BERLIN (Reuters) - Scores of senior members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party condemned on Wednesday the rising influence of a local leader who is militantly anti-immigrant and wants to highlight German over Jewish suffering in World War Two.
“We say it very clearly: the AfD is not and will not be a Bjoern Hoecke party,” the 108 members, including dozens of regional and national lawmakers, wrote in a letter to party leaders about the AfD leader of eastern Thuringia state.
Members fear his crude rhetoric may alienate conservative voters who helped the AfD enter parliament for the first time in a 2017 election in protest at Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.
Among a swathe of nationalist movements making waves across Europe, the AfD is the third largest party in Germany’s legislature and may make big gains in three regional votes later this year. But Hoecke’s role is tearing at party unity.
On Saturday, he suggested his party’s leadership was “amateur” and said the arrival of Turkish guest workers in the 1960s had “bled” Germany financially and was like “losing another war.”
Saturday’s speech was to members of the AfD youth wing, which is under intelligence surveillance in some states over suspected ties to extremists
In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, most of the 12-member AfD leadership board resigned at the weekend in protest at his increasing sway - leaving three Hoecke loyalists at the helm of the largest AfD regional chapter.
A historical revisionist, Hoecke wants schools to highlight German suffering in World War Two and called Berlin’s Holocaust memorial a “monument of shame.”
Wednesday’s letter said most of the AfD’s 35,000 registered members reject the “personality cult” around Hoecke and warned of a party split.
The AfD is expected to emerge as the biggest or second biggest party in three states after elections in Brandenburg and Saxony on Sept. 1 and in Thuringia a month later.
But the party has been shaken by a decision by the election committee in Saxony to disqualify more than two-thirds of candidates on the party’s list for the September election, citing irregularities in the selection process.
That could sharply curb the party’s influence in the Saxony parliament and makes coalition building there easier for Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who are tied in polls with the AfD.
Frictions in the AfD coincide with renewed national debate about the danger of far-right groups after the murder of a pro-immigration politician last month.
A far-right sympathizer has been charged.
Other German parties say the AfD’s verbal attacks against mainly Muslim migrants legitimize a language of hate that encourages far-right sympathizers to resort to violence.
On Saturday, Andreas Kalbitz, AfD leader in Brandenburg and a confident of Hoecke, told supporters at the event attended by both men: “Resistance is necessary in this country, otherwise we will lose this country.”
The AfD denies it harbors racist views and says its members have been victims of attacks by far-left groups.
There was no immediate reaction from Hoecke or his backers to Wednesday’s letter.
Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne