CHEMNITZ, GERMANY—Werner enthusiastically waved a white, red, and blue Russian tricolor flag—with the added imperial crest of the tsars—as we talked outside the former Stasi headquarters of what was once Karl Marx City, now Chemnitz, in eastern Germany.
“The current German state is worse than what we had during communist times, and America, not [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, is the true evil of this world,” he said, aggressively thrusting his finger in my face, our conversation eavesdropped on by a giant statue of Marx.
A retired bricklayer in his 70s, Werner might be expected to have mellowed with age. He’s old enough to have been briefly interrogated by the Stasi in the 1980s and to remember his father, a former Nazi soldier, returning disheveled from Soviet imprisonment in the 1950s. But none of that has stemmed his apparent sympathy for Russian imperialism, nor his anger at the West.
“German reunification benefited only the West Germans, and Germany should leave us Saxons alone,” he said. “Germany should also leave Putin alone, as it was far worse to Russia in World War II than Putin is to Ukraine now.”
Meet the Free Saxons movement. Werner has been attending every Monday rally of the secessionist right-wing monarchist movement that seeks to restore the kingdom of Saxony, which historically never had much weight beyond its own borders during its 112-year existence that ended with World War I. And like much of the German political fringe, it finds curious common ground with Putin’s Russia.
The Russian president has exerted influence over East German attitudes toward Russia since he arrived in Dresden, Saxony’s regional capital, on his first posting as a young KGB agent in the mid-1980s. His foreign assignment in East Germany came to an abrupt end on Dec. 5, 1989, when demonstrators occupied the Stasi headquarters. Another crowd rushed to the nearby KGB office where he had a close encounter as they came close to storming the building. His subsequent calls to the Red Army for protection and reinforcements were met with silence, something Putin has never forgiven or forgotten.
In perhaps his most famous quote, Putin told the Russian parliament in 2005 that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” To him, it was an experience of personal humiliation. In 1990, he returned with his young family to his hometown of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, where he claimed to have had to drive a taxi to make ends meet, before landing a more lucrative gig as the serial president, sometimes prime minister, of Russia.
But almost 40 years later he still finds receptive ears in the former Soviet satellite where a curious alliance of elements from across the political spectrum has voiced sympathy or support for his invasion of Ukraine. A survey conducted last October suggests that 40 percent of Germans fully or partially believe that NATO provoked Russia into invading Ukraine; that number increases to 59 percent in provinces that were once part of communist East Germany. Saxony, East Germany’s most populous federal state, falls slap bang in the middle of that anti-NATO heartland.
In his vendetta against the West, Putin has sought to erode Western liberal democracies and the Euro-Atlanticist compact, boosting destabilizing political candidates and supporting local separatist groups regardless of their ideological alignment. Russian disinformation campaigns have been linked to, among other events, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, the Scottish and Catalonian independence referendums, and Brexit.
Here in Chemnitz, it seems that Saxony is next on the list.
On a camping table set up next to Werner, political brochures and stickers called for an alliance between Saxony and Russia. There were flags of the historical Kingdom of Saxony and calls for “Säxit”—à la Brexit—far-reaching autonomy from Germany or even Saxony’s secession.
The Free Saxons, while nominally preoccupied with regional secessionism, offer a broad church of pro-Russian sentiment that has variously united far-right extremists, Soviet nostalgics, and marginalized anti-government cranks who rant about everything from vaccines to 5G to the war in Ukraine.
“Saxony has always had a public opinion different from the rest. We want good relations with Russia. No weapons for Ukraine,” said Michael Brück, a Free Saxons spokesman who sees the war in Ukraine as one between “Slavic peoples” and one in which Germany has no business.
“The people here think of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky as an actor, a criminal, and a puppet of the United States. Putin is his counterpart. He stands up to U.S. imperialism. Most people here are anti-U.S. Here in Saxony, the people remember the Dresden firebombing [in early 1945, a joint Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Forces operation]. For the people here, the Americans are warmongers.”
That history, plus decades of economic deprivation, sowed the seeds of dissent and even radicalism in Saxony. Notably, it was a member of the Saxon-Thuringia aristocracy who planned an attempted coup in Germany in 2022. Prince Heinrich XIII Reuss joined with the Reichsbürger—a far-right imperial revivalist movement—in its attempt to overthrow the government. The plot was uncovered in December when prosecutors arrested 25 Reichsbürger plotters, including Reuss and current and former security service members. The putsch was derided for its grandiose ambition and dead-on-arrival failure. But it was a sobering reminder of the resurgence of the German far right and its apparent willingness to commit violent revolutionary acts. The killing of two police officers in January 2022 was also tied to the Reichsbürger, while in April 2022 a Reichsbürger member tried to kill several police officers while they attempted to execute a search warrant for the illegal possession of firearms. The ringleader, Reuss, reportedly celebrated the 2022 Russia National Day in Russia’s consulate general in Leipzig.
