The Threat of the NPD Rise of German Right-Wing Party Evokes Ghosts of Past
Sixty years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, the right-wing, extremist National Democratic Party of Germany is attempting to shake up Germany with its confrontational slogans and mass demonstrations. Both the government and the opposition parties are alarmed -- and at odds over whether to pursue a ban of the party.
At last week's Auschwitz memorial service, German President Horst Koehler spoke of Germany's guilt and shame.
German President Horst Koehler, wearing a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his face, sat in the dim light of his limousine, watching the darkest chapter in German history pass by: concentration camp barracks, watch towers, fences that were once electrified and, finally, the gas chambers and the crematorium. "Should I remove my hat?," he asked, quietly, before falling silent again.
Koehler was glad to be wearing the hat as it shielded his face from the the crowds of people anxious to see how Germany's president expressed the deep shame he felt while visiting the site of mankind's greatest crime -- the Auschwitz concentration camp. German SS teams murdered more than a million people here, most of them Jews.
Koehler's next opportunity to speak came during the ensuing ceremony to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army. Hesitant at first and visibly moved, he spoke of German guilt and shame. He warned his fellow Germans to be vigilant, saying: "It is our obligation to make sure that nothing like this will ever happen again."
Elsewhere, at about the same time, another group of people were doing their best to lend new meaning to the term Holocaust. At the headquarters of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) in a Berlin suburb, party leader Udo Voigt and his supporters were in the process of issuing a statement on abortion. In an agitated message, NPD leaders claimed that "about a thousand unborn human beings are murdered every day in Germany. Is this today's Auschwitz?"
Describing the Holocaust Memorial currently under construction in Berlin, an NPD member thanked its planners for "building the foundation for the chancellery of the new German Reich."
It's been 60 years since the end of the Hitler dictatorship, and the past is suddenly jutting sharply into the present. The shame felt by a majority of Germans stands in stark contrast to the stubborn prejudices of the few who all but celebrate their intolerance. The rhetoric of the neo-Nazis runs the gamut from sharp comparisons, through memories clearly intended to downplay Nazi atrocities, to audacious lies. Their objective is to make everything seem relative, to minimize, to sweep so much history under the rug until only a few traces of German guilt remain -- if at all.
To ban or not to ban
This is how right-wing radicals repeatedly manage to confuse the ranks of proponents of democracy. German politicians of every political stripe are embroiled in a dispute over how best to deal with the country's radical right wing.
As a result of its difficult Third Reich history, Germany's constitution has a provision allowing neo-Nazi parties to be banned by the Federal Constitution Court. A government petition to ban the NPD faltered in 2003 after the court refused to grant a main hearing in the case because the government had inflitrated the party with informants in high places. The process caused alienation among the three branches of government responsible for interpreting the constitution: the court, Germany's parliament and the Schroeder administration. The Schroeder administration has accused members of the court of being sticklers for their principles while ignoring political realities. The judges, for their part, are accusing politicians of playing fast and loose with what they believe are the unassailable principles of a constitutional democracy. And they have reminded Berlin that one of the cornerstones of democracy is that the majority should not be readily allowed to silence a minority.
The German people are looking to their elected representatives for guidance, but the country's lawmakers can't even agree on the question of whether or not demonstrations can be prohibited. People in other countries reading about the NPD must be scratching their heads in confusion as they hear all the talk from elites about the "new normalcy" in postwar Germany (as former minister of culture Michael Naumann recently described it).
What's happened to the often cited unity among the supporters of democracy in Germany? Stricter laws to police demonstrations? Over our dead bodies, say many members of the Green Party, conjuring up their own history as a party of dissidents. An expansion of the Bannmeile? (The Bannmeile is a proposed "politics free zone" near Berlin's Reichstag where political parties and interest groups would be banned from conducting demonstrations.) The Social Democrats (SPD) hesitate because the proposal was put forward by the Christian Democrats (CDU). No one dares submit a new motion to ban the NPD, because the judges on the Constitutional Court have demanded the impossible from Minister of the Interior Otto Schily. They want the Office for the Protection of the Constitution to first ensure that there are no longer informants in the NPD's leadership. It was, after all, the sheer number of informants the states and federal government had in the NPD that caused the case to fall apart in the first place.
Just thinking about it makes Schily angry: "If the party had been banned, we wouldn't be having these problems in Saxony today," he says, sitting rigidly in a leather armchair in his study. In 1938, when Schily was six years old, he witnessed an event that was then referred to by the seemingly innocuous name "Reichskristallnacht," or Crystal Night, but in truth was a nationwide pogrom in which synagogues were burned and the glass windows of Jewish shops were shattered.
The NPD has followed the political theatrics with glee. In a year in which the party has a lot on its agenda, the inability of even the staunchest democrats to unite is just what it needs. The NPD plans to take advantage of the calendar of official events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II to truly shake things up in Germany. Party leader Voigt and his cohorts know all too well that their vulgar shenanigans are virtually guaranteed to bring them even more firmly into the public spotlight, both at home and abroad. Now that it has managed to garner 9.2 percent of votes (190,000 voters) in Saxony's state parliamentary elections, the NPD plans to expand. Party leaders are hoping to achieve a respectable showing in the state parliamentary elections in Schleswig-Holstein in February and in North Rhine-Westphalia in May, and perhaps even in federal parliamentary elections next year.
