On a bright autumn day this month, I took a series of trains down to Themar, a town of almost cartoonish old-world German charm in the central state of Thuringia, which will elect its parliament on Sunday. In a slightly different world, Themar would be the kind of place outsiders know only as a brief stop on a cycling or hiking excursion. Its main features are a medieval wall and a handful of church spires set against the area’s rolling foothills.
Spend more than a few seconds researching the place, though, and you’ll pretty quickly find that its reputation is less idyllic than the scenery suggests. An image search turns up photo after photo after photo of black-shirted men and women flipping off cameras and brazenly skirting Germany’s bans on displays of Nazi support as they crowd into one of the several large-scale far-right concerts the area has hosted in recent years. I HEART HTLR, MASTERRACE EUROPE, and matching ADOLF and EVA T-shirts are just a few of those on display.
The man largely responsible for catapulting Themar into this dubious celebrity is Tommy Frenck, a 32-year-old entrepreneur who now presides over a modest but growing far-right commercial empire. In addition to helping organize the concerts in Themar and elsewhere in Thuringia, Frenck’s ventures include an online retailer that works like a sort of Amazon for far-right paraphernalia, nearly all of it apparently calibrated to trigger liberal horror and outrage while falling just short of violating German law. He also runs the Goldener Löwe (Golden Lion), a guesthouse and restaurant a few miles up the road from Themar, which is where I met him.
I HEART HTLR, MASTERRACE EUROPE, and matching ADOLF and EVA T-shirts are on display.
Not long before the elections, I wanted to see how Frenck was feeling. Thuringia is the third in a series of former East German states to select new Landtags (parliaments) this fall, the first two being Brandenburg and Saxony last month. Both produced major gains for the Alternative for Germany (A.F.D.), a stridently anti-immigrant party that has risen from obscurity over the past few years to become Germany’s most successful far-right movement since World War II.
Much of the political analysis has focused on the impact of these votes on national-level horse-trading and coalition calculus, but the impact on local budgets and policing policy could have just as far-reaching consequences in the long term. Georg Maier, Thuringia’s current interior minister, has had to pour considerable resources into tactics such as police deployments, alcohol bans, and strict enforcement of hate-speech laws at Frenck’s events and others in the state, just to keep the ideology from metastasizing. In his eyes, the effort is existential, particularly after the recent spate of attacks carried out by far-right sympathizers, such as this month’s synagogue shooting, and the murder of a local politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.) in the neighboring state of Hesse earlier in the year.
But a repeat of the A.F.D.’s recent good showings this weekend in Thuringia could easily produce a more right-leaning local government that would probably apply significantly less pressure on operations like Frenck’s than there has been under the current left-wing coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.), the Green party, and Die Linke (the Left Party), heir to the old East German Communist Party. And that prospect, I figured, had to put Frenck in decent spirits.
I arrived at the Goldener Löwe in late afternoon. A few families sat on the patio, sipping beer in the autumn sunshine while children ate chicken fingers and fries. Inside, I found Frenck—a stocky man with the build of the competitive weight lifter he once was—standing behind the bar. He apologized, having forgotten that I’d scheduled to see him, and then asked me to have a seat in the corner, beneath a row of sentimental paintings depicting scenes from Norse mythology and a World War I naval battle. A glass display case stood across the room, packed with military-themed baubles such as model tanks and clocks stamped with the Iron Cross. A jumble of children’s high chairs, stuffed animals, and other toys lay nearby.
A few families sat on the patio, sipping beer in the autumn sunshine while children ate chicken fingers and fries.
Frenck joined me after a few minutes. “We are all voting for the A.F.D.,” he told me straightaway. The party was on the rise, he said, and was all but certain to keep picking up voters the center-right C.D.U. was shedding. In Brandenburg and Saxony, the electoral chips had fallen in such a way that establishment parties will likely be able to cobble together coalitions without including the A.F.D. But in Thuringia, Frenck noted, the calculus was not so readily apparent. The state was a strong base for Die Linke, which raised the possibility the C.D.U. would have to choose between a partnership with the leftists or the A.F.D.—that is, either break their promise not to partner with the far right, or infuriate their base. “Something must be changed. Maybe in the left wing, or to the right wing. We will see.”
