The right-extremist National Democratic Party is almost broke. That, at least, has been the message delivered recently by both media reports and the party itself. Even the NPD chairman Udo Voigt admitted that his party was in an "existential crisis."
The NPD, which Germany's domestic intelligence agency describes as a "racist, anti-Semitic, revisionist" party bent on removing democracy and forming a Fourth Reich, is on the brink of insolvency because it faces heavy fines for accounting irregularities in recent years.
To the overwhelming majority of Germans, that will naturally come as good news. But regardless of the NPD's financial problems and the possibility that it may cease to function, the country's far-right scene is becoming more dangerous, experts say.
"The neo-Nazi scene, both inside and outside the NPD, is becoming stronger, not as a nationwide electoral force but in its influence on racist attitudes and violence," Professor Hajo Funke, a prominent analyst of the far right at Berlin's Free University, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There are places I wouldn't advise anyone who looks foreign to go without protection."
Funke's analysis was backed up this week by a major new study which showed that fully one in seven German teenagers -- 14.4 percent -- have attitudes deemed highly xenophobic. They agreed with statements like, for example, "Most immigrants are criminal."
The two-year, government-commissioned survey of more than 20,000 15-year-old schoolchildren concluded that a further 26.2 percent held "fairly xenophobic" attitudes. A proportion of 5.2 percent of teenagers were classified as far-right because they had racist views, listened to neo-Nazi music, wore corresponding fashions or had committed a far-right crime, the survey showed. A further 11.5 percent had strong far-right sympathies.
"It was known that the figures were high," German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble told a news conference on Tuesday. "But I'm appalled that they're this high."
Apart from the new survey, analysts point to a surge in far-right crimes last year and to a surprisingly strong showing of neo-Nazis on Feb. 14 to mark the 64th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. An estimated 7,000-8,000 neo-Nazis, many of them wearing black hooded jackets, marched silently through the eastern German city with banners condemning the "Bombing Holocaust."
They were outnumbered by anti-Nazi demonstrators, but the fact that the NPD managed to attract more than twice as many supporters to the event as last year underlines that the far-right scene is growing, especially in the economically depressed east. And it is an impression backed by the numbers. Far-right crimes reached a new high of 13,985 in 2008, a 28 percent rise over 2007, according to preliminary figures from the German interior ministry. Such crime statistics are often revised upwards.
"The crimes statistics show right-wing extremism is steadily expanding," confirmed Funke.
Crimes Small and Large
Most of those offenses are non-violent, such as daubing swastikas on headstones in Jewish cemeteries or smashing the windows of takeaway restaurants run by immigrants. Unfortunately, they have become so commonplace that they don't usually make the headlines anymore.
But the number of violent far-right crimes, such as arson and assault, is likewise rising -- by 14.5 percent to 735 in 2008. The incidence of such attacks is far higher in the east than the west, and anti-Nazi campaigners have been warning for years that parts of the east have become no-go areas for immigrants.
Typical cases include the beating of a 44-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker in the town of Brandenburg near Berlin last May. He was attacked from behind by men shouting "Get out of here you pig" and sustained serious head injuries, according to Opferspektive, a government-funded group that monitors such attacks.
In Niedergörsdorf near Berlin in June, a man who was overheard speaking Russian in the street was punched by a neighbor who yelled: "You Russian Jew pig, Hitler would have gassed something like you!"
On March 7 in the eastern town of Mügeln, two men assaulted an Indian man outside a pizza restaurant and broke his nose. Prosecutors aren't ruling out a racist motive. Outside that same restaurant in August 2007, eight Indian men were assaulted by a mob chanting "Foreigners Out" in a case that attracted international attention.
Declining Economy May Boost NPD Support
Funke said that despite its internal problems, the NPD remains well organized in the two eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where it has seats in the regional parliaments, and that it may even win enough support to enter the parliament of another eastern state, Thuringia, in an election on August 30. He said the government had underestimated the far-right threat for years, and that police needed to get much tougher on offenders.
"It's irrelevant that the NPD keeps embarrassing itself in the eyes of liberal voters, because they would never support the party anyway," said Funke. "It continues to appeal to people who are frustrated, who are uninterested in democracy or even opposed to it, and who see foreigners as scapegoats for their problems."
