Who visited Patrick Wieschke? Who slept at his apartment on the night of Nov. 3? Was it the alleged terrorist Beate Zschäpe?
The question has preoccupied senior investigators at Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), agents at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and government security experts.
Who visited Wieschke? Who stayed in his apartment in the eastern city of Eisenach two days before the so-called Zwickau terrorist cell robbed a savings bank on Nordplatz, a square in Eisenach? The answer could seal the fate of the far-right NPD, because Wieschke, 30, is the party's "national organization director."
At the end of last week, there appeared to be one missing link in a chain of evidence that investigators throughout Germany have been working tirelessly to assemble: Proof of a connection between a top party official and the crimes committed by the Zwickau terrorist group, which stands accused of 10 murders stretching back over decade -- the group allegedly killed eight Turks who ran shops or stalls, one Greek man and a German policewoman.
BKA Director Jörg Ziercke announced that his agency was "declaring war on all right-wing extremism, down to its very roots," and that radical steps would be taken to investigate everything.
Is the NPD the root of the problem? Can the despicable crimes committed by the neo-Nazi terrorists be pinned on the reviled right-wing extremist party?
Answers to these questions are urgently needed, now that a majority of national and regional politicians are upping the pressure to convince the Federal Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe to ban the NPD, following a failed first attempt in 2003.
A panel of experts from 14 states is meeting to explore the prospects of a new case. The 16 state interior ministers will also meet this week to discuss the matter.
Terrorist Link Would Spell Party's Downfall
The opportunity is there. "If there are indications that a party is using terrorism, directly or indirectly, to reach its political goals, that party must be banned," says Holger Stahlknecht, the conservative interior minister of the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, summarizing in a nutshell what many of his counterparts in other states believe. If the NPD is indeed the intellectual or even operational headquarters of right-wing extremist acts of violence, its days are numbered.
But is it? BKA investigators questioned senior NPD official Wieschke for almost five hours last Wednesday. He vehemently denied the allegation that Zschäpe stayed in his apartment on the night in question. In fact, he told the authorities that he barely knew the presumed terrorist, and showed them photos on his mobile phone depicting him in the company of a different woman at 1:08 a.m. in the early morning hours of Nov. 3.
The police are much further along in their case against Ralf Wohlleben. The former deputy chairman of the NPD branch in the eastern state of Thuringia is in custody on charges that he provided the Zwickau terrorist cell with a weapon. Holger G., from the town of Lauenau in Lower Saxony, is also in custody, because of his alleged support for the Zwickau cell, which called itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU).
In 2001 or 2002, after the series of murders had begun, G. allegedly received a gun from Wohlleben, and was told to bring it to Uwe Mundlos at an apartment on Polenzstrasse in Zwickau, where Mundlos and the two other members of the neo-Nazi group had lived. Holger G.'s attorney would not comment on the allegations.
Under criminal law, Wohlleben's alleged activities can easily be classified as support for a terrorist organization. But what does this mean for the assessment of the NPD and its goals? Is a lower-ranking provincial official's involvement in terrorist activities enough to condemn an entire party as unconstitutional?
Not necessarily. According to the German constitution, the behavior of a party's "supporters" can be an indication that the party "aims to impair the liberal democratic system." What is of interest, says Martin Morlok, a leading expert on political parties, is "the unconstitutional behavior of the party, not that of other individuals."
High Hurdles to Banning Parties
Experts like Hans Peter Bull, the attorney who represented the German government in the first legal effort to ban the NPD, are skeptical as to whether Wohlleben's possible support for the NSU "can be attributed to the party as a whole." According to Bull, prosecutors would have to prove that Wohlleben's behavior was "typical for the party." Only if the support of radical right-wing thugs by NPD officials can in fact be linked to the party does an attempt to ban the NPD stand a chance. The sharp weapon of banning a political party is not intended as an instrument of punishment or a defense against terrorists, but instead is meant to prevent parties from destroying the very same fundamental values of democracy that enable them to enjoy many privileges.
If top NPD officials like "national organization director" Wieschke were indeed involved in acts of terrorism, it would be easy for the courts to classify right-wing extremist terrorism as a barbaric tool of party policy. But when it comes to the actions of lower-ranking party officials, the important question is how the party addresses the accusations against such people.
