His diatribe against immigrants and Muslims sold more than a million copies, making it Germany's bestselling non-fiction book in 2010. Since then, though, aside from the occasional public appearance, Thilo Sarrazin has largely faded from public attention in recent months. His pointed comments about Islam in Germany have become predictable. His periodic spats with the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), stemming from attempts by the right-extremist party's efforts to appropriate his message, have garnered little attention.
Now though, Sarrazin, a former member of the board at Germany's central bank, is once again in the limelight. On Thursday, proceedings are set to get underway in Berlin which could result in Sarrazin's expulsion from the center-left Social Democrats, his life-long political home. Sarrazin is contesting the effort -- and the approaching battle is one that many in the SPD are not looking forward to.
At the peak of the Sarrazin controversy, the sky appeared to be the limit for the politician and many feared his views might pave the way for a new right-wing populist party in Germany modelled on those which have emerged in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and elsewhere in recent years. Unable to predict that the apparent Sarrazin ascent might eventually peter out, SPD leaders filed for proceedings to removed him from the party. Ironically, those proceedings could now push Sarrazin back into the public eye.
'Behavior Damaging to the Party'
The SPD is accusing the 66 year old of "behavior damaging to the party," and a final decision won't likely come for months and after a number of appeals.
And the party is not going out of its way to draw attention to the process. No senior party members have commented publicly on the proceedings and they are being kept closed to the public.
The truth is, the proceedings come at an inopportune time for the SPD. Yet again, the party is in the midst of a crisis, struggling to find a new direction two years after getting voted out of national government. And it has been suffering in the polls. At a time when the fast-rising Green Party is busy discussing the possibility of fielding its first-ever chancellor candidate, SPD leaders appear to be fumbling.
The fact that SPD's general secretary, Andrea Nahles, who is leading the proceedings against Sarrazin, will have to expend energy that could go elsewhere, has displeased some in the party. And exclusion proceedings are never particularly good for publicity.
SPD Divided over Proceedings
Indeed, the intention of booting Sarrazin from the party has been controversial in the SPD from the beginning. SPD party veterans like former German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück or former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt spoke out against proceedings very early on -- even if they did express disgust over Sarrazin's quasi eugenic arguments and his statements that immigrants are largely useless for Germany. For a time during the past year, stacks of letters began to pile up in the party's headquarters from members warning against moves to ban Sarrazin from the SPD. But the SPD's national party boss, Sigmar Gabriel, was determined from the beginning to push the proceedings through.
Now party leaders have months of nail-biting ahead of them. After all, it is anything but a given that the independent commission that will determine the politician's future will actually move to kick Sarrazin out of the party. Traditionally, the hurdles are set high for expulsion and the justifications must also be strong enough to stand up in a normal court.
Sources say the SPD leadership has decided not to base its complaint on racist remarks from Sarrazin. Instead, the central charge is that, in his book, Sarrazin has systematically sought to undermine the fundamental SPD principles of social equality and equal opportunity for all.
Internally, though even some of Sarrazin's staunchest opponents within the SPD are questioning the prospects for success. They point to a previous attempt to exclude Sarrazin from a Berlin district chapter of the party in 2010. The arguments to kick him out at the time were based on an interview the Bundesbank board member had given to a German cultural magazine in which he referred to "little girls with headscarves" and made controversial statements like: "The Turks are conquering Germany the way the Kosovars conquered Kosovo: with a higher birthrate." Or that "a large number of Arabs and Turks in (Berlin) … have no productive function other than in the fruit and vegetable trade."
'Freedom of Opinion Is Highly Valued'
Those statements also appeared to have violated the SPD's core values, but the head of the commission determining the case against him at the time, Sybille Uken -- who is also to hear the present case -- disagreed, concluding that she was unable to determine whether Sarrazin had violated the party's principles.
When party members appealed Uken's district-level decision, their arguments were also rejected at the state level. "His statements are certainly problematic for the party, but they can at the same time be useful in that they promote the discussion," a state SPD panel concluded in March 2010. "Freedom of opinion is indisputably highly valued by the Social Democratic Party and it must be able to withstand such provocative statements."
Many who supported the first attempt to ban Sarrazin from the party are shying away from the new effort. Still, officials at the SPD's national party headquarters believe they have a chance, noting that in the previous ruling in Sarrazin's favor, the SPD commission noted that it was not giving the former central banker "a free pass for all future provocations."
And Sarrazin's bestseller, "Deutschland schafft sich ab," roughly "Germany Does Itself In," is filled with provocations. He writes, for example: "From an economic point of view we don't need Muslim immigration in Europe. In every country Muslim immigrants cost the state more in terms of their low employment and high use of welfare benefits than they generate in added economic value." Or: "Among Arabs in Germany, in particular, there is a widespread tendency to have children in order to receive more social benefits, and the women who are often imprisoned in the family basically have hardly anything else to do." Sarrazin also played with statistics to try to prove that poorly educated Muslim immigrants had a far higher birth rate than ethnic Germans and are dumbing down the German population.
Nevertheless, the case will still be an uphill battle for the SPD and the party has little to gain by it. A victory in the party court might please some Sarrazin critics, but it would also alienate the not insignificant number of the politicians supporters within the party. A defeat would also make the party chiefs look weak at a time when the party is already ailing.
A first decision in the proceedings is expected within four weeks, but it will not be the last. Both SPD party leaders and Sarrazin have announced that they will exercise every appeal option right up to the national level in proceedings that could draw out for months.