Prohibition Debate The Far-Right Threat to Germany's Democracy
The leaders of Germany's far-right NPD seek to project the party as mainstream and reasonable. In truth, however, the party is a melting pot for racists, Hitler worshippers and enemies of democracy. There are plenty of reasons to ban the party. But would it make the NPD more dangerous than ever? By SPIEGEL Staff
This is part one of SPIEGEL's cover story on the NPD. Part two will be published on Friday.
Holger Apfel meets with SPIEGEL in his office in the eastern German city of Dresden, with a view of the Semper Opera House. For this meeting to discuss his right-wing extremist views, he is wearing a gray, midrange suit by Mishumo and socks by Tommy Hilfiger. He appears to have a comfortable body mass index in the region of 30, and his stomach is pressing against the buttons of his blue business shirt. He is soft-spoken and has a slight lisp.
Apfel, who has been the new chairman of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) since November, says that his party finally wants to appeal to ordinary citizens and to address their concerns, fears and hardships. The NPD, he says, is a party that comes from the center of the population and is for the center of the population.
But, in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a very different face of the party is on display -- one that reveals Apfel's rhetoric for the charade it is.
The NPD's office there is on an arterial road in the town of Grevesmühlen. The local branch of the party has its headquarters on a commercial strip occupied by the likes of the local construction yard, a carpet store and a Mercedes dealership. The black, white and red flag of the German Reich flying above the property identifies the NPD office, which is surrounded by a 2-meter (6.5-foot) fence topped with barbed wire. Behind the fence is a watchtower, complete with floodlights, next to a building with bars on the windows.
The Germanic Elhaz rune, the symbol of the Third Reich's "Lebensborn" program, which supported the production of racially pure Aryan children, hangs above the entrance.
Welcome to a building called the "Thinghaus" in Grevesmühlen, the local headquarters of the NPD. (The name is inspired by the old Germanic word for a governing assembly, "thing.") Instead of being located in the midst of the populace, the building is in fact where the National Democrats are still to be found today: on the periphery -- on the periphery of the town, the periphery of society and the periphery of public beliefs.
Most of all, the NPD is also on the periphery of legality.
Guarantee of Tolerance
The interior ministers of Germany's federal and state governments are in the process of re-examining whether they can -- and should -- ban the NPD. Since authorities uncovered the Zwickau terrorist cell and its supporters, who were apparently organized in a group calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU), the ministers have been asking themselves the kinds of questions that are critical to a possible attempt to ban the party. How much potential for violence does the NPD hold? Does it intend to violently abolish the democratic system? Can it be proved to be similar in nature to National Socialism? And, perhaps most importantly, would the party be more dangerous if it were banned?
The answers to these questions depends on the statements made by the NPD and how they are interpreted, as well as the actions of the NPD and how much weight they are given. In other words, the answers ultimately depend on the details.
First, however, a fundamental principle needs to be considered, namely, that a party should not be banned merely because it is deeply critical of the prevailing form of government. This is the historic lesson Germany learned from the years of the Nazi reign of terror, when Hitler united society under the swastika and had parties like the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party banned.
The German constitution's response to this despotism is a guaranteed tolerance, which also applies in the political combat zone. Bans should be democracy's last line of defense, nothing less and nothing more. In the case of a political party, another determining factor in considering a ban is whether the party can be accused of having an "actively combative, aggressive posture against the prevailing system." These are the words of the Federal Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, the only body in Germany that can impose a ban, and that only with a two-thirds majority.
Paradoxically, the NPD's neo-Nazis are now the main beneficiaries of this anti-Nazi clause in the German constitution. That's why the process of examining a possible ban raises questions that extend beyond the current discussion, such as: How much freedom against the enemies of freedom can a democracy afford, and how much does it want to afford? And, 67 years after the end of World War II, is it an expression of the weakness or strength of German democracy if it takes the case to the Federal Constitutional Court, at the risk of failing there and thus making the right-wing extremists even stronger?
