Echo of the past: Populist politics and the far right in Germany

Diana Magnay, Sky correspondent in Germany

Tommy Frenck is a well-known neo-Nazi though he doesn't call himself that.

"Just a normal-minded person with a normal political view," he says.

But the slogans on the merchandise he sells aren't all that normal. The "HTLR SCHNTZL" T-shirt, the pillow range emblazoned with "I love HTLR" and "88", a known allusion to Heil Hitler (H being the eighth letter of the alphabet). None of it technically illegal, though sharing his views on Germany's Nazi period would be, Frenck says. No comment on the period 1933 to 1945 or else he'll go to jail.

The Thuringian arm of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, are less coy. According to their analysis, Tommy Frenck's a bona fide neo-Nazi - one of around 350 in Thueringen, 5,800 across Germany as a whole. Many of them are under surveillance.

The neo-Nazi fringe have been around for decades. A threat on the peripheries that the German state has learnt to live and deal with. But Angela Merkel's decision in 2015 to open the borders to more than a million refugees has stirred up their ranks and given them common cause with the blossoming "Neue Rechte" or alt-right movement.

"We don't solve the problems of the world if we bring everyone here," Frenck tells me. "In the former East it was communist, but it was still national. But in the West the '68 generation wiped all that out. Here in the East it's still simmering in people and it'll come back out."

He's right. The mood, especially in the East, is turning. A backlash against Germany's immigration policy and a pick-up in migrant-related crime. It's very far from being just the neo-Nazis. The populist Alternative for Germany party or AfD has made huge gains off the back of its anti-migrant messaging. It is now the largest opposition party in the parliament with a loud and heckling voice to match. It is hoovering up voters disenchanted with the centrist parties and it is emboldening the extremist fringe.

The pot boiled over in August in the city of Chemnitz. A German citizen was fatally stabbed in a fight with two asylum seekers. Straight away the far right rallied, but in the days that followed thousands of concerned citizens came out too - angry that they should feel unsafe on their streets and angry at what they called the lying press for refusing to hear their point of view. "I'm not a Nazi but..." was a common refrain from people who felt that simply voicing their concerns on migration would see them labelled as such.

The mainstream media was accused of backing Mrs Merkel and being on the side of refugees. "Luegenpresse" (lying press) echoed through the streets, a term coined by Hitler's propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Not a huge leap from there to Donald Trump's "enemy of the people".

The AfD has capitalised on this kind of sentiment, stirring the pot through social media to embellish the migrant threat and playing on the notion of victimhood to further its cause. The gist of it being that the German people are both the victims of an influx of asylum seekers who threaten to destroy the very notion of the homeland and the victims of a mainstream media which seeks to besmirch their good name. Talk of rapes, the threat to German wives and daughters, "knife migration", catch on especially in the former East where contact with foreigners under socialism was few and far between.

In Chemnitz the AfD held a memorial procession for the German victims of migrant-related crime. The party's leader in Thuringia, Bjoern Hoecke, was up front. He was strongly criticised for the company he was keeping, marching alongside the anti-Islam Pegida group with neo-Nazi and skinheads among the crowds.

"With a procession of 10,000 people attending you can't fully control who's walking along and who isn't," he said.

"That is the problem with such walks, but you have to hold them to be seen as AfD because unfortunately the mainstream media boycott us."

Hoecke is at the extreme nationalist end of the AfD. He was nearly expelled from the party after he called for a 180 degree reversal in the way Germany sees its Nazi past. He questioned why Germany should have a Holocaust memorial, a "memorial to shame" as he called it, right in the heart of its capital. In the end, it was decided he could stay.

Alexander Gauland, the AfD party leader in the German parliament, has also tried to downplay the horrors of the Nazi era. "Just bird-shit in the 1000 years of successful German history", he said last June. There is a battle within the AfD between the more extreme faction on the right and the more moderate wing, so the narrative goes. But many in Germany are suspicious that the AfD is not to its core a danger to democracy.

This Sunday sees regional elections in Bavaria and the AfD is expected to win seats for the first time. The Greens are set to make gains too, all at the expense of Angela Merkel's sister party the Christian Social Union which will likely lose its absolute majority.

Ludwig Hartmann is the candidate for the Greens in Bavaria and he said: "If you look at the developments in Chemnitz where we had AfD members joining ranks with known right-wing radicals, listening to Hoecke's language which really harks back to "Voelkerisch" right wing speech with an incredibly inflammatory under-tone.

"And who wants opportunities to be decided not where someone wants to get to but where they are coming from, what country they are part of - that is not a time I want to go back to."

If the AfD win seats in Bavaria and later this month in Hessen too, they will have representation in every regional parliament in the land. Last month they walked out of the Bundestag, the German parliament, in protest at accusations of extremism. But the extremists seem to relish in their success.

"The AfD is able to reach very different layers of society, like doctors or other people who might shy away at first," says Tommy Frenck.

"Many people in high positions don't have the courage to speak their mind openly. And the AfD sticks up for those people, it can raise issues in parliament that would never have been negotiable in a debate."

I ask him if he works together with the AfD.

"I'm not going to say that in public," he replies.