A secret meeting had been held. Fascists, conservatives, and businessmen had bonded.
They’d gotten together to hash out how to make Germany German again.
If the conclave’s organisers had given some thought to the optics, they might have selected any number of less loaded locations to do so.
For those not hip to the German far right, a mini-conference took place last November at a hotel in Potsdam, near Berlin.
Gernot Mörig, a dentist from Dusseldorf with a sideline in neo-Nazi activism, organised it.
The keynote speaker was Martin Sellner, a former law student and fixture in the Identitärer (Identitarian) movement in his native Austria.
To call Sellner a brownshirt would be the understatement of the decade.
Among the other attendees were members of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the fastest-growing party in Germany.
These included Roland Hartwig, a close associate of AfD leader Alice Weidel, and a member of AfD’s Bundestag delegation, neither of whom was doing much to burnish their party’s non-Nazi credentials.
The rest were a mixed bag of the usual suspects, including members of Werteunion (Values Union), the CDU’s AfD-adjacent internal pressure group, which favours a future tie-up of the two parties.
And then there were figures like Alexander von Bismarck and Henning Pless, who can be relied upon to turn wherever the far right rhetoric is being dressed up to sound civilised.
Thanks to the journalists at CORRECTIV, we have a thorough account of what happened there.
Much that was unseemly, certainly. But the central point was Sellner’s paean to what Germany could be if only it could eliminate the foreigners that make up nearly 20% of the population.
If this seems like a familiar and rather regrettable road already travelled in Germany, that would be a fair assessment.
Discerning readers will have noted the back-handed reference above to the Wannsee Conference, held on 20 January 1942, in a posh western suburb of Berlin.
There, the practicalities of the mass extermination of European Jewry were worked out.
The attendees in Potsdam were discussing measures that were much less bloodthirsty than those mooted eighty years previously.
But they are brutal nonetheless and evince a similar cast of mind, simultaneously vacuous and paranoid, to that which gave birth to fascism’s depredations.
Sellner is a devotee of Renaud Camus’s white nationalist Great Replacement conspiracy, in which immigrants are engaged in the wholesale destruction of European Menschtum.
The watchword for Sellner’s talk, according to CORRECTIV, was “remigration”.
First used by the French Front National in the early 1980s, the concept comes down to getting asylum seekers, foreigners, and “non-assimilated citizens” to voluntarily depart.
They might go back to where they came from, or some other haven (in some other place) might be found for them.
The latter sounds eerily like the notorious Madagascar Plan, mooted quite seriously by the SS, which would have seen Jews deported there en masse.
Clearly, one should not take the comparison to Nazism too far. Not everything is fascism, and there are even variations within the extreme right.
Still, at a certain point, those differences start to become academic. The thought is father to the deed.
The fact that this event is getting traction with a party likely to earn more than 20% of the vote in the upcoming elections and with the Christian Democrats (CDU) is alarming.
The underlying mindset that gives rise to such talk has an obtuse and extremely cynical dimension.
To the extent that it is meant seriously, voluntary remigration involves a startling failure of empathy, or comprehension, or both.
Right-wingers who get worked up about refugees seldom manage to consider precisely how bad things would have to get before they would pull up stakes and leave the country.
The idea that Germans who have never been to the countries their families originally came from are going to want to return there is equally preposterous.
Such proposals say more about the people who make them and how desperate they are to subordinate minorities. It’s a disingenuous rhetorical move.
But it comes from a very real place. Although AfD disclaims any racist or violent intent, its members genuinely believe that white European culture is threatened with destruction.
The fact that a news organisation was given a full itinerary of the proceedings in time to cover it indicates a lack of thoroughness regarding op sec.
The supposed secrecy of this event could very well have been of the nudge and a wink variety.
Being seen in the company of the Nazi-adjacent was probably not a positive outcome for the CDU members in attendance.
Despite its fears of haemorrhaging votes to the right, the centre-right party retains its foothold on the more moderate end of German conservatism.
The CDU is still institutionally capable of distinguishing itself from Nazis. This cannot be said of AfD.
For Alternative für Deutschland, the publicity value of this event is considerable.
That the substance of what was discussed was nothing more than a rehash of tired, xenophobic nostrums doesn’t come into consideration. This passes for progress in fascist circles.
Whether this spectacle will have the desired effect remains to be seen.
Several of the state-level AfD organisations have already been designated extremist by German courts, and the party needs to exercise caution at the national level to avoid being sanctioned further.
The reasons why this kind of rhetoric has the effects that it does are not hard to find.
At the “elite” level of the AfD, it is a mix of cynicism and paranoid delusion.
For party members of lesser means, it resonates with the anxieties of a no-growth economic cycle and a more diverse cultural environment.
The sad fact is that few ideas are so depraved that they cannot win assent under the right conditions.
You might look at Nazism and think, “Well, that’s obviously bad to the point of being a defining point of badness.”
Yet survey data showed that even in the mid-1950s, a significant minority of Germans thought that National Socialism was a good idea poorly realised.
Whether the failures resulted from too much brutality or too little was not recorded in the responses.
By the same token, one might think that more recent instances of ethnic cleansing (in the Balkans, for example) would serve as an implicit refutation. Well, not so much.
The challenge in Germany is to empower people to treat others empathetically rather than fantasising about how great things would be if everybody were assimilated and brown faces factored out.
The key feature of this event, which must be most rigorously addressed, is the mainstreaming of extremity.
Martin Sellner is, or should be, a world away from the politics of anyone associated with the CDU.
That some on the party’s right-wing have no problem with putting together a marketing strategy for xenophobia says the Christian Democrats have lost their way.
It’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. As we can see today, it’s happening all over again.
Photograph courtesy of conceptphoto.info. Published under a Creative Commons license.