As Russia did with the Trump campaign and Brexit, Saxony has become a target of pro-Russian messaging and misinformation, which flourishes in a post-truth media landscape.
“Nobody believes the [mainstream] media here. If the German media says tomorrow it is going to be sunny, we Saxons will put our raincoats on. That’s why people turn to Telegram,” a social media platform widely used in Russia and Ukraine, Brück said.
Since the government enforced closure of the Russia Today (RT) operation in Germany, Kremlin sympathizers have tuned in to Russian-linked independent media and influencers. “Anti-Spiegel,” a play on German newspaper Der Spiegel, is run by Thomas Röper, a German blogger living in St. Petersburg, a Kremlin-loyal peddler of disinformation, conspiracy theories, and Russian propaganda. Russian media reports are also translated and published for a German audience. It has 110,000 Telegram subscribers. Another German blogger, Alina Lipp—a former German language correspondent for RT—plays an important role chirruping Russian propaganda to her 196,000 Telegram subscribers. Her widest-reaching posts reportedly receive over 2 million views.
Their messages are finding their mark. In February, the Berlin-based Center for Monitoring, Analysis, and Strategy (CeMAS) released a paper on the role of Russian disinformation in Germany, finding that between the spring and autumn of 2022, approval of pro-Russian propaganda narratives increased significantly, especially in the east.
Putin’s disinformation warriors have coincided with the rise of anti-technocratic movements on both sides of the ideological divide, a boon to those in Moscow looking to destabilize the centrist consensus that has dominated German politics for decades. The hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party has within a year doubled its average poll numbers, riding a wave of populist outrage over immigrants and energy prices. The AfD, whose delegations occasionally visit Moscow, wants to dissolve the EU, strengthen Germany’s individual national military posture at the expense of Germany’s NATO engagement, and end all sanctions against Russia.
Recent national polling put the AfD at 22 percent, ahead of the ruling Social Democratic Party, and trailing only the conservative Christian Democratic Union, at 27 percent. In several eastern states, the AfD polls above 30 percent and has grabbed one mayorship and one district administrator post.
The AfD, like many others in the east, has a big crush on the Kremlin. A regional legislator, Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, founded an association called East Wind, seeking to forge closer ties with Russia. He tried to visit Russian-occupied territory in eastern Ukraine late last year, before even AfD leadership balked at the optics. Tillschneider has said before that Russia was the liberator of Germany in World War II, unlike the United States.
“There are still tens of thousands American soldiers occupying our country,” he said, referring to U.S. troops who have spent decades there as part of NATO’s defense against that very same Russia. “The USA wants to make us pawns on the Ukrainian battlefield to expand its ‘rainbow [LGBT] empire.’”
The German far right loves that kind of talk. But the German left is on board, too, reasoning that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Alliance for Peace in Brandenburg holds vigils on leftist outrage topics, like the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 or NATO nuclear drills, and lobbies against Western arms deliveries to Ukraine. Dominik Mikhalkevich, the Alliance’s Belarus-born spokesman, said NATO drills are escalatory and Germany’s defense mandate should be just to protect its own territory.
“Sanctions against Russia should be dropped, as sanctions always play in the wrong hands,” Mikhalkevich said. “I am from Belarus, a country where Western sanctions have always caused the opposite they were designed to achieve, as illustrated by [Belarusian President Aleksandr] Lukashenko still being around.”
Much like what happened in the United States, the special trick with Russian misinformation is how it manages to appeal to both the far right and the far left. German rightists love—and cite—Russia’s gripes about alleged Ukrainian oppression of Russian speakers in the country’s east and south and its claimed defense of white Christian European culture, said Jakub Wondreys, of the Hannah Arendt Institute for the Research on Totalitarianism in Dresden. Yet they are curiously quiet about Russia’s claims to be “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, for obvious reasons.
The left, meanwhile, is happy to ape Putin’s anti-NATO rhetoric but overlooks his social conservatism. “Both sides are cherry-picking their arguments from the Russian disinformation campaign,” Wondreys said.
But Germany’s left, split between Putin supporters and opponents, is in free fall. It’s the right that is ascendant. An AfD win in the next parliamentary election in 2025 could turn Germany into a big Hungary, said Wolfgang Muno, a political scientist at the University of Rostock. Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban is Russia’s Trojan horse inside the European Union, consistently backing Moscow while blocking Brussels’s efforts to impose sanctions or wean off Russian energy.
“We can see what happens when Putin lackeys rule in Hungary,” Munro said. If the AfD joins a ruling coalition, he said, sanctions on Russia, and perhaps large-scale German arms deliveries to Ukraine such as Leopard tanks, would be on the chopping block, and Putin would get a lifeline.