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Prominent figure in German far-right party stands trial over alleged use of Nazi slogan

German far-right politician of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Bjoern Hoecke, centre, attends his trial in the state court in Halle, Germany, Thursday, April 18, 2024.  (Fabrizio Bensch/Pool via AP) German far-right politician of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Bjoern Hoecke, centre, attends his trial in the state court in Halle, Germany, Thursday, April 18, 2024. (Fabrizio Bensch/Pool via AP)
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HALLE, Germany -

One of the most prominent figures in the far-right Alternative for Germany party went on trial Thursday on charges of using a Nazi slogan, months before a regional election in which he is running to become his state's governor.

Björn Höcke, 52, is the leader of the regional branch of Alternative for Germany, or AfD, in the eastern state of Thuringia and a powerful figure on the party’s hard right.

While never formally a national leader of AfD, the former history teacher has been consistently influential as the 11-year-old party has steadily headed further right and ousted several comparatively moderate leaders.

At the trial at the state court in Halle, he is charged with using symbols of unconstitutional organizations. He is accused of ending a speech in nearby Merseburg in May 2021 with the words “Everything for Germany!”

Prosecutors contend he was aware of the origin of the phrase as a slogan of the Nazis' SA stormtroopers.

Using symbols of unconstitutional organizations can carry a fine or a prison sentence of up to three years. Four court sessions have been scheduled through May 14.

Demonstrators gathered outside the court building before the trial opened, with banners including “Björn Höcke is a Nazi” and “Stop AfD!” About 570 protesters turned out, according to police.

The court last week added a second count of using the same phrase to the Halle trial, but decided shortly before proceedings started to try that separately because Höcke’s defence lawyers recently changed, German news agency dpa reported. In that case, prosecutors allege that he repeated the offence at a party event in Gera last December, “in certain knowledge of the punishability” of the slogan.

They say that Höcke said “Everything for ...” and encouraged the audience to shout “Germany!”

Inside the courtroom, the proceedings started slowly as Höcke's defence team called for an audio recording to be made of the trial, a call that judges rejected. There are no formal pleas in the German legal system, so it wasn't clear whether he would respond to the indictment in court.

Höcke insisted in a debate with a conservative rival last week that he wasn’t aware “Everything for Germany!” was a Nazi slogan and claimed that many others have used it. “Everyone out there knows it’s an everyday saying,” he said on Welt television.

Höcke has led AfD's regional branch in Thuringia since 2013, the year the party was founded, and its group in the state legislature in Erfurt since it first won seats there in 2014.

He once called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a “monument of shame” and called for Germany to perform a “180-degree turn” in how it remembers its past. A party tribunal in 2018 rejected a bid to have him expelled.

Höcke's regional branch of AfD is now one of three that the domestic intelligence agency has under official surveillance as a “proven right-wing extremist” group.

Wolfgang Schroeder, a political science professor at the Berlin Social Science Center, said Höcke has become an increasingly important figure in AfD and the frontman of a “radicalization project” in the party. He said that people vote for the party “in part out of protest, in part out of conviction.”

AfD is particularly strong in the formerly communist east and is in first place in polls in Thuringia before a state election on Sept. 1, with recent surveys showing support of 29-to-31%.

It's unlikely that any other party will agree to work with Höcke and put him in the governor's office, but AfD's strength has made forming governing coalitions in the state enormously complicated.

Höcke also faces a second trial, for which dates haven't yet been set, on charges of incitement related to a 2022 post on Telegram about a crime in the western city of Ludwigshafen.

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Geir Moulson reported from Berlin.

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