German Businesses Defend Democracy and Fight Extremism

*By Louis Pascarella
Time Period: 2017-Present
Location: Germany
Main Actors: WVIB, VDMA, Welcome Saxony, Business Leaders
Tactics
– Civic Engagement
– Media Outreach
Signed Letters of Support
Social Media Campaign

Given their country’s history of Nazism, business leaders in Germany are particularly sensitive to the importance of speaking out against anti-democratic forces. For the past decade, the most prominent of these forces has been the Alternative for Deutschland’s (AFD) party, which has demonized immigrants, Muslims, and other minority groups as part of its nationalist ideology. Thus, German business leaders have engaged in several campaigns to strengthen democracy and combat AFD and its allies.

Unity, Justice, Liberty
The Business Association of Industrial Enterprises Baden (WVIB) is a business association of medium sized industrial businesses in the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg. Noticing the rise of autocracy in the United States, neighboring European countries, and domestically in Germany, leadership in WVIB made it a priority to support democracy. In 2016, then WVIB President Klaus Endress addressed member companies in their annual meeting, demanding action to support the association’s core values of enlightenment, humanism, tolerance, and democracy. 

As a result of this call, WVIB embarked on the “Unity, Justice, and Liberty” campaign, an attempt to dissuade association employees and members of the public from voting for the AFD in the 2017 legislative election.

The Unity, Justice, and Liberty campaign consisted of a grassroots effort from member companies. Each week, a different member advertised in a local newspaper, demonstrating to the public the business community’s commitment to democracy. They also created campaign posters, fliers, and social media posts. On the campaign website, over 1,100 people signed a pledge to “build bridges not walls.” Further support was driven by civil society actors, such as professors, politicians, and professional sports figures.

#Europe Works
The Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA) is a machine-tool association composed of 3600 German and European companies. VDMA companies employ over one million Germans. Responding to far-right xenophobia in 2017, VDMA launched the “Europeworks” campaign. Coinciding with the sixtieth anniversary of the Rome Treaty (the founding treaty of the European Union), the Europeworks campaign was dedicated to highlighting the importance of European integration and the role of immigration in building a strong German economy. Europeworks sparked a social media campaign with a dedicated marketing budget and website. The second phase of Europeworks, “Moving Europe Forward,” replicated some of the same strategies employed by WVIB. VDMA encouraged business leaders and member companies to distribute a pro-democracy message to the public and their employees. The goal was to discourage voting of the extreme right parties during upcoming elections. The campaign was a success on social media, helping to hinder far-right parties criticized as the “new nationalists.”

Welcome Saxony
Recognizing the German state of Saxony as a hotbed for nationalist, anti-democratic politics, the Saxony business community launched Welcome Saxony as a campaign to oppose the autocratic right. The association provides members with educational employee training on several relevant topics, such as multiculturalism in the workplace, Neo-Nazism and the new right in Saxony, and fake news, conspiracy theories, and democracy. Welcome Saxony is also active in electoral politics, with a section of the website, Election 2024, dedicated to upcoming elections. Here, Welcome Saxony has embedded video statements of support from a variety of actors, such as the Chairman of the Saxony Silicon business association, a manager of public relations in Dresden, and the frontman of a famous Saxony band. These actors demonstrate solidarity across industry and a dedication to upholding democratic principles. The statements of support encourage votes for parties that support democracy, eschewing encouragement of any particular party. Some individuals reflect on Germany’s history, underscoring the imperative of safeguarding democracy and standing up to authoritarians.

Business opposition to AFD
The AFD party won its first mayoral election in December of 2023, a harbinger of its increased popularity. The burgeoning support of AFD sparked nationwide demonstrations and prompted action from businesses as well. Unwilling to stay silent, several leading business figures led pro-democracy initiatives. Top industry figures, such as the chief executive of the association of German Banks, the leadership of the Federation of German industries, and the leadership of the association of German employers have all spoken out against rising authoritarianism. These leaders repeatedly call for support of democracy, and condemn xenophobia and hate associated with the far-right. One prominent businessman and former politician, Harald Christ, has stressed the need to organize against the AFD. Christ has stated “something must be done” and that “I don’t intend to sit passively at my desk and leave the field to the populists.” Christ has started an initiative to bring together CEOs and board members to address political extremist factions.

The German business community action provides a few key takeaways for US audiences. Most importantly is the role business can take in combating far-right extremism. Instead of passively allowing autocrats to take power, business figures took an active oppositional approach. Through business associations, business leaders conducted coordinated campaigns of engagement with the public. Associations provide numbers, organization, and reduce the risk of singling out any one business, which allowed WVIB, VDMA, and Welcome Saxony to mount successful public outreach campaigns. In all cases, the business associations’ willingness to work with community figures like musicians, athletes, and artists furnished their movement with legitimacy outside the business community. In total, the German business community demonstrates how businesses can fruitfully take a stand against authoritarianism.

Where to Learn More
– See especially Dr. Daniel Kinderman’s work.
Einigkeit. Recht. Freiheit
Europe works
Welcome Saxony
German Business Mobilization Against Right-Wing Populism

You can access all the caselets from the Pillars of Support Project here.