Flirting with Extremists Mayor Criticized for Observations on Far-Right Party

A longtime mayor in an eastern German town who is a member of the country's main center-left party, the Social Democrats, is being heavily criticized this week for comments that appeared to support the far-right NPD party.

Krauschwitzer Mayor Hans Püschel: "I wasn't aware there was anything I should take back."
Peter Lisker

Krauschwitzer Mayor Hans Püschel: "I wasn't aware there was anything I should take back."

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The vast majority of mainstream politicians in Germany consider the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) to be beyond the pale because of the party's extreme racist and revisionist policies. But local politician Hans Püschel, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), the country's main center-left party, appears not to share the consensus.

"It seems that they don't have such bad ideas," he wrote recently, referring to the NPD. In his opinion, the party's much-vilified members aren't bad people, either. Püschel attended the NPD's national party convention in the town of Hohenmölsen in early November. "To my astonishment," he wrote, the convention attendees were people "like those you can meet anywhere else -- a lot of young people, women, even children." It was "almost like being at an SPD convention," he felt.

With the exception of a seven-year hiatus, Püschel, 62, has been the mayor of Krauschwitz, a municipality in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt with a population of 560, since 1990. Many people in the SPD, a party with a long tradition of opposing the Nazis, are now wondering why he has suddenly decided to embrace the far-right NPD.

His moves come amidst a major national debate over immigration in the country following the publication of a book by Thilo Sarrazin, also of the SPD, whose polemic essentially argued that immigrants are responsible for an alleged demise of German society. With polls showing as many as 20 percent of German voters could be attracted to a right-wing populist party, concerns are growing in the country about the possible rise of xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiment.

SPD Shocked by Statements

After his visit to the NPD's convention, Püschel wrote a one-and-a-half-page letter, from which the quotes mentioned above were taken, to the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung regional newspaper. The paper refused to publish it, so Püschel then decided to post his pro-NPD letter himself on an SPD members' website and another Internet forum, where it came to the NPD's attention. The party was so pleased with the praise that it immediately began circulating the letter. Since then, it has also cropped up on various right-wing websites.

If Germany's democracy "cannot solve the existential problems of the population and the country," Püschel writes in the letter, "then those who want to establish a perhaps rather different kind of democracy or government by the people should give it a try." At least the NPD is trying to think about how to fight problems like child poverty or a lack of nursing staff, Püschel says. "In every area that I deal with, I realize that the people probably have the least say." Instead, he continues, "the powerful and financial and industrial groups" have more influence.

The SPD is shocked by Püschel's behavior. A mechanical engineer by trade, Püschel is regarded as an experienced local politician and was a member of the party's state committee for many years. Some years ago, he even ran for the office of mayor in the town of Weissenfels, which has a population of over 33,000. "I never thought that Hans would do something like this," says Rüdiger Erben, the deputy chairman of the SPD in Saxony-Anhalt and the head of the SPD in the district of Burgenlandkreis, where Krauschwitz is located.

SPD: Püschel Should Have Protested against NPD

Püschel's decision to attend the NPD's convention in early November had already mystified his party colleagues. "I had assumed that he would be protesting outside the building," says Erben. Even Saxony-Anhalt's Governor Wolfgang Böhmer, who belongs to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party, took part in a mass demonstration against the NPD convention in Hohenmölsen on that day.

Püschel, in contrast, sided with the NPD. "Of those people who led the march through Hohenmölsen, which of them has ever lived in such conditions?" he asked, referring to the social problems that the NPD likes to talk about.

The leader of the SPD in the state, Katrin Budde, calls Püschel's letter "highly reprehensible." "We expressly distance ourselves from any trivialization of the NPD," she told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. Erben emphasizes that the party in the Burgenlandkreis district had always taken a clear stance against right-wing extremism.

On Monday evening, the SPD's state committee discussed the case. They decided that Erben and his colleagues in Burgenlandkreis should deal with Püschel for the time being. But it is unclear what they should do about the renegade mayor. Expelling him from the party could prove to be problematic. The SPD in Saxony-Anhalt have observed the difficulties that have befallen the party on the national level in their attempts to expel Sarrazin.

With only four months to go before the next state election, members of SPD want to avoid the kind of problems experienced by party leader Sigmar Gabriel at the federal level when Sarrazin was threatened with procedures to expel him from the party. "I don't believe we should threaten to kick Püschel out if we then just have to roll that threat back again," says local SPD leader Erben. As a senior official in the state's Interior Ministry, he is also an expert in dealing with the NPD.

In recent days, Erben has spoken with Püschel several times by phone, and the mayor will soon be expected to explain himself to regional party leaders. Erben said they planned to listen to Püschel and discuss the issues with him before making any decisions.

Mayor Expresses No Regrets

So far, Püschel has expressed no regret, and that could ultimately lead to his removal from the party. "I wasn't aware there was anything I should take back," Püschel said in a phone interview. He said he had merely given a "description."

As a mayor, Püschel is always on the go. He engages in quarrels with the state government regularly if it is acting against the interests of his town. And when the town celebrates anniversaries, he always likes to read his own verse. For years, he appears to have been concerned about "our people." One time he wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper in which he promoted the singing of the national anthem at high school graduation celebrations. In another, he lamented the corruption of the German language.

"Hans Püschel has always been good for a surprise," says local party boss Erben. He suggests that Püschel is feeling "deprived of power" because the most recent regional reform in the area will see the town of which he is mayor merged with a larger town nearby. "That contradicts any understanding of democracy," he said. So is the Social Democrat just angry that the establishment politicians because they are taking the office of mayor away from him?

Püschel is amused by the comparison with Sarrazin; he even laughs on the telephone. And like Sarrazin, Püschel also states: "I want to remain in the SPD."

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