Protected by the Constitution: Germany Faces Tough Battle to Ban Far-Right NPD

The discovery of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell in Germany has triggered new calls for a ban of the rabidly far-right National Democratic Party. But there are major legal obstacles to outlawing the party. And even if politicians prepare a new case to shut the extremists down, the proceedings could take years. By SPIEGEL Staff

The NPD held its annual congress in the eastern town of Neuruppin last month. Zoom
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The NPD held its annual congress in the eastern town of Neuruppin last month.

Who visited Patrick Wieschke? Who slept at his apartment on the night of Nov. 3? Was it the alleged terrorist Beate Zschäpe?

The question has preoccupied senior investigators at Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), agents at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and government security experts.

Who visited Wieschke? Who stayed in his apartment in the eastern city of Eisenach two days before the so-called Zwickau terrorist cell robbed a savings bank on Nordplatz, a square in Eisenach? The answer could seal the fate of the far-right NPD, because Wieschke, 30, is the party's "national organization director."

At the end of last week, there appeared to be one missing link in a chain of evidence that investigators throughout Germany have been working tirelessly to assemble: Proof of a connection between a top party official and the crimes committed by the Zwickau terrorist group, which stands accused of 10 murders stretching back over decade -- the group allegedly killed eight Turks who ran shops or stalls, one Greek man and a German policewoman.

BKA Director Jörg Ziercke announced that his agency was "declaring war on all right-wing extremism, down to its very roots," and that radical steps would be taken to investigate everything.

Is the NPD the root of the problem? Can the despicable crimes committed by the neo-Nazi terrorists be pinned on the reviled right-wing extremist party?

Answers to these questions are urgently needed, now that a majority of national and regional politicians are upping the pressure to convince the Federal Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe to ban the NPD, following a failed first attempt in 2003.

A panel of experts from 14 states is meeting to explore the prospects of a new case. The 16 state interior ministers will also meet this week to discuss the matter.

Terrorist Link Would Spell Party's Downfall

The opportunity is there. "If there are indications that a party is using terrorism, directly or indirectly, to reach its political goals, that party must be banned," says Holger Stahlknecht, the conservative interior minister of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, summarizing in a nutshell what many of his counterparts in other states believe. If the NPD is indeed the intellectual or even operational headquarters of right-wing extremist acts of violence, its days are numbered.

But is it? BKA investigators questioned senior NPD official Wieschke for almost five hours last Wednesday. He vehemently denied the allegation that Zschäpe stayed in his apartment on the night in question. In fact, he told the authorities that he barely knew the presumed terrorist, and showed them photos on his mobile phone depicting him in the company of a different woman at 1:08 a.m. in the early morning hours of Nov. 3.

The police are much further along in their case against Ralf Wohlleben. The former deputy chairman of the NPD branch in the eastern state of Thuringia is in custody on charges that he provided the Zwickau terrorist cell with a weapon. Holger G., from the town of Lauenau in Lower Saxony, is also in custody, because of his alleged support for the Zwickau cell, which called itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU).

In 2001 or 2002, after the series of murders had begun, G. allegedly received a gun from Wohlleben, and was told to bring it to Uwe Mundlos at an apartment on Polenzstrasse in Zwickau, where Mundlos and the two other members of the neo-Nazi group had lived. Holger G.'s attorney would not comment on the allegations.

Under criminal law, Wohlleben's alleged activities can easily be classified as support for a terrorist organization. But what does this mean for the assessment of the NPD and its goals? Is a lower-ranking provincial official's involvement in terrorist activities enough to condemn an entire party as unconstitutional?

Not necessarily. According to the German constitution, the behavior of a party's "supporters" can be an indication that the party "aims to impair the liberal democratic system." What is of interest, says Martin Morlok, a leading expert on political parties, is "the unconstitutional behavior of the party, not that of other individuals."