The NPD's official position is clear: The party leadership distances itself from acts of violence whenever possible. On its website, the NPD characterizes the Zwickau terrorists as "crazy criminals." Party leaders in Berlin, however, make a more outrageous claim, questioning whether "the alleged terrorist cell is not in fact a creation of the domestic intelligence agency, the sole purpose of which is to establish a basis for banning the unwanted national opposition."
But it isn't that easy. In fact, over the years a sinister symbiotic relationship has developed between elements within the NPD and violent right-wing extremist groups. And it is difficult to determine who is actually controlling whom.
NPD members contradict the NPD's official position against violence, not just in isolated instances but in fact with horrifying regularity. There can be no doubt that they face charges of illegal weapons possession far more often than members of other parties.
In January, police confiscated a submachine gun and 400 rounds of ammunition from Sven Krüger, a council member in the Nordwestmecklenburg administrative district in eastern Germany. A court convicted Krüger of receiving stolen goods and illegal possession of firearms, and sentenced him to a prison term of four years and three months.
In August 2009, police discovered a Swiss assault rifle, a loaded handgun and a large collection of materials for making pipe bombs in the home of the "base commander" of the NPD youth organization in Lörrach, a town in southwestern Germany. But there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction for "preparation of a crime involving explosives," and the matter was referred to another court.
The authorities have also collected evidence against Thorsten Heise, a member of the NPD national leadership. In 2007, investigators seized a machine gun and an automatic pistol at his home.
There is plenty of evidence of overlap between militant far-right groups, or "Kameradschaften," and the NPD. The presumed leader of "Sturm 34," a neo-Nazi organization that had named itself after a unit of Hitler's Sturm Abteilung (SA) organization, was put on trial in Dresden in 2008. He had been a member of the NPD until 2007.
One of the most important events at which NPD officials and hard-core Nazis with violent leanings have formed a common front, at least temporarily, was the so-called Rudolf Hess Memorial March, long a social high point in the neo-Nazi community. In 2002, for example, members of the banned "Blood & Honor" network attended the march. Members of the group had published their own "underground magazine" called Totenkopf (Skull), which included precise instructions on how to wage an underground terrorist war.
According to Lorenz Caffier, interior minister of the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, there are "conspicuous ties between the NPD and neo-Nazi Kameradschaften groups" in his state. A building called the "Thinghaus," in the town of Grevesmühlen, is one of the places where such ties are indeed evident. "Thing" in this case appears to be a reference to the old Norse term for assembly.
The building looks like a fortress in enemy territory. It is surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire, there are bars on the windows, and a sign on the wall, written in the local dialect, reads "Lever dood as Slaav" -- "Better Dead than Enslaved."
According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the building is a venue for concerts by neo-Nazi bands. Members of a violent, right-wing extremist group of skinheads called the Hammerskins are also reportedly regulars at the "Thinghaus." This doesn't seem to trouble Stefan Köster, regional head of the NPD in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, who maintains a "citizens' office" at the Thinghaus. So does Udo Pastörs, the chairman of the NPD group in the state parliament and deputy leader of the national party.
New Emphasis on Non-Violence
The party's new chairman, Holger Apfel, who managed to unseat his longstanding rival, former leader Udo Voigt, three weeks ago, supposedly wants to solidify the NPD's position within the democratic spectrum of parties. The doctrine that has been formulated for this purpose is called "Serious Radicalism." Apfel's insistence that the NPD, "based on its deepest inner convictions," rejects "all forms of violence in political debate," has made him the target of extensive criticism from other party members, who ask: Is it really necessary to make this commitment?
In fact, this cautious strategy could enable the party to thwart its persecutors.
Officials in the interior ministries of both eastern and western states are increasingly concerned about the overly blind zeal of the NPD's persecutors. "Of course an NPD ban is preferable," says Dietmar Woidke, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the interior minister of the eastern state of Brandenburg. "The issue is whether it is sufficiently likely that the Federal Constitutional Court will classify the NPD as unconstitutional. I think that's an open question."
Experts at the interior ministry in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia tend to agree, at least unofficially. And Boris Rhein (CDU), interior minister of the neighboring state of Hesse, has even publicly opposed efforts by his counterparts in other states to make a new attempt to outlaw the NPD. He is against the withdrawal of informants from within the leadership that this would entail, out of fears "that then we would more or less blind."
In its 1956 decision to ban the Communist Party of Germany (KPD), the Federal Constitutional Court made it clear just how high the bar is set by the German constitution for anyone seeking to prove that a party is unconstitutional.
