The World from Berlin 'The Neo-Nazi Killers Were Among Us'
With the country reeling from the discovery of a neo-Nazi terror cell in eastern Germany, many politicians are now calling for a ban of the right-wing extremist party, the NPD. But German commentators say that, even if the party could be prohibited, the debate misses the point entirely.
Call it a reflex rooted in history. Whenever there is an uptick in right-wing extremist activity in Germany, demands that the far-right party National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) be banned are almost immediate. The NPD, say its army of critics, provides a veneer of political legitimacy to neo-Nazi thuggery.
This week, the calls have been particularly vocal. Germany is reeling from weekend revelations of a neo-Nazi terror group in their midst.. The group, a trio which had gone underground more than a dozen years ago and which called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU), is thought to be responsible for the killing of a police woman in 2007 and for a spate of racially motivated murders from 2000 to 2006. The group also carried out 14 bank robberies and is thought to have perpetrated several bombings.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to react on Monday. In Leipzig for a Christian Democrat (CDU) party convention, she introduced a petition calling for the possibility of an NPD ban to be reviewed. The party, the document read, was "appalled and dismayed" at the activities of the terror cell, which had spent substantial time hiding in the eastern German town of Zwickau. "They show the brutality with which right-extremist structures pursue their fight against freedom, democracy and the rule of law, even including terrorist means."
The extent of the group's activities was uncovered following a recent bank robbery in the town of Eisenach in the state of Thuringia. The perpetrators -- Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt -- were quickly tracked down, but killed themselves in a camper van before they could be captured. At the scene, police discovered the weapon carried by policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter at the time of her murder in 2007.
Mocking the Authorities
Shortly thereafter, police searched a burned-out house in Zwickau that the two had used together with a third accomplice, Beate Zschäpe. There, they found the gun used to kill Kiesewetter as well as the weapon used in the so-called "Doner Killings," an unsolved series of murders of eight Turkish men and one of Greek descent from 2000 to 2006. A DVD was also found with a video documenting the killings and mocking the authorities' inability to solve them. It also appeared to claim responsibility for several bomb attacks. A fourth presumed accomplice was arrested on Monday.
Merkel has not been alone in expressing support for a ban of the NPD. Already on Sunday, Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Hermann urged that a new attempt be made to ban the NPD. Several others, including several parliamentarians and the interior minister of Baden-Württemberg joined the call.
Many, though, are wary. In 2003, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court rejected an attempt to ban the party due to the presence of police informants in senior NPD party positions. The court ruled that it could not ban the party due to the risk that its policies had in part been shaped by law enforcement agents. Should the same thing happen again, it could strengthen the right-wing party.
"I am opposed to empty deeds," Michael Hartmann, interior policy expert for the Social Democrats in parliament, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. While saying he was, in principle, in favor of banning the NPD, he said that "it has nothing to do with the current debate."
His Green Party counterpart Konstantin von Notz told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "The demand for a new attempt to ban the NPD is understandable, but it doesn't help in the current debate. Racism and a lack of respect for human dignity is an ideology that is not bound to party structures."
German commentators on Tuesday take a look at the demands to ban the NPD and come to the conclusion that the idea is one that, at the moment, should not be pursued.
The center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The discovery that a right-extremist terror group could spend years committing a series of murders not surprisingly has generated calls for a strong state reaction -- not just against the perpetrators and their supporters but also against those who created and agitated on behalf of the inhumane ideology that the murderers apparently subscribed to. It makes sense that calls for a banning of the NPD have now become louder. The party is after all the core of the right-wing extremist milieu."
"The party is as radical and aggressive as it was 10 years ago. The party's new head Holger Apfel will do nothing to change that, even if he has requested his followers to behave less abrasively. But that is just cosmetics. Apfel too has always relied on support from the party's more violent wing. Only recently, one of his deputies recommended emulating Hitler's NSDAP as the ideal 'ultra-modern political movement.' Furthermore, a man who once laid a bomb in front of a Turkish eatery is on the party's board."