The NPD has more than 7,000 members but many neo-Nazis aren't enrolled in the party because it's too moderate for them or they don't want to pay the dues. Of more concern is the fact that the financial crisis may boost the NPD, which has proved before that it can win protest votes by tapping discontent about the economy. In 2004, it won 9.2 percent in the last regional election in Saxony after it campaigned against cuts to unemployment benefits.
"It's known that right-wing extremists seize on political and economic problems. They offer supposedly simple solutions to issues that people are worried about in an attempt to gain support," said Alrik Bauer, spokesman for the Saxony state intelligence service. But he said there was no sign so far that the NPD was gaining from the financial crisis ahead of a state election in Saxony in August.
Authorities have increased spending on projects such as setting up youth centers to prevent young people from joining the neo-Nazis, or funding citizens' advice organisations. But the measures are having little effect. The far-right scene remains a powerful draw for young, uneducated men with poor job prospects.
"The lure of the scene is far too great," said Bernd Wagner, a former police officer who co-founded EXIT, a group that helps people get out of the neo-Nazi scene. "Who's going to keep young people out of it? Nagging teachers? The priest who's more focused on his crooked church spire? The country policeman who wants a quiet life?"
Nazis Seeking to Broaden Public Appeal
"There's no force in society that is seriously challenging the scene," Wagner continued. "Not the domestic intelligence service, not the police, not the more than 3,000 'projects' funded by the various regional governments."
Wagner said violent neo-Nazis were growing increasingly disenchanted with the NPD's lack of success in nationwide elections. The party scored just 1.8 percent in the 2005 general election, and is usually well below 1 percent. "I have the impression the militant ones have lost faith. That's why they're becoming more uninhibited in their violence. It's a very dangerous trend," said Wagner.
Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
The NPD, which remains a legitimate political party, has in recent months looked intent on destroying itself. In addition to its financial problems, its leadership looks hopelessly divided, and Voigt is expected to be ousted at a party congress in April.
There's a bitter dispute over who is to succeed him. One contender, Andreas Molau, withdrew his candidacy after the deputy chairman, Jürgen Rieger, accused him of being "one-eighth Jew." Rieger, a lawyer, is himself is in trouble after a vintage Wehrmacht assault rifle was found in a police search of his private home last month.
"It's a morbid scene, and it resembles suicide in stages," said Wagner. "But we shouldn't underestimate the ability of Nazi fronts to rebuild. Despite the turmoil, the scene is continuing to grow.
The NPD has been trying to broaden its appeal by presenting a moderate public image. Its spokesmen tend to avoid the look that makes neo-Nazis identifiable on the street -- shaven heads or Hitler Youth-style haircuts, combat boots and far-right symbols on their clothing. "It may seem surprising but the strategy of pretending to be moderate actually works with many voters, even if it's a lie that conceals a brutal vision of a Fourth Reich," said Funke.
Recent comments by a former senior NPD member gave a glimpse of its true face. Hitler salutes are commonplace at closed-door meetings and members talk about sending their opponents off in "freight trains," in reference to the trains that took Jews to the concentration camps, said Uwe Luthardt, who belonged to the regional NPD leadership in the eastern city of Jena, in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE.
"The aim is the restoration of the Reich in which a new SA takes revenge on anyone who disagrees with them," Luthardt said. SA refers to Sturmabteilung, the Nazi party's para-military brown shirts.
Luthardt, who said he quit the party in disgust after just three months on its board, said the Nazi anthem was regularly sung at meetings and that the NPD often received donations from old Nazis in South America.
Ban of NPD Unlikely Anytime Soon
Few politicians doubt that the NPD warrants banning. But there's a dispute about whether to launch another bid to outlaw it after a previous attempt failed in 2003. The case was thrown out by Germany's highest court because several NPD officials called to testify turned out to be informants for the intelligence service, and their testimony was deemed invalid.
That failure gave the party a boost in subsequent elections, and conservative politicians now argue that any new attempt to outlaw the NPD must be absolutely watertight. "I don't think there'll be a new attempt to ban the NPD in the near future," said Funke.