Germany's Far-Right Politicians Living with the Extremist Plague

Germany's parliament is currently debating whether to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). But such a step may prove to be neither feasible nor advisable. In fact proponents of democracy in Germany would be better off focusing on their strengths and trying to make the NPD irrelevant.


A march of the right-wing, neo-Nazi NPD in Rostock, Germany: "We are the people!"
Getty Images

A march of the right-wing, neo-Nazi NPD in Rostock, Germany: "We are the people!"

Holger Apfel is a short, heavyset man with a rosy face that doesn't lend itself to concealing emotions. Apfel smiles a lot. He smiles when he is asked a question, and he smiles when he responds. At the moment life is good for Apfel, very good, and that is difficult to stomach.

Apfel is the deputy chairman of Germany's far right National Democratic Party (NPD) and head of the NPD parliamentary group in the state parliament in the eastern state of Saxony. He is sitting in a leather armchair thinking about the first three things he would do if he ever became chancellor. His face erupts into a broad smile. He is enormously pleased that he is being interviewed by someone from SPIEGEL, and by the fact that he is in demand and attracting attention.

The three measures Apfel mentions are all tinged with racism. He mocks the other parties, and he is delighted to say that the pictures hanging in his office have nothing to do with Nazi aesthetics, even though that is precisely the case when it comes to the creepy warrior kitsch on his walls.

A visit with Apfel is torture. The last thing one wants to do is shake his hand, ask him questions and listen to his responses. But interviewing Apfel is a necessity, because Germans are once again at odds over whether their democracy should have to tolerate someone like Apfel -- or whether the NPD ought to be outlawed.

The German parliament, the Bundestag, is currently debating the issue. Leading politicians, especially Social Democrats including Deputy Chancellor Franz Müntefering and chairman of the SPD parliamentary group Peter Struck, recently expressed a desire to review policies regarding the NPD. The more skeptical arguments are coming from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU), especially from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble.

There is no disagreement among democrats that the NPD is an unconstitutional party. Indeed, it is a party that wants to abolish the German constitution, pays homage to a Hitler-worshipping ideology and is motivated by racism and anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the Federal Constitutional Court already rebuffed an attempt to ban the party in 2003, dealing a serious setback to those in German who support democracy.

Since then right-wing extremists have been successful in several elections and have even captured seats in state parliaments in the eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, as well as in a few municipal parliaments. Apfel has good reason to feel pleased with himself, because he now collects a government salary and is attracting a great deal of attention. His favorite argument is that those democrats who seek to ban him, a democratically elected representative of the people, from Germany's democratic institutions are acting undemocratically. He positively glows when he says this.

It's easy to point out the contradictions of a democracy that seeks to defend itself. One of the noblest features of the democratic state is that it attempts to treat everyone equally. But when it comes time to defending itself, the state must abandon at least a fraction of this moral position without betraying itself.

Graphic: NPD Ban Survey

Graphic: NPD Ban Survey

This is a difficult tightrope to walk, and this is why a democracy's condition becomes especially evident when it spars with its enemies. How are German politicians handling the new challenges of dealing with the NPD in Saxony, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania and Berlin? Do they have the necessary skills to combat right-wing extremism? Is banning the NPD helpful or harmful to their cause?

Johannes Lichdi, a Green Party member of Saxony's state parliament, has decided that, as far as he is concerned, the NPD's members of parliament don't exist -- at least not physically, only as disembodied voices. Lichdi refuses to greet them or shake hands with them, and when he encounters one in a hallway, he simply keeps walking as if they were made of air. He considers them "racist pigs," and when Lichdi expresses this sentiment, he breaks out into a hate-filled rage that is difficult to reconcile with the German constitution on several levels.

He apologizes for his behavior. He talks about the Holocaust, the war and the millions who died, and about these men who sit there in parliament playing their cynical game of portraying themselves as close to national socialism and distanced from him. Lichdi's words highlight the contradictions democrats sometimes have to tolerate. By insisting that he only wants to fight the haters, he descends into hatred himself -- to the delight of the haters, who promptly liken Lichdi to themselves. In dealing with the NPD, Lichdi is forced to not only tolerate their evil, but also a touch of evil within himself.

But Lichdi also has good news to report. The other parties in the state parliament, the CDU, Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the Social Democrats (SPD), the Free Democrats (FDP) and the Green Party have agreed to a pact on how to handle the NPD. For example, they have agreed that they will not allow any lengthy debates when NPD members table a motion. Instead, there will be a speaker from the CDU/SPD Grand Coalition followed by a speaker from the opposition, but no further debate. The goal is to pay as little attention as possible to the NPD without excluding it from the political dialogue.

It sounds like a good plan, especially because it forces the parties to admit to having a common goal that is bigger than their respective party interests -- namely the preservation and defense of democracy. This may not be such a bad thing for political parties that have been behaving as if democracy were indestructible and could therefore be readily abused to further their own interests. This behavior may have contributed to the results of the ARD television network's most recent "German Trends" survey, which found that a slim majority of Germans have, for the first time, stated that they are less satisfied or even completely dissatisfied with democracy. Does the NPD's success offer Germans an opportunity to come to their senses?

On the morning of Nov. 16. during a session of Saxony's parliament, Johannes Müller of the NPD called for the appointment of a committee to investigate the government's mistakes in the case of Stephanie, a 14-year-old girl who was abducted and abused in Dresden. Müller presented his argument calmly and with the usual parliamentary niceties and good manners. A member of the CDU and of the PDS each responded by expressing, in a somewhat ritualistic manner, their repulsion and outrage over the motion.

Then Member of Parliament Klaus-Jürgen Menzel walked to the podium. He is known as an admirer of Adolf Hitler and was recently excluded from the NPD parliamentary group in Saxony -- for what Apfel calls "financial irregularities" -- and not because of his fondness for Hitler. Menzel said that he knew what they should do with Stephanie's abductor, and reached into his jacket. Parliamentary President Erich Iltgen of the CDU energetically forbade him from pulling anything out of his pocket. Menzel obeyed. Then Menzel told Peter Porsch, the parliamentary leader of the Left Party in Saxony and a native Austrian, that there were "several types of Austrians" and that he still found "the other Austrian" more likeable. The question is whether he was talking about Adolf Hitler. There were two bullet shells in his jacket pocket.

The alliance against the NPD fell apart after Menzel's appearance. The PDS, the successor party to East Germany's communists, accused Iltgen of not having immediately censured Menzel. The CDU and PDS expressed repulsion and outrage against each other. Their comments were met with demands for resignations, derisive laughter and thigh slapping. The defenders of democracy made democracy seem ugly. The NPD members observed the spat with the delight of people who have just received an unexpected gift.

But should the party be outlawed because some democrats lack maturity? Banning the NPD, says Green Party member Lichdi, would not banish racist or antidemocratic ideas. He mentions a recently published study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, in which the authors conclude: "We have found that the term 'right-wing extremism' is misleading, because it describes the problem as a marginal phenomenon. However, right-wing extremism is a problem in the midst of society." This may sound exaggerated, but it is nevertheless shocking to read that 34.9 percent of survey respondents agreed with the statement that foreigners should be sent home if jobs became scarce in Germany.

  • Part 1: Living with the Extremist Plague
  • Part 2

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