Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Germany on Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday to demonstrate in support of democracy and against the rise a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which is on track to make political gains in state elections this year.
In towns and medium-sized cities like Düsseldorf, Kiel, Mannheim and Osnabrück, demonstrators held aloft signs that read: “There’s no Alternative to Democracy,” “Kick out Nazis” and “Voting for the AfD is so 1933,” a reference to the period in which the Nazis rose to power.
In Germany, Holocaust Memorial Day, which this year marks the 79th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviet army, is associated with the pledge “Never again.” That vow has taken on a new resonance amid the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel, a rise in antisemitic incidents in Germany, and the likelihood that a far-right party with extremist elements will gain further political power.
“I always thought that our next generation would live even more openly, more tolerantly, without fear and concerns,” said Dursiye Ayyildiz, who leads an organization that speaks out for migrants in Kiel and addressed the crowd there. “However, I can see that right-wing ideas are unfortunately being passed on — and that worries me for the next generation,” she said.
Millions in Germany have rallied in cities like Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and in smaller towns, in the past several weeks since the news emerged that a group of AfD officials had met with neo-Nazis and other far-right figures at a hotel in Potsdam to discuss the possibility of a mass deportation from Germany of millions of immigrants and others deemed to be foreigners.
On Friday night, activists lit candles to spell out the phrase “Never again is now,” in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. And Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his weekly video address, “January 27 calls out to us: Stay visible! Stay audible!” adding, “Against antisemitism, against racism, against misanthropy — and for our democracy.”
Saturday’s demonstrations drew about 100,000 participants in Düsseldorf, about 20,000 in Mannheim and about 11,500 in the northern city of Kiel, according to police estimates. Dozens of protests were staged in smaller towns and villages as well.
Similar demonstrations have also taken place in neighboring Austria, where concern has likewise grown over the influence of the far right. Tens of thousand of people protested in a pro-democracy rally outside Parliament in Vienna on Friday night, and smaller protests were held in Salzburg and Innsbruck.
Although support for the AfD has surged in Germany in recent months, the news of the meeting and the ensuing demonstrations against the far right have put the party on the back foot.
This past week, Tino Chrupalla, the party’s co-chairman, went on public television to deny that the party had approved the secret meeting. Marine Le Pen, the longtime AfD ally in France who remains a presidential hopeful there for 2027, threatened to stop cooperating with the party over the meeting. And recent polls have suggested a dent in its popularity, with the party’s support dropping to less than 20 percent of respondents for the first time in many months.
Concern over the far right’s influence in the country has also grown as investigative journalists have uncovered links between respected members of society and the extreme right. This past week, the public broadcaster ARD found that a former Berlin state politician had been giving money to the Identitarian Movement, which espouses the superiority of European ethnic groups. The movement’s chief ideologue, Martin Sellner, was one of the central players in the secret meeting and is a longtime proponent of mass deportations.
The developments have prompted many to compare modern Germany with the Weimar Republic, the fragile democracy of the 1920s and 1930s whose failure gave rise to the Nazis.
Germany’s defense minister, Boris Pistorius, drew that comparison on Saturday as he addressed a crowd of about 25,000 in Osnabrück, a town where he was mayor for seven years. He told those present that the AfD was looking to change Germany’s entire societal system.
“This means nothing other than that they want to return to the dark times of racial madness, discrimination, inequality and injustice,” Mr. Pistorius said.