Either way, he expected the next interior minister wasn’t going to give him quite so hard a time as Maier. Maier had focused narrowly on combating the far right at the cost of other issues such as illegal immigration, Frenck said, and that was going to cost him politically.
“So,” I asked, “You think the next interior minister will have to try to be a little more…”
“Normal,” he said, and laughed.
Guesthouse, Concerts, Online Sales, Properties
I tried to steer the conversation toward the details of his operations: I knew about the guesthouse, the concerts, and the online sales. But a watchdog group had told me that far-right figures had bought properties throughout the state and held small concerts, helping radicalize young, bored people in villages. Did he own any other real estate? Frenck was cagey and wouldn’t comment on other properties.
“The thing is, you never know in this state. Maybe they’ll come next week and replace me from this building, and I lose it, and then maybe we have a new one. After that? Maybe not, maybe we have it. We will see.”
Fine. But what kind of revenues was he pulling in? Could he tell me that?
“We are not poor,” he told me, but declined to say more.
Frenck is always more obliging talking about the merchandise. He took me through a back room stocked with T-shirts, mugs, magnets, CDs, model tanks and warships, and a large banner that read FCK ANTIFA, a reference to the left-wing anti-fascist movement. He was getting orders from all over Europe, as well as the United States, he said—he’d recently dispatched one package to Palm Springs. Outside, he showed me a small yard, with a bar area now covered up with tarp for the season, but asked me not to publish any photos. “People will think we’re messy,” he said.
Frenck is one of the few far-right figures in Germany to clearly recognize the potential symbiosis between his operations and ostensibly antagonistic media; he provides outraged clicks, we provide free publicity. There’s a very Trumpian logic to it, and it’s hard to dispute that it makes a sort of sense. But while Frenck seemed happy to chatter as long as I stuck around, I’d sensed my presence growing steadily less welcome among the restaurant’s various black-shirted customers, and so I decided to call the interview to a close.
“We’ll Keep Going”
Before heading home, I stopped in to visit Thomas Jakob, the local candidate for the center-left S.P.D., who also heads a community organization that had been staging demonstrations against Frenck’s concerts over the past several years. He emerged from his garden in overalls, tall, slight, and bespectacled—a striking a contrast to Frenck. Upstairs, over coffee, I asked whether he thought he might still pull off a win despite Frenck’s support for the local A.F.D. candidate, Nadine Hoffmann. “Maybe not,” he said flatly.
Part of the problem, Jakob told me, was that in a place like Themar, a lot of people were happy just to see someone doing something. Frenck had opened a restaurant, was staging concerts—he was an entrepreneur, a part of the local fabric. That made it harder to convince people to see him as Jakob did: a dangerous right-wing extremist.
Jakob pulled out his phone and showed me clips from a local newspaper, Freies Wort, in which he’d asked Hoffman what she intended to do after Frenck came to a public gathering to support her. Her response, essentially, was that the event in question hadn’t been an official A.F.D. rally and had been open to anyone—that is, Frenck was free to attend if he liked.
Was Jakob worried about what would happen if he lost? What happened if the next interior minister decided not to bother disrupting Frenck’s concerts?
“It doesn’t matter to us,” Jakob said. His organization had supported several successful initiatives, like instituting a ban on alcohol sales at the most recent major concert in Themar, for instance, and had secured funding for years. “We’ll keep going,” he said. “Because if we don’t do anything here, the region will go to Tommy Frenck.”
I left as the sun was setting. It took me nearly two hours to get to Erfurt, the state’s capital, by train. By the time I arrived, Themar already felt a world away. What happens there on Sunday will be very easy for many to overlook. But, eventually, the implications could well reverberate across the country.
Alex Dziadosz is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berlin