In the birthplace of Nazis’ most fearsome weapons, German far-right’s popularity has rocketed
The German town of Peenemuende, population 250, has no school, no supermarket and none of the refugees who have streamed into the country in the last two years.
What it does have are the ruins of the Nazis’ biggest military development complexes, where the V2 rocket was born, and one of the highest levels of support for the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party ahead of this month’s general election.
The community’s unique Third Reich history and then communist past and its isolated perch in the northeastern corner of Germany have left it particularly receptive to the AfD’s anti-migrant and anti-Muslim message - despite members of both groups being distinctly thin on the ground.
Forty-seven per cent of Peenemuende’s citizens voted AfD in a state election last September, meaning the town offers special insight into the appeal of a party that has rocked the German political establishment and looks set to win its first seats in the national parliament.
Another 5.6 per cent cast a ballot for the far-right NPD.
“I watched all my schoolmates move away because there were no jobs and no support for young people or families with kids,” said AfD voter Frank Neumann, 30, who runs tour boats on the Baltic.
“The established parties - and (Chancellor Angela) Merkel embodies them - have accomplished nothing in the last decade. I don’t know if the AfD as a new party can do better but I’m hopeful.”
Neumann, who said he was drawn to the AfD’s emphasis on national pride, said growing up in the shadow of the Peenemuende complex was a mixed blessing.
“As I child of course I thought it was fascinating - it was like a big playground with all the ruins hidden in the woods,” he said.
“Later I realised that the technological achievements here were sensational but linked to war and destruction. We’re not exactly proud of that. Our pride is more general - everybody should be proud of their own country and heritage.”
Peenemuende occupies the northern tip of Usedom, an island of white sandy beaches and tree-shaded bicycle paths that attracts hordes of holidaymakers every summer.
It makes the region highly dependent on tourism, with a big fluctuation in jobless figures between the high season, when it reaches about 10 percent, twice the national average, and the frigid winter, when the rate can hit 15 percent.
Construction worker Nico Janick, 40, said the AfD had initially appealed to him for focusing on “forgotten” parts of Germany.
But he said he got turned off by the party infighting and now has no intention of voting at all.
“I don’t have any faith in the AfD any more,” he said. “They exploited the refugee crisis but if they were in power it would be pure chaos.”
Peenemuende’s impressive historical museum attracts 160,000 visitors a year from around the world, including the countries targeted by the V2 in the 1940s: Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The world’s first long-range guided ballistic missiles, the V1 and more powerful successor, the V2, rained terror on population centres in the last years of World War II and are believed to have killed at least 15,000 people.
But the technology required to take the weapon to the outer reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere later helped usher in the space age.
Tourists flock to see where armies of workers including slave labourers built the rockets, and where chief engineer Wernher von Braun laid the foundations for the Apollo moon missions.
The museum’s chief archivist, Thomas Koehler, said Peenemuende was a place of “myths and legends” around Germany’s most glorious and shameful chapters.
“We try to present history as it was - we don’t cover up the negative aspects, which many technical enthusiasts regret,” he said.
“Others say we glorify Nazi engineers. But I guess if both sides are unhappy then we’ve struck a good balance.”
Along with immigration, the four-year-old AfD has also taken aim at Germany’s remembrance culture - the solemn duty to acknowledge and atone for the Nazis’ crimes.
Bjoern Hoecke, AfD chairman of Thuringia state, sparked a storm of protest in January for calling to turn the page on the country’s wartime guilt.
Some AfD members said the remarks went too far but the party has embraced a position that the Third Reich looms too large in Germany’s understanding of itself and should be set against the country’s many technological, cultural and economic achievements.
“The country cannot live for an eternity in rubble and ashes,” said an AfD candidate running for parliament from the state, Leif-Erik Holm.
“The Germans are always stunned to hear that we are in global surveys among the world’s most popular nations. We ask ourselves how that can be possible given the Holocaust and us as the evil Germans. Apparently people see us in a more nuanced way abroad.”
Koehler of the Peenemuende museum stressed his team believed it had clear responsibilities given the site’s heavy historical burden.
“We stand for peaceful coexistence, for tolerance and for understanding among nations,” he said.