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How a former history teacher led a far-right surge in eastern Germany

Just two weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an election in the east German state of Thuringia has highlighted the deep divisions still gripping the country.

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Sheena McKenzie
CNN — Just two weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an election in the east German state of Thuringia has highlighted the deep divisions still gripping the country.

Centrist parties -- including Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU -- were bumped into third place after the left-wing Die Linke and far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) surged ahead.

Incumbent Die Linke took top spot with 31% of the vote, a slight increase on the last state election five years ago.

But it was the phenomenal rise of the AfD, which came in second place with 23.4% of the vote, that raised serious concerns, particularly among Jewish leaders, in the wake of a shooting outside a synagogue earlier this month.

The AfD, led locally by controversial party figure Björn Höcke, more than doubled its share of voters since the last state election.

Anti-immigrant former history teacher Höcke has previously called Berlin's Holocaust memorial a "monument of shame." He is considered an extremist by the country's intelligence service.

"He's not a typical party politician," said Egbert Klautke, a cultural historian at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

"This character comes from the west (of Germany) and then uses the east German state (of Thuringia) as a stage for fairly radical and extreme right-wing views," said Klautke.

He added that Höcke, who is simultaneously awkward with the media and at ease addressing rallies, uses "language that hasn't been heard in public since the early 1950s, when there were still proper old Nazis around."

Even within his own party, Höcke has faced criticism for his radical views, Klautke added.

Thuringia's election comes at a delicate time in German politics, just weeks after a far-right attacker went on a shooting rampage outside a synagogue in the eastern town of Halle.

Höcke condemned the Halle attacks. But his party was nonetheless accused of inciting a culture of hatred by Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Jewish community in Munich.

Following the AfD's success in Thuringia, Knobloch warned on Twitter that its voters had "supported a party that has been preparing the ground for marginalization and extreme right-wing violence for years."

She added that the party had downplayed the Nazi era and incited hatred against Jewish people and other minorities.

The anti-West vote

Meanwhile a beaming Höcke told supporters on Sunday that, "The people of Thuringia have voted for Wende 2.0," Reuters reported.

The second "Wende" or "change" that Höcke mentioned is a reference to the fall of Communism three decades ago, and an attempt to appeal to emotions and nostalgia in eastern Germany.

Indeed, the AfD has repeatedly recycled slogans from the peaceful revolution in 1989. The party also used the famous "Wir sind das Volk!" chant, meaning "We are the people!," during campaigning in several east German state elections this year.

Some experts have called the AfD's tactic an abuse of history. "What the AfD wants -- a nationalist, inward-looking Germany -- has nothing to do with what the people wanted in 1989," said Kristina Spohr, a historian and the author of "Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World after 1989."

But the AfD's nationalist message has struck a chord in the once-Communist east, where support for the party is the strongest in Germany.

It was unable to bump the left-wing Die Linke from top spot in Sunday's state election -- though without a majority, Die Linke will need to form a coalition to remain in power.

Die Linke's state premier, Bodo Ramelow, told German broadcaster ARD: "I see myself clearly strengthened. My party clearly has the mandate to govern, and I will take it up."

The left-wing party won the most votes in the over-60 age group, while the AfD was the most popular party in Thuringia among all groups under 60, according to German newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

Klautke questioned whether the older group was "still sticking to the old left" that in some ways represents the former German Democratic Republic they grew up in.

"I think that is part of the success of Die Linke in some respects," he added.

In the three decades since reunification, Thuringia has "suffered more than other (eastern states) from economic decline and an imposed political system from the West," said Klautke.

He added that this could also explain "anti-Western" voting tendencies in Thuringia, where voters chose more radical political alternatives over more centrist parties.

Germany, like several countries across Europe, has seen a shift in recent years from centrist groups to more populist parties.

Thuringia's results will throw fresh scrutiny on Merkel's CDU successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who since taking over a year ago has seen her party plunge in the polls.

Klautke added, however, that while state elections give the federal government an idea of their standing locally, they don't usually have an immediate impact on the party.

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