High Hurdles to Banning Parties

Experts like Hans Peter Bull, the attorney who represented the German government in the first legal effort to ban the NPD, are skeptical as to whether Wohlleben's possible support for the NSU "can be attributed to the party as a whole." According to Bull, prosecutors would have to prove that Wohlleben's behavior was "typical for the party." Only if the support of radical right-wing thugs by NPD officials can in fact be linked to the party does an attempt to ban the NPD stand a chance. The sharp weapon of banning a political party is not intended as an instrument of punishment or a defense against terrorists, but instead is meant to prevent parties from destroying the very same fundamental values of democracy that enable them to enjoy many privileges.

If top NPD officials like "national organization director" Wieschke were indeed involved in acts of terrorism, it would be easy for the courts to classify right-wing extremist terrorism as a barbaric tool of party policy. But when it comes to the actions of lower-ranking party officials, the important question is how the party addresses the accusations against such people.

The NPD's official position is clear: The party leadership distances itself from acts of violence whenever possible. On its website, the NPD characterizes the Zwickau terrorists as "crazy criminals." Party leaders in Berlin, however, make a more outrageous claim, questioning whether "the alleged terrorist cell is not in fact a creation of the domestic intelligence agency, the sole purpose of which is to establish a basis for banning the unwanted national opposition."

But it isn't that easy. In fact, over the years a sinister symbiotic relationship has developed between elements within the NPD and violent right-wing extremist groups. And it is difficult to determine who is actually controlling whom.

Weapons Offenses

NPD members contradict the NPD's official position against violence, not just in isolated instances but in fact with horrifying regularity. There can be no doubt that they face charges of illegal weapons possession far more often than members of other parties.

In January, police confiscated a submachine gun and 400 rounds of ammunition from Sven Krüger, a council member in the Nordwestmecklenburg administrative district in eastern Germany. A court convicted Krüger of receiving stolen goods and illegal possession of firearms, and sentenced him to a prison term of four years and three months.

In August 2009, police discovered a Swiss assault rifle, a loaded handgun and a large collection of materials for making pipe bombs in the home of the "base commander" of the NPD youth organization in Lörrach, a town in southwestern Germany. But there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction for "preparation of a crime involving explosives," and the matter was referred to another court.

The authorities have also collected evidence against Thorsten Heise, a member of the NPD national leadership. In 2007, investigators seized a machine gun and an automatic pistol at his home.

There is plenty of evidence of overlap between militant far-right groups, or "Kameradschaften," and the NPD. The presumed leader of "Sturm 34," a neo-Nazi organization that had named itself after a unit of Hitler's Sturm Abteilung (SA) organization, was put on trial in Dresden in 2008. He had been a member of the NPD until 2007.

One of the most important events at which NPD officials and hard-core Nazis with violent leanings have formed a common front, at least temporarily, was the so-called Rudolf Hess Memorial March, long a social high point in the neo-Nazi community. In 2002, for example, members of the banned "Blood & Honor" network attended the march. Members of the group had published their own "underground magazine" called Totenkopf (Skull), which included precise instructions on how to wage an underground terrorist war.

According to Lorenz Caffier, interior minister of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, there are "conspicuous ties between the NPD and neo-Nazi Kameradschaften groups" in his state. A building called the "Thinghaus," in the town of Grevesmühlen, is one of the places where such ties are indeed evident. "Thing" in this case appears to be a reference to the old Norse term for assembly.

The building looks like a fortress in enemy territory. It is surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire, there are bars on the windows, and a sign on the wall, written in the local dialect, reads "Lever dood as Slaav" -- "Better Dead than Enslaved."

According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the building is a venue for concerts by neo-Nazi bands. Members of a violent, right-wing extremist group of skinheads called the Hammerskins are also reportedly regulars at the "Thinghaus." This doesn't seem to trouble Stefan Köster, regional head of the NPD in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, who maintains a "citizens' office" at the Thinghaus. So does Udo Pastörs, the chairman of the NPD group in the state parliament and deputy leader of the national party.

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