The Ugly Face of the NPD
These questions will accompany the interior ministers when they present their summary of the facts, presumably in March. They are searching for evidence that the NPD wants to overthrow the government, using violence, if necessary, or that it is too closely tied to neo-Nazis who will stop at nothing. There are many indications that those seeking to protect the constitution will not find the information they need at the Dresden offices of NPD members of the state parliament, where the party shows its tame face but, rather, in places like the Thinghaus in Grevesmühlen.
In the spring of 2010, shortly after the building had opened its doors, a party member enthusiastically referred to it as a "national free space" (a phrase used by neo-Nazis to describe what they see as their territory) on a website registered to the Thinghaus address. The domain owner is David Petereit, an NPD member of the state parliament and a former member of a neo-Nazi group called the Mecklenburgische Aktionsfront, which was banned in 2009.
Neo-Nazi rock bands like Stahlgewitter, known to the authorities for its album "Auftrag Deutsches Reich" (German Reich Mission), perform at the Thinghaus on weekends. An appearance by a former Ku Klux Klan leader was only cancelled because German authorities put the American agitator on a plane back to the United States the day before.
The Nazi fortress in Grevesmühlen belongs to Sven Krüger, a right-wing extremist who is currently serving a four-year prison term for dealing in stolen goods and possession of a weapon without a permit. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, believes that Krüger is the local head of the "Hammerskin Nation" in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, an American extremist group that is prepared to use violence and believes in the ultimate victory of the Nordic master race.
And one of the tenants here, in this bunker-like building surrounded by a tall fence, is Udo Pastörs, the second-in-command in the NPD national leadership and the party's leader in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state parliament. The "citizens' office" that Pastörs shares with Stefan Köster, the NPD regional chairman for northeastern Germany, is located in the Thinghaus. Neither of the two politicians seems troubled by the links to the neo-Nazi and skinhead scene.
And why should they be? It is precisely their ties to neo-Nazis and other far-right groups that make the NPD as strong as it is.
Associated with Skinheads
It is arguably true that the ultra-extremists of the so-called Freie Kameradschaften ("free comradeships") -- small, loose-knit groups of right-wing extremists who are not officially organized as associations or political parties -- are more uninhibited in their expressions of hate and more prepared to use violence than the NPD. But, without the NPD, they would be nothing but local splinter groups. Only the NPD brings together the right-wing extremists, guaranteeing them nationwide notoriety and, at least in eastern Germany, a significant role as a regional party.
Conversely, the NPD wants to be associated with the street skinheads and with their visceral strength, which repeatedly manifests itself as raw violence. No one, least of all the leaders of the NPD, should be surprised that some of the presumed helpers of the Zwickau terrorist cell were, or still are, members of the party. After all, a hatred of the democratic German state is not just a characteristic of autonomous neo-Nazi groups, but also of the NPD. The desire to combat the state is the party's raison d'être. And the NPD's tactics involve pushing the boundaries of the legal as far as they can go -- even if the party has expressly distanced itself from the murders allegedly commited by the NSU.
So how far does the NPD actually go, and how deeply does it venture into the forbidden zone? Today, sources within the party portray it as a group that:
- agitates against foreigners and Jews;
- idolizes Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich;
- flirts with the idea -- even at the highest levels of its national leadership -- of carrying out political change in the country, using violence if necessary;
- uses its activities in regional parliaments as an opportunity to combat the state;
- conceals its worldview behind the image of a party that is concerned about the needs of voters, which has enabled it to penetrate deeply into middle-class society in eastern Germany.
In the end, there is only one goal for the NPD: to overthrow the system, democracy and pluralism. This conclusion supports the notion that the NPD could in fact be banned. But whether such a ban would be a good idea is another question altogether.
- Part 1: The Far-Right Threat to Germany's Democracy
- Part 2: The NPD Bogeyman