Government seeks ban on neo-Nazi party
(Part one of a two-part series)
By Martin A. Lee
Adolf Hitler's national socialist government wasn't all bad. That's what a lot of young Germans believe today.
A recent survey of 14-to 25-year-olds conducted by the Forsa Institute found that one in two youth in ex-Communist eastern Germany believe that the Nazi dictatorship had its good side, and 15 percent of those polled think the Nazi Party in itself "was a good idea" and wouldn't mind seeing it backin power.
Many young people in western Germany are also smitten by the perverse allure of Hitler's murderous regime. Thirty-five percent of those polled agree with the notion that Nazism had positive aspects, while 40 percent maintain there are too many foreigners in Germany. Forty-six percent of youth in eastern Germany feel a similar antipathy toward foreigners.
Shortly after the results of this survey were made public, German officials released another set of grim statistics, indicating that the number of right-wing extremist offenses in Germany had reached the highest level since the Second World War.
German authorities registered nearly 16,000 such crimes (including giving the Hitler salute and spraying Nazi graffiti) in 2000 as compared to 10,000 incidents in 1999 – a 60 percent increase. Cases involving antiforeigner violence rose by 57 percent, while anti-Semitic attacks increased by 69 percent. Most of the suspects implicated in neo-Nazi crimes were under 21 years old.
Neo-Nazi attacks were concentrated in economically depressed eastern Germany, which has yet to rebound from the whiplash transition from Communism to capitalism. Ten years after German reunification prospects are bleak for those living in the five eastern states. In January Wolfgang Thierse, president of the German parliament, painted an apocalyptic picture of former East Germany, describing it as a region on the verge of collapse
without hope for the future. It will likely remain "a second class country," according to Thierse, inferior to the West because of chronic underinvestment, a demoralized population, and structural economic weaknesses.
In response to the upsurge of neo-Nazi violence, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic government has vowed to crack down on theextreme right. Local courts and police forces, which for years have been outrageously lenient toward neo-Nazi thugs, are being urged to get tough with the perpetrators of felonious cruelty. Public officials have called upon ordinary Germans to stand up and show their support for the victims of
Seeking to stop the spread of fascism, the German government has initiated legal moves to ban the National Democratic Party (known by its initials NPD), the most radical of several German far-right political parties. Describing the NPD as the ideological seedbed for neo-Nazi aggression,German officials accuse this party of fomenting racist attacks throughout the country. Holocaust-denial and anti-Semitism are the NPD's stock and trade. Its publications claim there is no evidence that poison gas was used to kill people at Nazi concentration camps.
"The NPD damages the image of Germany," said Interior Minister Otto Schilly.
Founded in 1964 during an economic recession, the NPD gained enough votes to win representation in a majority of state assemblies in West Germany. But the party's fortunes declined as the New Left gained momentum in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The NPD soon ran out of steam and sputtered along at the political margins. It wasn't until after the Cold War ended that the NPD
began to mount a comeback.
The party has been on the upswing since 1996 when Udo Voigt, a young university graduate, took over as NPD fuehrer after its previous leader was jailed for denying the Holocaust and inciting racial hatred. Voigt dreams of establishing a new Reich that will "reunite" Germany with its former territories in Poland. "Nazi is now a bad word," he explains. "It used to be a good word, short for National Socialist, Hitler's party. I hope in ten years Nazi will be a good word again."
Because it is a registered political party (as opposed to a club or another type of organization), the NPD has been able to stage numerous public rallies that might otherwise be prohibited. Last year, several hundred neo-Nazis paraded through a Turkish neighborhood in Berlin, shouting anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic slogans on the anniversary of Nazi Germany's annexation of Austria. They also sang the banned ultra-nationalist verses of the German national anthem at a rally organized by the NPD, while police stood by and watched. The NPD called the demonstration to show its support for Jorg Haider, leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, which had recently entered that country's national governing coalition.
Compared to Haider's suit-and-tie fascism, the German NPD represents a much rougher brand of extremism. While NPD candidates have recently won a few local council seats in Brandenburg and Saxony, the party's involvement in electoral politics primarily serves as a legal cover for grassroots neo-Nazi organizing – with an emphasis on direct action, street confrontations, and physical attacks against foreigners and antifascists.
The NPD's closest U.S. ally is Dr. William Pierce, head of the neo-Nazi National Alliance and author of the notorious hate novel, The Turner Diaries, which the FBI has called "the blueprint for the Oklahoma City bombing." In 1998 Pierce traveled to Germany to attend the NPD's national convention. The leader of the NPD's youth wing, Alexander von Webenau, subsequently visited Pierce at his remote, rural encampment in West Virginia. While there Webenau spoke at an invitation-only conference hosted by the National Alliance. Pierce also published an interview with NDP chief Udo Voigt.
Most of the NPD's 9,000 members are German youth who favor the party's brazen, in-your-face tactics and Nuremberg-like pageantry. Festooned by flags, torches, and black shirts, NPD campaign rallies typically resemble skinhead rock concerts crammed with rowdy youth. "Not every skinhead is a member of the NPD," says Voigt, "but we have maybe between 3000 and 5000 skinhead sympathizers."
If the German government succeeds in outlawing the NPD, the party would lose its annual state subsidy worth nearly a half million dollars. But some German analysts feel that a ban would only paper over the problem of right-wing extremism. "Maybe a symbolic act is necessary for Germany's reputation abroad," said Wilhelm Heitmeyer, sociology professor at the University of Bielefeld, "but it won't have much impact in the daily life of German society."
Critics of the proposed ban point out that the NPD, in its current
incarnation, includes numerous members who had previously belonged to other neo-Nazi organizations that were outlawed. Seventeen ultranationalist groups have been proscribed by the German Interior Ministry since 1992, and to a large extent the NPD has benefited by absorbing people from these factions.
"Every ban makes us stronger and more alive," boasts Christian Worch, a Hamburg-based neo-Nazi leader who joined the NPD after his own organization, National List, was prohibited.
When I interviewed Worch in 1993, I asked him what factors were inhibiting the growth of his movement. "We don't have enough women activists," he stated, "If we had more women, more men would get involved."
But that seems to be changing. Neo-Nazi groups in Germany are attracting growing numbers of women, according to Ulli Jentsch of the Berlin Anti-Fascist Archive and Education center. Women currently comprise around one third of the membership of far-right organizations and they are often more dedicated and show more commitment than their male counterparts. "Increasingly women are not joining just because of their boyfriends or husbands, but from their own initiative," noted Jentsch.
While women don't usually participate in violent antiforeigner attacks, they are enthusiastic campaigners for neo-Nazi causes, even forming their own "Kammeradschaft" associations to promote "racial purity" and National Socialism. Named after clubs formed by Nazi war veterans, these networks provide a forum for women to meet every week and engage in ideological training and political organizing.
Says Jentsch: "Many people think that the women behind the far right are housewives raising children. The emergence of neo-Nazi groups led by female skinheads, the Reenes, was the first sign of a new departure in the scene and it has accelerated from there. Part of the reason is that younger neo-Nazis have been growing up inside a social movement. Every part of their life is influenced by this twisted ideology."
Nurtured by decades of denial, neo-Nazism is deep-rooted social problem in Germany. It will take a lot more than banning yet another organization to overcome this malaise.