According to the court, the "intent" of the party to "fundamentally and continually" fight the liberal order must be demonstrated. The court also argued that this intent must be expressed in actions, programmatic speeches and the like, in such a way "that it becomes recognizable as the political method systematically being pursued by the party."
"The basic problem with banning parties is always the same," says Wolfgang Löwer, the attorney for the German parliament, the Bundestag, in the first attempt to ban the NPD. "How do you prove the party's active combative stance?"
Of course, says Löwer, one of the arguments to support a ban of the far-right party, an argument that was also used in the first trial, involves the "similarity in nature" between the party and right-wing extremist groups, and even a terrorist cell like the NSU. If prosecutors managed to tie the NPD to militant groups, "it might be enough."
Insiders familiar with the Constitutional Court say that the most important thing is to make sure that any new case against the NPD is watertight. A new petition to ban the NPD only makes sense "if the material submitted to the court is pretty self-evident," says a source close to the high court. Unconstitutionality practically has to be "written on the party's forehead," he adds.
On the other hand, say sources close to the court, if it were forced to "meticulously and painstakingly gather the evidence, the question would be whether a petition to ban the party is the right instrument." They argue that precisely because advocates of a ban are using the NSU terrorist group as evidence, they will have to establish a "valid connection"-- otherwise the case will turn into a "balancing act."
Informants Pose Risk to New Ban Attempt
According to constitutional law expert Bull, those who intend to take the plunge and make a new attempt to ban the NPD, despite the obstacles, will be entering "a vicious circle." Only with the help of informants will it be possible to secure enough evidence to paint a true picture of the party, but it was precisely the large-scale use of informants that led to the failure of the first effort to ban the NPD in 2003.
The court stopped the proceedings at the time. The judges argued that intelligence contacts between government authorities and leading members of the party amounted to a "serious impairment" of its freedoms enshrined in the constitution. In addition, the judges ruled, the party could not be banned based on statements made by members who were on the government's payroll as informants.
Now the state interior ministers are grappling with the question of how a similar disaster can be avoided in a second attempt. Most either hesitate or roundly reject pulling the intelligence agencies' informants out of the party to pave the way for a new trial.
It is also unclear how the Constitutional Court now views the issue. If a ban were submitted today, it would be to a completely new court. The last judge who was involved in the 2003 decision, Udo Di Fabio, retires on Dec. 19. "No one knows how the judges view the matter today," says Winfried Hassemer, the vice-president of the Constitutional Court at the time of the first NPD trial.
Today's judges wouldn't be bound by the 2003 decision. The court expressly noted at the time that the decision in the case had "no binding effect."
In addition, four of the then judges, in a dissenting vote, did not view the use of informants as an obstacle. The fact that the minority of three judges prevailed with their concerns about the informants was purely the result of legal technicalities.
But all proponents of a new ban attempt know that anyone who wants to avoid the risk of the Constitutional Court judges rejecting the bid should stick closely to the requirements set forth by the judges in the first trial.
On the one hand, this means removing informants from within the party's leadership by the time a trial to ban the NPD begins. On the other hand, it also means practically doing without testimony from informants in the case to ban the party. "It has to be clear," says Hassemer, "who is the author of documents that supposedly incriminate the NPD."
In a classified document, the panel that has been charged by the majority of German states with looking into the chances for the success of a new trial has pragmatically proposed ignoring the issue of informants for the time being. It argues that if a promising petition to ban the party cannot be assembled with the existing material, which is "burdened" by the use of informants, a petition will be "highly unlikely" to succeed without the informant material.
It will be difficult to take the bold step to launch a ban. "If we do pursue this path," Chancellor Angela Merkel promised, "we will do it with determination." But few of those who are now adamantly calling for a petition to ban the NPD realize what a long path it will be.
The Interior Ministry anticipates that it could take up to three years just to prepare the case, while the court could take as long as that again to reach a decision. Besides, realistically speaking, the trial could only begin once the criminal proceedings against the Zwickau cell have been concluded, and the Constitutional Court can be confronted with final sentences issued by criminal courts -- and that too can take years.
These would be years in which the NPD could close ranks and gain strength. Among radicals, the knowledge of being persecuted always triggers the comforting feeling of being in the right.
MATTHIAS BARTSCH, ANDREA BRANDT, THOMAS DARNSTÄDT, DIETMAR HIPP, SIMONE KAISER, GUNTHER LATSCH, MAXIMILIAN POPP, SVEN RÖBEL, ANDREAS ULRICH, STEFFEN WINTER