© Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/APAlice Weidel and Tino Chrupalla, co-chairmen of Alternative for Germany
Call to 'defend democracy' as party surges to 21pc in opinion polls...

Germany is debating whether to ban the far-Right Alternative for Germany (AfD) as the party surges to 21 per cent in the polls, amid warnings from intelligence officials that its members are becoming increasingly extreme.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president, warned in a speech to the country's domestic intelligence agency that "we all have it in our hands to put those who despise our democracy in their place".

His speech at the castle where the German post-war constitution was created has widely been seen as support for a ban after Thomas Haldenwang, the domestic spy chief, warned about growing Right-wing extremist influence in the party.

Mr Haldenwang said: "We see a considerable number of protagonists in this party that spread hate against all types of minorities here in Germany." It comes amid warnings of the increasing influence of Björn Höcke, the leader of the AfD in the eastern state of Thuringia.

Mr Höcke, a former history teacher, is known for his Hitler-esque language - with his allies sweeping the board for European lists at the party's conference in Magdeburg in August.

In a rare move, the respected Der Spiegel news magazine weighed into the debate with a leader titled: "Ban the enemies of the constitution!" It warned that "the AfD has become more and more radicalised. It's time to defend democracy with better weapons".

The co-leader of Olaf Scholz's ruling Social Democrats also said a ban should be considered if the AfD is categorised as a group of "proven Right-wing extremists" by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

However Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, warned that "banning parties has never actually solved political problems".

Meanwhile, the German Institute for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation, declared last week that "the AfD have reached a degree of dangerousness that they can be banned according to the constitution". They warned in an analysis that the party is actively and methodically trying "to implement its racist and Right-wing extremist goals" and "shifting the limits of what can be said so that people can get used to their ethno-nationalist positions".

Germany has a troubled history of parties being banned, with Otto von Bismarck, the country's first chancellor, banning the Social Democrats for disloyalty to the Kaiser.

When the Nazis came to power, they banned all other parties.

The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) also banned other parties not affiliated with the ruling Socialist Unity Party.

The post-war German constitution, keen to avoid this authoritarian excess, made a party ban legally difficult. Attempts to ban the neo-nazi NPD party in 2003 and 2017 both failed at the highest court.

Volker Boehme-Nessler, a political scientist, said he does not believe the party meets the high legal hurdles for a ban.

He warned that a failed attempt would only give the AfD an additional boost in the election campaign, he told eastern German broadcaster MDR. "You can't simply ban a party that gets 20-30 per cent approval" in various states, he added.

Germans are evenly split on whether the party should be banned, with 47 per cent of the country in favour of a ban and 47 per cent against.

A ban is more popular in the west and among liberal Greens.