How little-known German activists like Julia Hubner are taking on the AfD and countering the xenophobic campaigns of the far-right group.
It's an early start for Julia Hubner as she arrives in the town of Chemnitz on a cold January morning with fellow activists to plan the course of the year. The eventual goal is to bring about the political downfall of Germany's right-wing political party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD).
'Kleiner Funf' is going to be a real battle. Still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, and waking up after a long Christmas break, Hubner and her coterie assume this battle alongside Germany's other political parties.
The goal is to reduce AfD's electoral footprint across the country from the current 12 percent to less than five percent, which is exactly what 'kleiner funf' means: 'less than five'.
Hubner is meeting with campaigners from around the country. 'Kleiner Funf' is like nothing these young campaigners have ever come across – it’s a battle that will drive them to confront seasoned right-wing campaigners and purveyors of hate, both politically and socially.
There is a strong sense of trepidation; all of the campaigners here are volunteers, taking time out of their professions to fight for the rights of society's most vulnerable. The upcoming challenges, the hate mail, the threats that ensue are yet to be dealt with.
Taking on the AfD will require more than just meetings over tea and biscuits, but they are buoyed by smaller victories in the past and the hopes and dreams of nearly a million refugees who came to Germany in 2015 as a direct result of war in their homeland.
‘We are here for you’
Hubner's voice breaks as she talks of her motivation. “It was very emotional to see so many people welcoming the people who arrived. There were thousands of people who came to the main station in Munich to say hello, they brought water, food and basic essentials,” she says.
The 30-year-old activist comes from a small town in middle Germany with a population of not more than a few thousand people. She studied economics at university and works in public relations in Berlin. But all that pales in comparison to her superhuman campaigning abilities.
In November 2018, she started a petition along with her sister to force the German government to pull back a controversial scheme enticing refugees to voluntarily return to their countries of origin with the promise of 1,000 euros. The money was meant for refugees to rebuild their homes, but it came as a slap in the face for those who had initially received a warm welcome in the country.
The scheme was marketed through billboard advertisements across urban centres. It was the brainchild of German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who had loudly and openly opposed Chancellor Angela Merkel's migration policy. He is also linked to comments such as “Islam is not a part of Germany”, made in March 2018, and then later that year, “migration is the mother of all problems”. It would be a reach to suggest that Seehofer's comments have encouraged violent attacks on refugee shelters, but a million poor, insecure people have fast become a punching bag for many German politicians.
In a fight of margins, Seehofer's party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), which had suffered badly in the last elections, decided to seduce right-wing voters back from the AfD. Adopting a tough stance against refugees would deliver the desired result - they thought.
Hubner and her sister had different ideas about the voluntary return scheme. Their online petition garnered over 30,000 signatures and forced the interior ministry to sit down with Hubner’s sister Hannah and their team to discuss the scheme.
What they got in return was a lesson in realpolitik. “The interior ministry wasn't going to do anything about it,” says Hubner. “They say it’s not unethical or illegal, but there was a hint that the underlying idea here is to attract those lost to the AfD.”
That scheme expired at the end of 2018.
Hubner was brought up with the strong values of social justice and equality that Germany has heavily invested in teaching its post-war generation -- a result of the difficult lessons learnt from the Holocaust and the World Wars.
There are questions in German history textbooks many teenagers around the world wouldn't be obliged to contemplate. Not repeating mistakes of the past is the continuing narrative.
And it is that sentiment which has led younger generations of Germans into open revolt against far-right rhetoric, such as that of the AfD.
Berlin's activist past also has a deep resonance with many in the city. The current crisis has only awakened the sleeping socialist in many middle-aged Berliners.
After all, history didn't bring down the Wall, people did. Although the crowds at the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, assembled in impromptu fashion, their gathering was not altogether spontaneous. It came after months of growing demonstrations and escalating pressure on the country’s Communist Party.
Many of those planned demonstrations came to a peaceful end after the fall of the Wall. A sentiment of national unity ensued leading to nearly three decades of somewhat social harmony.
‘Wir sind mehr’
Roll on 2018, and that slowly drifting social harmony was rudely awakened as more and more Germans answered the call of ‘Wir sind mehr’.
The phrase, meaning ‘we are more’, has became a rallying call for Germans to rise up against the far-right. And indeed, Hubner isn't alone, there are millions like her across Germany, actively campaigning to protect the rights of the most vulnerable in society.
“Often I have to gather people, whenever the AfD call for a march or a rally, we have to show to the AfD and people around the world that we are not like this, and the only way we can do that is by coming out in greater numbers,” says Hubner.
In May last year, an anti-migration protest organised by the AfD attracted 5,000 participants, and as is usually the case, a counter pro-migration rally organised by a plethora of left-wing activists attracted 25,000 people.
“I've always been a fighter for human rights, which has perfectly suited my new life here. When I hear or see millions of people fighting for the rights of ethnic minorities, I get a sense of security. It gives me hope that the future looks bright,” says 22-year-old Maya Hanano, who arrived in Germany from Aleppo, in Syria, in 2014.
Talking about the concerted effort of hundreds of thousands of volunteers and campaigners, Hanano says: “I respect each and every one one of them and I know lots of other Syrian people who think the same way.
“Sometimes, it’s reassuring to know, that someone has your back. And in simple everyday life, I had my German friends help me go through everything step by step. Which made me realise that there are good people everywhere and you are never alone.”
Hussam Albaba also arrived in Germany from Syria as a refugee a few years ago, and has since consolidated his place in German society and decided to give something back.
“The sense of social activism here was deeply inspiring,” he says. “The sense of national solidarity was clearly visible, and it is that sense of social care which has inspired me to do what I do now.”
Hussam now works for a social initiative in Berlin called Uber den Tellerrand, a common German expression which means open-mindedness. The idea is to bring together people from different backgrounds to meet, in the hope of cultural exchange and bridging divides.
Hubner is humbled by all this. "I don't want refugees and asylum seekers to be overly grateful or excessively apologetic towards Germans, I want them to feel equal, feel as if they are a part of this society,” she says.
When asked why she does what she does, she invokes the idea of 'national duty', a sense of collective responsibility. Germany, she tells TRT World, is one of the largest exporters of small arms. She says that every 14 minutes a person, somewhere in the world, dies because of a German-manufactured weapon, asking: “Does this not make it our responsibility to help?”
Although Germany is the fourth largest small arms exporter in the world, TRT World couldn't independently verify Hubner's claim.
“We need to stop the wars, and these unnecessary killings,” Hubner concludes. “People don't leave their homes, their dreams and their memories because they like Germany so much, it’s because of the unnecessary wars. But when they come here, I want to make them feel at home, and comfortable, they have lost everything.”