The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is gaining ground in opinion polls. The fears among the populace and economic turmoil caused by the war in Ukraine are partly to thank for this recent popularity, but so too are AfD’s years of efforts to infiltrate the backbone of Germany’s civil society: volunteer fire departments.
Part of Germany’s social beating heart
Germany has over 1.3 million firefighters, a substantial portion of the nation’s 84 million citizens. Of these, over a million are volunteers, along with an additional 270,000 junior firefighters. Germany is unique in this regard; in few other European nations do volunteers provide such a great share of fire protection.
Fire control in Germany would fall apart without the volunteer work of firefighters. Their activities extend beyond providing vital fire safety. Volunteer fire departments are the social beating heart of the nation, driving community life, especially in rural areas. For example, they organize fairs and other recreational events. In Germany, where around 40% of the population older than 14 commits to volunteerism, volunteer fire departments are a nationwide pillar of civic engagement.
Due to their deep-rootedness in German society, zealous conservative actors have cast an eye on volunteer fire departments to penetrate into the center of society. According to the former president of the German Fire Brigades Association, Hartmut Ziebs, 10,000 extremists have infiltrated volunteer fire departments, and a 2021 government report on the threats to the constitution counted as many as 34,000.
A long list of far-right incidents
Inevitably, the list of extremist incidents in volunteer fire departments is long. This year, five firefighters in Leonberg, a town in Germany’s southwest, chanted politically charged slogans over the fire truck’s loudspeakers. Berlin’s fire department discharged a former volunteer after he repeatedly spouted racist slurs at fellow members. In 2021, in the wake of incidents of racism in the volunteer fire department of the northern German city of Bremen, an investigative report by the Bremen Higher Regional Court stated that racial slurs, down to the most extreme “are used at almost every station“ with varying frequency.
Earlier this year, extensive research by the German magazine Stern revealed the magnitude of extremist infiltration in volunteer fire departments. Some firefighters perform the Nazi salute. Some use slurs targeting Middle Eastern people among colleagues. One police station in Cologne has the birthdays of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Eva Braun noted on the calendar. Stern’s research triggered a fierce backlash. The magazine received countless hateful letters and hostile comments on social networks. It proved that criticizing German volunteer fire departments is stirring up a hornet’s nest, hitting a sore spot of the country’s civic soul.
A thriving environment for the far-right
The overwhelming, and partly concerted, backlash is a glimpse into the organizational culture that attracts radical actors to fire departments. A tomboyish and comradely esprit de corps, clear hierarchy structures and authoritarian communication styles are compatible with right-wing extremist views of society.
Equally enticing to these zealots is the demographic composition of firefighting units. According to the latest Volunteer Survey of 2019, less than 1% of fire department members were of immigrant origin. In light of Germany’s population’s 26% share of people with an immigrant background at the time, this represents a glaring under-representation. Meager ethnic diversity is complemented by a low proportion of women in German fire departments, at just 10.5%.
The unabating dominance of “white heterosexual men from the working class“ in fire departments is by no means a merely unmediated result of external factors; it also stems from an internal skepticism of change. Volunteer fire departments operate largely under the state’s radar, and measures that could help combat the lack of diversity, like complaints offices in the event of racist or sexist incidents, are rare. Hence, volunteer fire departments are fertile ground of influence with little supervision for these radicals.
Strategic advances from the AfD
Unsurprisingly, AfD has zeroed in on volunteer fire departments to gain political power. The strategy seems to have paid off: AfD recently reached a historic peak of 21% in opinion polls, only trailing the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU).
As early as 2017, AfD formulated a strategy as to which lobbying in civic organizations “is important to anchor the AfD in the middle of society and gain access to expert knowledge. … AfD members must also be encouraged to participate in associations or to use their association membership discreetly but consciously for the AfD.“ In another internal strategic paper from 2019, the AfD explicitly classifies volunteer fire departments as nationwide organizations with strong membership bases, regarded as “affiliated to the AfD.“
Complementing the strategic personnel infiltration of volunteer fire departments are legislative proposals from AfD intended to portray the party as their only true advocate. The AfD state associations of the eastern German states of Saxony and Thuringia, both electoral strongholds of the party, proposed an increase in firefighters’ pensions: “As a sign of our recognition and gratitude for the fact that the women and men of the volunteer fire department have risked their health and their lives … we demand that the benefits from the fire department pension for those who work on a volunteer basis be increased.“
Not only are AfD’s advances appreciated by some members, but they are also reciprocated by fire departments at regional leadership levels. In September 2020, the Thuringian Fire Brigades Association invited Björn Höcke, the AfD parliamentary group leader in the state parliament of Thuringia, to deliver the welcome address at their annual meeting. Höcke is considered the enfant terrible of AfD and the most prominent representative of the party’s far-right wing. Due to his ultra-nationalistic statements and use of Nazi vocabulary, he has been under surveillance by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution since the beginning of 2020.
Standing up for democracy
In December 2019, Hartmut Ziebs resigned under ominous circumstances as president of the German Fire Brigades Association. Prior to his resignation, he publicly warned that fire departments were being infiltrated by the nationalist views of AfD. Zieb’s warning caused ripples in the departments, prompting both support and outrage. Although numerous members jumped to his side, Zieb received countless hate messages and death threats. His statements sparked a power struggle at the leadership level of the firefighters’ associations. “Intrigues and obstructions to [his] work“ led to his resignation, according to Ziebs: “I did not correctly assess that I might have had one or two people close to me who felt a certain affinity for the AfD.“
Radical infiltration attempts and incidents of racism have been known to German fire departments for decades. The internal diversity and anti-racism campaigns have fallen flat given lackluster public demarcations against the zealots from within, as Ziebs stresses: “I would like to see a sensitivity … for the dangers to our democracy.” He called for “fire department commanders to be assertive and always explicitly stand behind the constitution.”
Moreover, Germany’s government has failed to grasp the mantle and take this danger more seriously. In a parliamentary question in 2021, the leftist party Die Linke enquired as to “what knowledge [the government has] of suspected cases of right-wing extremism among members of volunteer fire departments, professional fire departments, or plant fire departments.“ The government’s response was sobering, stating that, with two exceptions, it did not know of any further incidents.
AfD’s intrusion into volunteer fire departments should warn Germany’s other democratic parties in the Bundestag to pay more attention to civic organizations outside election campaigns. Civic engagement, whether in volunteer fire departments or elsewhere, contributes to a vibrant democracy. Conversely, neglecting civic organizations can turn them into darkrooms of extremist machinations.
History offers Germany’s democratic parties a stark lesson. The infiltration of civic organizations by right-wing extremists was a precursor to the destabilization of Weimar democracy and the rise of totalitarianism.
[Lee Thompson-Kolar edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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