German President Christian Wulff paid an official visit to the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Thursday. But he did not go to the village of Lalendorf, even though it would only have meant a small detour from his set itinerary.
The quiet settlement has been in the headlines since mid-November when Wulff agreed, in keeping with post-war German tradition, to act as honorary godfather to the seventh child born to a local family. The decision is controversial because the family in question has strong neo-Nazi connections.
Mayor Reinhard Knaack, a member of the Left Party, went public with his outrage at Wulff's decision. He refused to pass the president's official certificate on to the Müller family. The baby's father works at a "eugenics institute" linked to the far-right NPD party, while the mother belongs to a far-right women's organisation.
Knaack has stood by his actions, telling the regional newspaper Schweriner Volkszeitung that he did not see himself as "an extension of the president's arm" but as someone with "a consistent stance against the far right."
Following a raging local debate and extensive coverage by the regional media, Knaack received death threats by phone and on the Internet. Last weekend, a group of right-wing extemists entered his garden. Since then, he has been under round-the-clock police protection.
'The Child Is at the Center'
Knaack's remarks have attracted support from across the political spectrum. "We cannot argue against right-wing culture in schools and projects and then honor such people," said Wilfried Baldermann, a regional politician from the conservative Christian Democratic Union.
Last week, Wulff's office opted to send the certificate by post and wire the money directly to the family; the honor also includes a payment of €500 ($660). "The child is at the center of this," the president's office insisted, stressing that it was not trying to honor the parents. The office also said that everyone should encourage an "atmosphere where children are raised to respect democracy."
But many in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have complained that the president has taken the easy way out. The region is among those states in the former East Germany with the highest density of right-wing extremists. The far-right NPD party even gained 7 percent of seats in the state parliament in Schwerin, and many complain that right-wing extremists have established deep roots in society, even seeking a foothold in local day-care centers.
No Visit to Godchild Planned
Mathias Brodkorb, a politician in the local parliament with the center-left Social Democrats, said that Wulff should have used his official trip to the region to gain an insight into the problem.
"In becoming an honory godfather, Wulff could not have really acted in another way," he said. "But when Wulff is here in our area, he should take the opportunity to sit down with the local mayor and discuss how difficult it really is here."
But such a visit was not on the cards. Sources in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania's governor's office confirmed ahead of the visit that President Wulff's itinerary would remain unchanged.
In the end, although Wulff did not visit Lalendorf, he did speak out on the issue. On Thursday, he called on local communities, day-care centers and schools to set a good example for tolerance and democratic values. He stressed, however, that being a godparent had nothing to do with the issue of right-wing extremism. "Children are not responsible for their parents," Wulff said.