"The German Interior Ministry would have long since banned a club which harbored such members. But the NPD is not a club. It is a party, and as such the hurdles to prohibition are much higher -- and the highest is still standing. Agents from the federal and state offices for the protection of the constitution continue to keep a close watch on the NPD. They continue to recruit informants who can report on the goings on in the party's inner circles. That is their job. But an attempt to ban the party failed in 2003 because the Constitutional Court found that the existence of state spies in the NPD party leadership muddied the waters. It was a disgrace for the democratic state and the extremists celebrated -- and that cannot be allowed to happen again."
The conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Whenever there is an instance of far-right violence in Germany, there are knee-jerk calls from politicians for the NPD to be banned. That is also the case now, following the -- purely accidental -- discovery of the eastern German neo-Nazi terror cell, the NSU."
"One wonders what the two things are supposed to have to do with each other. To put it another way: Would any of the victims of the murderous trio from Zwickau still be alive today if the government and parliament had succeeded with their attempt to ban the NPD in 2003? No. The killers were among us. And not because the judicial authorities rejected the attempt to ban the NPD, but because Germany's domestic intelligence agency and the police failed in their duties."
Center-right daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"This is not the time for abrupt calls to ban the NPD -- the murders and the other crimes committed by the Zwickau neo-Nazi group first need to be investigated. This is not the time to try to score political points by dominating the headlines with cheap demands when everyone knows how great the obstacles to a ban are and how long it can take for the Constitutional Court to reach a decision -- and with what outcome?"
"It's not certain that there were systematic links between the gang of murderers and the NPD party organization -- and only such links would justify a legal bid to outlaw them."
"If the NPD knew nothing about the identity of the killers, and if there is no evidence that party officials were involved in covering up crimes, then a ban to outlaw the party for this reason alone would be likely to fail."
The center-left Berlin daily Berliner Zeitung writes:
"The failures of Germany security officials in the current case are one thing. But the refusal of politicians to put these failures at the center of the debate is a whole other matter. Instead, there is a renewed call to ban the NPD. The party's hatred of the constitution, its racism and the violence of many of its members stands beyond doubt. But first, there is an obstacle still in the way -- the same one which resulted in the failure of the 2003 attempt to ban on the NPD.
"The party is still infiltrated by government informants. As long as these informants occupy top positions in the party and take part in its decision-making processes, any new attempt to ban the party will be struck down by the Constitutional Court. In any case, it seems clear that a ban would be disastrous. Many of the more than 6,000 party members would go underground, thus disappearing in the same way as the Thuringian neo-Nazi killers -- who managed to remain safe for more than a decade.... The debate over an NPD ban is the wrong reaction to the appalling failures of German security officials, state prosecutors and police."
The Financial Times Deutschland focuses on the dangers of right-wing terrorism:
"It became clear just how the public, including several so-called terror experts, sees things in the wake of the massacre in Norway last summer. In the first hours following the attack, many began speaking of an Islamist background despite the lack of proof -- until the right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik was identified as the perpetrator. The experts apparently aren't aware that right-wing terrorists have for decades perpetrated murders in both the US and Europe. The discovery of the Zwickau cell should now lead investigators to at least consider right-wing involvement when it comes to unsolved violent crimes."
"Of course one has to be vigilant against all forms of extremism as soon as they become violent. But I can't remember a single CDU politician, despite plenty of speeches about the leftist terror group RAF and about the Islamist group al-Qaida, ever having mentioned the dangers emanating from the right. The desperate attempt to present the far left and the far right as being equally dangerous did not help the fight against right-wing extremism. Burning cars (eds. note: the reference is to a series of arson attacks in both Berlin and Hamburg in recent years) is idiotic and can endanger human lives. But it isn't the same as shooting or beating foreigners to death. The left at the moment does not have any all-encompassing revolutionary doctrine. On the right, though, there is a clear ideology."
"In the 10 years since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US, Germany has -- with lots of luck and lots of excellent police work -- managed to avoid being victimized by Islamist attacks. That, though, leads one to the shocking conclusion that when it comes to real terror attacks -- ones which resulted in victims -- they have all been perpetrated by right-wing extremists."
-- Charles Hawley