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The Man Softening the Ground for an Extremist Germany

WorldThe Man Softening the Ground for an Extremist Germany

From the small stage of a pub in a wooded town of eastern Germany, the right-wing ideologue Björn Höcke regaled a crowd of followers late last year with the tale of his imminent trial. He faced charges for saying “Everything for Germany” at a political rally — breaking German laws against uttering Nazi slogans.

Despite that approaching court date, he looked down at the crowd, and gestured to them with an impish grin. “Everything for?” he asked.

“Germany!” they shouted.

After a decade of testing the boundaries of political speech in Germany, Mr. Höcke, a leader of the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, no longer needed to push the limits himself. The crowd did it for him.

That moment crystallizes why, to his critics, Mr. Höcke is not simply a challenge to the political order, but a threat to German democracy itself.

For years, Mr. Höcke has methodically chipped away at the prohibitions Germany has imposed on itself to prevent being taken over by extremists again. It takes a tougher stance on free speech than many Western democracies, a consequence of the bitter lessons of the 1930s, when the Nazis used democratic elections to seize the levers of power.

“Everything for Germany” was the slogan once engraved on the knives of Nazi storm troopers. By reviving such phrases, Mr. Höcke’s opponents say, he has sought to make fascist ideas more acceptable in a society where such expressions are not only taboo, but illegal.

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