Right-wing extremists attend an NPD rally in May. Would a ban on the party help to stamp out racism in Germany?Foto: DPA
The leader of National Democratic Party of Germany, Udo Voigt, wants to build a new Reich chancellery on the site of Berlin's Holocaust memorial, and he said last week that Adolf Hitler's deputy in the Nazi Party, the late Rudolf Hess, should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize .
The domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, calls the NPD "racist, anti-Semitic, revisionist" in its 2006 report and says it "denigrates the democratic and legal order of the constitution."
A guide by the NPD leadership for party candidates and officials states that the party's aim is to "restore the capability of the German Reich" and calls the German constitution a "diktat of the western victorious powers."
An "African, Asian or Oriental" can never become German, regardless of whether they obtain a German passport, the party states. Members of other races will "always remain foreign bodies physically, mentally and spiritually, regardless of how long they live in Germany."
NPD flags and symbols are unmistakably similar to Nazi paraphernalia, and party members are on record praising Hitler and his henchmen. And in a bid to broaden its support, the party has been recruiting members of the violent neo-Nazi scene into its leadership and has joined forces with the far-right German People's Union (DVU) party.
Yet the NPD is a legitimate German political party. It received €1.4 million ($1.9 million) in state funding last year. It seems astounding that such an organization can be allowed to exist in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust and has spent the last six decades atoning for it.
Court Threw Out First Attempt to Ban Party
The democratic political parties are well aware of the problem but have so far failed to tackle it. A bid by the government and parliament to outlaw the NPD foundered in 2003 on Germany's rigorous system of checks and balances installed to prevent a repeat of the Third Reich, when organisations and parties were outlawed overnight.
Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, threw out the case because it emerged that important witnesses for the prosecution -- including the NPD chief for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia -- worked as informants for the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The court decided that it couldn't ban a party whose policies may have been shaped in part by government agents.
The failure to ban the NPD was a major embarrassment for the previous government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Many analysts believe it actually strengthened the NPD, which has seen an increase in membership in recent years to around 7,000 in 2006 from 6,000 in 2005.
So the party went on marching and railing against immigrants and immigration, and won enough votes to enter the regional parliaments of two eastern states, Saxony in 2004, with 9.2 percent of the vote, and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2006 with 7.3 percent.
Now the leader of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Kurt Beck, has called for a new attempt to outlaw the NPD, following a nationwide outcry over the beating of eight Indian men by a group of Germans shouting "Foreigners Out" in the eastern town of Mügeln on Aug. 18.
"We need a political climate in Germany that makes it unmistakably clear that anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination will not be tolerated," Beck told the newspaper Tagesspiegel am Sonntag. SPD General Secretary Hubertus Heil said: "The constitution expressly allows the possibility of a party ban. I ask myself how much more the NPD still has to do before we start taking this issue seriously."
'A Gigantic Embarrassment for the State'
The problem is that Chancellor Angela Merkel and leading members of her conservative Christian Democrats oppose the idea of a ban because they don't think it would be any more successful than the 2003 attempt. Another failure would be a "gigantic embarrassment for the state," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a member of the German parliament's internal affairs committee. "And we should all spare ourselves that."
Legal experts have also warned that any ban faces major hurdles. Given the earlier ruling, it seems inevitable that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution would have to withdraw its agents from the NPD to satisfy the constitutional court, leaving the intelligence service without any insight into the internal workings of the party.
And the government would have to prove that the NPD isn't just opposed to the constitution -- which is pretty evident given that it keeps saying so -- but is actively working to overthrow it. That latter point is harder to prove.
"One of the main arguments for a ban is to cut off public funding, which is an aspect that I as a taxpayer find really galling," Oskar Niedermayer, an expert on the NPD, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It's also about showing the rest of the world that Germany isn't prepared to tolerate right-wing extremism."
"The NPD has been so unabashed in its public statements in recent months that there is probably more evidence against them now, regardless of what they say behind closed doors," said Niedermayer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University. "But I still wouldn't bet on any ban attempt succeeding."
Given that the SPD and CDU don't agree on the issue, there probably won't be a new bid to outlaw the party said Niedermayer. "The risk is that we'll get the usual weeks of outrage and political posturing and then nothing will happen."
Racism in the East
The Mügeln incident is still being investigated but follows a long series of attacks on foreigners in eastern Germany stretching back to unification in 1990. The racism has been blamed in part on high unemployment, on a lack of education about the Nazis in the schools of communist East Germany, and on the absence of leisure opportunities for young men left to their own devices amid an exodus of educated young women from the region .
Politicians and sociologists have detected a breakdown of civil values in the east, an undercurrent of xenophobia at the heart of the region's society, an inability to show understanding for other people's point of view, and a propensity towards violence, possibly stemming from decades of authoritarian state rule.
That could explain why passers-by in the east simply ignore assaults or watch them happen. In western Germany, where racist assaults happen as well but are far less frequent on a per capita basis, people at least tend to call the police.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany and a number of anti-racism organizations havve warned that parts of eastern Germany have become no-go areas for foreigners.
Not the Whole Solution
But banning the NPD wouldn't banish the far right from Germany. The country already has strict laws against denying the Holocaust and displaying Nazi symbols such as the swastika. But the far right has been flourishing nonetheless.
"A ban would help a bit but it would by no means erase the problem," said Niedermayer. "The NPD's members could simply form another party or join other far-right parties." The NPD itself emerged from the Socialist Reich Party, which was outlawed in 1951.
The government has pledged to boost funding for long-term projects such as setting up youth organisations and sports clubs in the east. But it's not just the young people that should be targeted. Younger men may be committing the assaults, but behind twitching lace curtains, older generations are looking on with a smile.
"All surveys show that far-right views are widespread among middle-aged and older people in the east," said Niedermayer. Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung wrote that banning the NPD would be the wrong reaction to the Mügeln attack.
"It wouldn't change what goes on in people's heads," the newspaper wrote in a recent editorial. "The real danger for our democracy comes from school classes where racist jargon is the norm, pub talk that condones a little violence, and areas that are best avoided by people of dark skin color or with long hair."