By Maik Baumgärtner
German authorities are gradually preparing a legal bid to ban the far-right National Democratic Party and have announced the arrest of dozens of fugitive neo-Nazis this year following bitter criticism of their failure to stop the so-called Zwickau cell of terrorists from murdering and bombing immigrants.
But human rights campaigners, politicians and researchers say the government is neglecting crucial work being done to combat xenophobia in regions where right-wing extremism is rife. Anti-racism groups complain that they face a constant struggle to obtain funding.
For example, anti-Nazi activists in the Sächsische Schweiz ("Saxon Switzerland") region south of Dresden have been organizing lectures and training courses and setting up exhibitions and youth exchanges with young people from Poland. Such projects usually get only temporary financing.
Once the funding expires, the work stops, forcing the staff to claim unemployment benefits. The same is true of similar projects across the country.
"It takes years before local authorities even start taking you seriously," says political scientist Dierk Borstel, who works on pro-democracy projects in the northeastern region of Mecklenberg-Western Pomerania, where support for the NPD is particularly strong partly because established parties have given up trying to woo voters there. The region has been neglected since unification in 1990, argues Borstel.
Government Hampering Efforts
A further problem is that civil society groups are often themselves accused of being left-wing extremists. For example, last year German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder introduced a so-called extremism clause stating that all projects seeking federal government funding must pledge that they and all the organizations and people they work with will support the German democratic constitution. Opposition parties and project leaders have criticized this clause because it forces groups to vet the people they work with to make sure they have a sound ideology.
Bianca Klose, who runs an information center for combating racism in Berlin, says the clause obstructs her efforts. Her office works with local authorities, schools and youth clubs, and runs projects in inner city areas aimed at curbing the influence of neo-Nazis on young people. The group didn't sign the clause, which means it has no access to federal funding.
"If the city of Berlin hadn't gotten involved and provided much of the missing funds, the project would have been over after 10 years of successful work ," says Klose. The funding for 2012 is unclear and the group is waiting for confirmation that it will get money from the city again -- even though more than 1,000 crimes were committed by right-wing extremists in Berlin alone last year.
Grassroots Work Most Effective
Campaigners say work on the ground to dissuade young people from joining the neo-Nazis is more important than outlawing the NPD.
Stefan Ruppert, a member of parliament for the pro-business Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right coalition government, is opposed to banning the NPD. "It is good for an open society if it feels the pain the NPD is causing us every day, which forces us to ask ourselves each day: What can we do against it?"
Bianca Klose says the debate over banning the party must not distract from efforts to combat racism in everyday life. "Right-wing extremists will seize the space democrats offer them, whether they're in a party or not. The debate over a ban must not replace our society's fight against right-wing extremism."
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