The search for a term that describes Thuringia’s special political situation began at the latest on that crazy February day in 2020 when a prime minister was elected in Erfurt with votes from the AfD. Since then, little has been normal in the country, which is at best under emergency administration by a left-wing minority government, while the AfD is becoming increasingly extreme and self-confident.

“Test case Thuringia”: This is the term journalists Melanie Haack and Peter Kunz use to title their documentary, with which they outline the current situation before the state elections on September 1st. The 20-minute film will be broadcast on ZDF on Whit Sunday evening, but does not spread any holiday spirit.

The story revolves around Schleusingen. The small town in the Thuringian Forest was declared a “nationally liberated zone” by local neo-Nazi Tommy Frenck in the noughties. The man is currently running for district administrator again; the local election committee approved him again.

In Schleusingen, the social front lines that are often only discussed theoretically in Berlin are now becoming apparent again in a very practical way. On the one hand you can see the demonstrators who are protesting together with well-known right-wing extremists against a planned refugee accommodation. On the other hand, Haack and Kunz portray a non-partisan civic alliance in which the remnants of the small town bourgeoisie have come together.

In between stands a perplexed mayor who prefers to declare himself overwhelmed. “The altitude of politics is completely different than that of the local citizens,” he says. “They’re not at Habeck in Berlin. The people are at our town hall. And we can’t explain it to them.”

What distinguishes the documentary from similar productions: Haack knows exactly what she is reporting on. She lives with her family in Thuringia. She started as head of the Erfurt ZDF studio when the FDP politician Thomas Kemmerich had just moved into the Thuringian State Chancellery thanks to the AfD.

Now, more than four years later, Haack says in the film what is possible in an extreme case after the next state election: “It could turn out that Björn Höcke governs Thuringia.” And she says something about the Thuringian AfD chairman that has probably never been heard so clearly on public television: “A fascist wants power.”

Of course, it’s still a matter of will and imagination – and not reality. The Thuringian AfD’s poll numbers have recently fallen slightly again. At currently 30 percent, Höcke’s party is ten to 15 points away from a majority of seats, which is partly due to the new competition from Sahra Wagenknecht’s party.

Nevertheless, Haack and Kunz take the threat seriously. They show Höcke explaining at an AfD event that “the number of illegal migrants could be reduced by a few million” – although, as he must know, the number of asylum seekers subject to deportation in Germany is only around 250,000.

The film also implicitly proves that the plans for so-called remigration, which triggered the large demonstrations against right-wing extremism last winter, are by no means new. “We will be able to live without any problems with 20 or 30 percent fewer people in Germany,” says Höcke. “That even makes ecological sense.”

Nevertheless, it is by no means only the AfD that must be considered responsible for the precarious situation in Thuringia. Angela Merkel also makes an appearance in the film. She is shown standing in Pretoria, South Africa, in February 2020 and declaring that Kemmerich’s election must be “reversed”. Haack summarizes the process criticized by the Federal Constitutional Court as follows: “A chancellor on a trip abroad wants to undo a constitutional election.”

Then Stefan Kramer appears. The President of the Erfurt State Office for the Protection of the Constitution says: “This still affects us terribly in Thuringia to this day.” Trust in democracy suffered severely as a result of the events at that time.

With all of this, the documentation achieves what many examinations of Thuringia and East Germany fail: it paints a differentiated picture and leaves room for interpretation. The fact that Höcke is a fixed point in the film seems to be expected, but it is compelling. Because without him it is difficult to explain how Thuringia could become a test case for this republic.

“Test case Thuringia – democracy in danger?”; ZDF, May 19, 2024, 7:10 p.m. (available in the ZDF media library from 4 p.m.)