Populist who called to end Nazi guilt can stay, says rightwing German party

Bjoern Hoecke, head of right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the German eastern state of Thuringia, speaks at a press conference.
Bjoern Hoecke, head of right-wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in the German eastern state of Thuringia, speaks at a press conference.PHOTO: EPA
Berlin's Holocaust Memorial is shown in a photo taken on Jan 18, 2017.
Berlin's Holocaust Memorial is shown in a photo taken on Jan 18, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (AFP) - German rightwing populist party AfD decided Monday not to expel a leading member over a speech criticising Berlin's Holocaust memorial and urging the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past.

The AfD (Alternative for Germany) executive board held a three-hour telephone conference in which it voted to instead impose unspecified "disciplinary measures" against Bjoern Hoecke, party chairman in the central state of Thuringia.

"The board concludes that the statements made by Bjoern Hoecke in his Dresden speech on January 17 hurt the image of the party," it said in a statement.

The AfD leadership said it would review "all legal and political aspects that are relevant" in determining what action to take against Hoecke but ruled out removing him from the party.

The measure passed 10-3 after a heated debate, sources told German media.

Amid an internal power struggle ahead of a September general election, AfD leader Frauke Petry had called Hoecke a "burden on the party" last week after his address in which he condemned the Holocaust memorial as a "monument of shame in the heart of the capital".

"We need nothing less than a 180-degree shift in the politics of remembrance," Hoecke added in the remarks to chants of "Germany, Germany".

The comments triggered an uproar, with Social Democrat vice chief Ralf Stegner accusing him of making a "hate incitement speech" - which is illegal in Germany - that called for history to be rewritten.

Germany's Central Council of Jews also expressed outrage, saying Hoecke was trampling on the memory of six million Jewish Holocaust victims murdered by the Nazis.

But AfD deputy chief Alexander Gauland, who like Hoecke belongs to the hard nationalist wing of the party, defended the politician, telling national news agency DPA that he had "in no manner criticised the remembrance of the Holocaust".

Hoecke himself Monday blasted the board's conclusions as well as the critical media coverage of his comments, which he called a "malicious and deliberately slanderous interpretation".

A poll Sunday in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper showed that 61 per cent of Germans believed the party should kick Hoecke out for his speech.

The AfD started out in 2013 as an anti-euro party but has since morphed into an anti-immigration group attacking Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal refugee policy, which brought some 890,000 refugees to Germany in 2015 alone.

The party, which also disputes the place of Islam in Germany, is polling nationwide at around 12 to 15 percent.

But an ideological split has threatened its unity, as some leaders try to ally the AfD with explicitly far-right parties in Europe.

On Saturday it hosted a European gathering of rightwing populists in the western city of Koblenz headlined by French presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.

Hoecke is viewed as one of the most right-leaning leaders of the AfD.

In December 2015, he raised hackles when he said that the "reproductive behaviour of Africans" could be a threat to Germany.