Björn Höcke of the AfD Goes on Trial in Germany

One of Germany’s most prominent far-right leaders, Björn Höcke, stood trial on Thursday, facing charges of using banned Nazi slogans at political rallies.

The use of National Socialist slogans and symbols is a punishable crime in Germany, which, because of the legacy of Hitler’s rise to power, has a far more restrictive approach to free speech compared to democracies like the United States.

Mr. Höcke heads the far-right Alternative for Germany, known by its German abbreviation, AfD, in the state of Thuringia. Both he and the state branch he leads have been classified by domestic intelligence as right-wing extremist and are under surveillance.

He is facing trial for using the slogan “Everything for Germany” at a speech in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, where he is being put on trial. It was the slogan of the National Socialist paramilitary group, or Storm Troopers, and was engraved on their knives.

Mr. Höcke has said he did not know the phrase was a Nazi slogan. But critics have insisted that argument is not credible, given he was a history teacher before he became a politician. And they note that AfD politicians in two other states have already been stopped by authorities in past years for using the slogan.

The trial will take place in the city of Halle, at the state’s highest court and is expected to last until May 14. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse as it began, chanting “All of Halle hates the AfD” and “Together against fascism.”

If found guilty, Mr. Höcke could face a short prison term or a fine. But more concerning for him and his party is that the court could also temporarily revoke his right to vote and run in elections. Such a decision would be a major blow during a pivotal election year in Germany, in which Mr. Höcke and the AfD are expected to gain the largest share of votes.

In all three eastern German states holding elections later this year, the AfD is the most popular party. And nationwide, it is polling better than any of the three governing parties, in spite of nationwide mass protests that erupted after an investigative report revealed some AfD members had attended a secretive conference that discussed deporting immigrants.

The start of the trial on Thursday was delayed for several hours while Mr. Höcke’s lawyers filed requests to have the hearings continuously recorded, which does not usually happen in German courts. They argued that without a full recording, Mr. Höcke, described as one of the most polarizing figures in Germany, would not receive a fair trial. The case would also have “historic relevance,” they argued, because of the AfD’s rising influence.

The AfD’s latest resurgence started last spring, when it benefited from anxieties over rising migration and frustration with the government’s poor handling of the country’s stagnating economy. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s governing coalition looked weak and divided throughout.

Although it remains unlikely that the AfD would be able to take power in one of the three states, Mr. Höcke has become one of the most influential members of his party.

Analysts say that Mr. Höcke — a politician so right-wing that a court deemed it acceptable to call him fascist — has not only succeeded in pushing his own party farther right, but also the broader political debate, particularly on issues such as migration. Germany’s biggest party, the conservative Christian Democrats, for example, has taken an increasingly hostile stance toward immigration.

Mainstream parties across the political spectrum have long vowed not to work with the AfD, and many are now looking for legal avenues to curb the party’s influence in ways that have sparked debate around how far a democracy can act against forces that undermine it.

AfD leaders like Mr. Höcke argue that they have become victims of state institutions abusing their power to silence them. He recently published comments on social media in English that attracted the interest of Elon Musk, who asked why the slogan he used was illegal.

“Because every patriot in Germany is defamed as a Nazi, as Germany has legal texts in its criminal code not found in any other democracy,” he wrote in response. “These aim to prevent Germany from finding itself again.”

A skilled orator, Mr. Höcke has often tried to reintroduce words and slogans associated with the Third Reich, in what analysts describe as a twofold strategy.

“It’s not random — it’s well chosen,” said Johannes Hillje, a German political scientist who studies the AfD.

Such terms can serve as a kind of dog whistle to more extreme right-wing supporters, he said. At the same time, Mr. Höcke chooses slogans that seem relatively banal.

At a televised debate last week, Mr. Höcke had insisted the slogan he was being prosecuted for was so common that it had been used in an advertisement by Germany’s main telephone operator, Deutsche Telekom. (The company denies this and issued a cease-and-desist order against Mr. Höcke.)

Nonetheless, Mr. Hillje said, the effect is to make state institutions seem biased against the AfD because it is an anti-establishment force.

“It allows him to play the victim, and this works well for him and for his supporters, because they also feel like victims,” he said.

Prosecutors last week successfully added a second charge against Mr. Höcke in the trial. After facing charges for his initial use of the slogan, he teased the chant at another political rally, shouting to the crowd “Everything for —” and letting supporters shout the last word, “Germany!”

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