sellner was denied entry to the United States in 2019 because he had a $1,700 donation from the right-wing terrorist who killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, also in 2019. 

In January 2024, the independent German investigative platform Correctiv reported that Sellner had presented his proposals for the deportation of millions of migrants with foreign citizenship and Germans with a migration background in a secret meeting in November 2023. The encounter in Potsdam, organized by two German businessmen, counted with the participation of Roland Hartwig (who at the time was the personal aide of the AfD co-leader Alice Weidel) and Ulrich Siegmund, the AfD parliamentary leader in Saxony-Anhalt. Some members of the “Werteunion” (Values Union), an ultra-conservative group within the center-right CDU, were also in attendance. The findings by Correctiv finally led the CDU to cut its ties to the “Werteunion”. 

The lack of open displays of support for Höcke in Halle last week was comforting. Even more positive were the mass protests against the far-right politician and the AfD in front of the court. However, recent polls in both Germany and Austria are reason for great concern. The AfD would currently receive around 18% of the votes and finish second in an election to the German parliament. Meanwhile, its Austrian counterpart, the FPÖ, would be close to 30% of the national vote and emerge as the strongest party. Austria will vote this autumn, whereas elections in Germany should take place at the end of 2025. 

In both Germany and Austria, as well as in other countries such as the United States and Brazil, the far-right is benefiting from Musk’s support and open-door policy to radicals on “X.” Needless to say, though, Musk is just offering a new platform to very old ideas. The far-right’s threat would hardly be less serious if the billionaire had a sudden political conversion. What to do, then? One of the banners at the demonstration against Höcke in Halle pointed to the holistic approach that will be needed to counter the far-right. The banner read “AfD Stoppen! Juristisch, Politisch, Gesellschaftlich.” In English: “Stopping AfD! Judicially, Politically, Socially.”