"Anglo-American gangster policies?"
The NPD's rebellion has been very well-planned. On Feb. 13, the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, hundreds of NPD supporters plan to demonstrate in Dresden against what they call "Anglo-American gangster policies."
The highlight of the neo-Nazi commemorative calendar will occur on May 8 when, to remember the day in 1945 when Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel marched into Berlin to sign the capitulation of the German armed forces, a thousand right-wing extremists plan to stage a protest march at Berlin's Holocaust memorial. The march even has a name: "60 years of lies about liberation -- down with the cult of guilt."
At his party's convention in October 2004, NPD leader Voigt railed against "organized professional Jews." For his supporters, Voigt's speech was merely a dress rehearsal.
Holger Apfel, the head of the NPD's parliamentary group in Saxony, led the boycott of a minute of silence for the victims of Auschwitz.
Germans have succumbed to a sense of disillusionment. According to the most recent survey conducted by pollster Infratest Dimap, only about 35 percent of Germans believe banning the NPD would be effective. In January 2002, that number was still 55 percent. The political parties are also interpreting the new quality of the dispute as an attack on the future distribution of power in Germany. Especially the attempts by the two right-wing parties, the NPD and the German People's Union (DVU), to cooperate or at least not campaign against each other during elections, are being followed with great concern. "This is not a minor issue; they're quite serious," says Franz Müntefering, head of the Social Democratic Party. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has already voiced his interest in "convincing the judiciary of the need to impose a ban."
A thorn in the side of German foreign policy
The right-wing offensive is also becoming a thorn in the side of Schroeder's foreign policy, which depends on more self-evidence domestically and more independence abroad. Just last Friday, the EU justice ministers surprisingly addressed the issue of right-wing radicalism in Germany and discussed the possibility of a Europe-wide ban on Nazi symbols.
Germany's global campaign for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which Schroeder recently hoped to boost with Germany's $500 million contribution to the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, would run into problems if the new Germany were too reminiscent of the old. Even cabinet ministers in Schroeder's Social Democrat and Green Party coalition government are taken aback by the clarity of resurgent Nazism. One minister has said that "the old carpet appears to be shining through the new one."
Attentive observers have long since noted that one of the reasons the public debate over banning demonstrations and political parties is so heated is that it forces everyone to glance into Germany's rearview mirror. Weren't the Nazis the ones who banned parties they didn't like? Shouldn't the liberal, constitutional state feel itself vindicated by the fact that it is able to withstand unreasonable demands? As the Times of London astutely points out, the German debate "is a reflection of German confusion over many historic taboos." It is only against this background that the legal proceedings to ban the NPD have developed into a German drama, the outcome of which remains uncertain.
A 2001 NPD demo passes by Berlin's main synagogue: An image that damages Germany's international standing.
Three judges on the Constitutional Court -- Winfried Hassemer, Siegfried Bross and Lerke Osterloh -- refused to cooperate. They cited what they called "outside control" over the NPD, claiming that the party's right to free expression was being restricted. In their assessment, "a government presence at the executive level within a party is tantamount to its influencing the party's development of an informed opinion and activities."
Schily also believes that the judges' formal arguments are formally incorrect. "The informants were not smuggled into the party," Schily told the judges, "they were the flesh and blood of the NPD. A criminal doesn't automatically become a government employee when he gives the police some information. These kinds of claims are nothing short of ridiculous."
A shift in the court's thinking?
But ever since the NPD, clearly encouraged by its success in Saxony, began making openly anti-Semitic statements, the judges on Germany's Constitutional Court have seemed to be changing their minds. In recent weeks, even Holocaust survivors, such as Arno Lustiger, have spoken before parliament and appealed to the court to reconsider its position. "Isn't it time," asked Lustiger, "for German constitutional judges to remove their kid gloves?"
In fact, it appears that the judges in Karlsruhe have already reached that conclusion on their own. "A proceeding to ban political parties is still an option," says Winfried Hassemer, the Constitutional Court's president, told DER SPIEGEL. In 2003, Hassemer was still one of the three judges opposed to the idea.
The government in Berlin hasn't heard this kind of rhetoric coming from the judges in Karlsruhe for some time. The offices of both the interior minister and chancellor are looking into whether they should attempt to reopen the case. But the government concedes it could be a risky move.
NPD members demonstrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 2000.
Members of the Green Party, who so far are only familiar with Schily's plans based on what they read in the papers, are already conducting debates over principle. This time around Volker Beck, the party's leader in parliament, is saying that the Greens could conceivably move "in this direction." But other party members disagree. "The NPD may not be given the power to restrict the constitutional rights of all German citizens," says Silke Stokar, the Greens' domestic policy expert. SPD Member of Parliament Sebastian Edathy agrees: "We must recognize that even right-wing extremists have constitutional rights."
The Greens' right-wing comrades couldn't agree more. They're watching the major parties battle in parliament with obvious delight, all the while figuring out how best to expand their reach. Late last week, the party announced what it called a "schoolyard offensive."
Beginning this week, the NPD will launch its bid in parliamentary elections in the state of Schleswig-Holstein by distributing 5,000 free music CDs by "national rock groups and songwriters" to young people. The NPD higher-ups say they "expect especially strong support from younger voters."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan