At the end of January, Germany’s neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD) introduced a bill in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s parliament to fine or throw in prison every foreigner who enters the state without the proper paperwork. The proposal was the latest in a long line of inflammatory proposals the NPD has put forth since it gained seats in the state’s parliament in 2006. Like every other NPD proposal, it was voted down.
Even though the sparsely-populated state is currently the only one in the country with NPD representatives in office, many German politicians see the party as more than a local nuisance. They believe that the NPD’s presence in state parliament, however limited, threatens the country’s democracy, tarnishes Germany’s reputation abroad and gives the party a platform to propagate dangerous extremist views. It’s why leaders of the 16 German states banded together two years ago to ban the NPD, even after their first effort failed in 2003.
When Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court finally hears the case against the NPD in early March, it will be the final stage in a dramatic, 15-year-long battle to outlaw the party, stripping it of its federal funding and political legitimacy. Now, however, with a decision drawing close, there is a chance that the ban could backfire and exacerbate the problem of simmering right-wing extremism.
NPD and other far-right groups are gaining traction in Germany, thanks in part to their ability to attract people threatened by globalization and disenchanted with Germany’s growing role on the world stage — from euro zone bailouts to an open-arms refugee policy. The NPD goes one step further, denying the Holocaust and espousing a racist ideology that contends people with Asian or African backgrounds could never be German.
More than a million asylum seekers arrived in Germany last year, prompting a sharp rise in attacks on refugee shelters and boosting support for groups that promote extreme German nationalism, including the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party — which competes with the NPD to attract far-right voters — and the anti-Islamic movement PEGIDA.
Germany has historically snuffed out right-wing extremism using blunt legal tools — a hardline approach that makes it an exception among liberal democracies. Post war politicians believed that if the country had outlawed the Nazi party early enough, Germany could have prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler, and politicians took steps after the war to extinguish radical-right ideology. After a 70-year ban, a heavily annotated version of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf, appeared on German bookshelves this year. In late January, Germany’s interior minister banned a far-right Internet portal and German police arrested two people allegedly responsible for running it.
Even in Germany, however, the bar to ban a political party is high for fear that the policy could be used to silence free speech and create a totalitarian regime the way that Hitler outlawed his political opponents. Since World War Two, Germany has only banned a political party twice, in 1952 and 1956. A party can only be banned when it is considered to be actively working against the state or threatening minority rights. Only the country’s constitutional court can declare a party unconstitutional, and six of the court’s eight judges have to agree. Even then, the NPD could appeal the ban to the European Court of Human Rights, contending it violates free speech rules.
While the goal of the party ban is to stamp out extremist ideology, opponents worry it would mobilize right-wing extremists and push the issue underground. “People think it’s like taking out an appendix,” said Anetta Kahane, chairwoman and founder of The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which focuses on combating neo-Nazi and right-wing extremist activity in Germany. “But it’s false to believe that once it’s gone everything is okay.”
Kahane believes that right-wing ideology is entrenched in German society and that anxiety around multiculturalism and globalization will linger far beyond the current crisis. Rather than banning the party, she said that its supporters need to be educated and rooted out in organizations where they are active, such as schools, community groups and sports clubs.
Worse, if the bid to ban the NPD fails, it could embolden the party, giving its members license to step up racist rhetoric. In 2004, the year after the previous bid to ban the NPD failed, the party won seats in Saxony’s state parliament for the first time, which made it eligible for federal funding. The federal government had launched the bid trying to link the NPD to a surge in right-wing violence. The Federal Constitution Court rejected the NPD ban, based on tainted evidence. This time around, the federal government declined to join the suit.
When the NPD got its start in the mid-1960s, West Germany was experiencing circumstances similar to today. After a decade of explosive growth, the economy was slowing to a more sustainable pace. Foreign guest workers were arriving from Italy, Turkey and elsewhere to help rebuild the country. In addition, West Germany was growing into a respected member of the international community, joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The party attracted voters who resented what they saw as a threat to German identity brought by foreign guest workers and American’s influence on its culture.
After a few years of electoral successes, the NPD largely moved to the fringes, until it re-emerged on the German political scene with its 2004 Saxony win. The party has since made inroads into the country’s state governments, this time in the former East where unemployment soared after reunification. Bordering the Baltic Sea to the north and Poland to the east, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is the ideal breeding ground for the NPD’s extremist thought. The state’s unemployment rate, at 11.5 percent, is nearly double that of Germany overall.
Lorenz Caffier, the state’s conservative Interior Minister, concedes that, on its own, banning the NPD won’t end the problem of the extreme right in the country or even his state. After all, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party looks to be the NPD’s biggest threat when Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and a handful of other states elect new parliaments later this year. But he believes that it would send an important signal to followers of the extreme right across Europe.
“No other country has a history like ours,” said Caffier, who helped launch the current suit. “Because of that, we have a responsibility to make sure that history is never again repeated on German soil.”
Renuka Rayasam is an Atlanta native, now based in Berlin. She has written for the Atlantic.com, the New Yorker.com, the BBC.com and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications.