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Germany fights neo-Nazis after Norway killings

BERLIN — Elections in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Pomerania don’t usually draw much outside attention.

But this year, following the massacre in Norway by a right-wing extremist, things are different.

This small, economically insignificant state has become the stronghold of the extreme German right.

That allowed the party to set up a parliamentary group and receive funds for staff and campaigns amounting to about €7 million ($10 million).

The fact that German taxpayer money subsidizes these neo-Nazis has never sat well with many politicians.

Now, following the shocking killings by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22, German politicians have renewed calls to ban the right-wing party. In July, the German Interior Ministry approved plans for a working group to look into the issue.

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Sigmar Gabriel, head of the opposition Social Democratic Party, has thrown his weight behind the proposed ban.

t’s a popular idea: A recent poll commissioned by the weekly Bild am Sonntag showed that close to 60 percent of the German public would support one.

But that isn’t easy in Germany. 

In a country where people can be jailed for expressing Nazi sympathies, the law protects the right to association, allowing extreme-right political parties to exist, and enabling people to express ideas consistent with the Nazi ideology — even if they can’t call it that.

One way to crack down on the party would be to choke its financial power, since German political parties are reimbursed for their election campaigns. 

“Many of us think they should be banned,” said Julian Barlen, vice chairman of the opposition in Rostock, the largest city in Mecklenburg-Pomerania, and an active campaigner against the right-wing party. “Not because you would get rid of the whole phenomenon of the far-right. There are going to be right-wing extremists after a ban, but they won’t have the financial power.”

“The leaders of [the party] don’t hide that their goal is to do away with the whole democratic system, and a democracy should be able to prevent that,” said Barlen. “They use the tools of a democracy to try to destroy that democracy. I don’t think there should be tolerance for that.”

Still, a ban seems unlikely.

The government’s previous attempt to outlaw the party was thrown out by the Constitutional Court in 2003 after it was revealed that the government had used paid informants to infiltrate the party. 

“The chances [of the party being banned] are very slim because the politicians responsible haven’t decided on how to go forth with a process of banning it,” said Robert Philippsberg, a political scientist at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, who specializes in right-wing politics in Germany. “Also, currently there are no grave reasons for doing this now. It depends how the party develops – they are not big enough of a threat right now.”

The results of the election in Mecklenburg-Pomerania Sept. 4 will be seen as an important indication of how the party is faring. Along with the state of Saxony, it is one of just two states where the party passed the five-percent threshold required for participation in parliament in the most recent state elections.

For the upcoming election, the party’s campaign posters include the slogan, “criminal foreigners out.” Other posters warn against the perceived threat of a mosque being built in Rostock. The party has promoted anti-foreigner rhetoric in its strongholds, even though in Mecklenburg-Pomerania, the immigrant population is just 2.3 percent. That’s among the lowest in Germany. 

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Last year, a wave of anti-foreigner sentiment was stirred up in the country when former Bundesbank board member Thilo Sarrazin claimed in a book that immigrants were “dumbing down Germany.” The book sparked heated debate, and registered more sales in Germany than any other book in its postwar history.

Yet polls conducted during that time found no significant rise in acceptance of the neo-Nazi party. 

Ralf Welt, a partner at the Dimap Group, a political think-tank that conducted the polls, argues that immigration isn’t a major draw for those who align with the neo-Nazi movement and the party. He said that party supporters are drawn because of economic hardship and feelings of social disenfranchisement.

“If you look at the social and economic background of the people who vote [for the party], it is the lack of employment, lack of [opportunity] and flexibility among young men who cannot find work, and also the impression that government and society [are] not taking sufficient care of ordinary citizens,” he said.

In Mecklenburg-Pomerania, unemployment is 14.3 percent, well above the national average of 7.6 percent. Dimap’s research also shows that the party draws the most support from unemployed and low-income males up to the age of 30. Welt believes attitudes inherited from the former socialist state lead these men to expect more from the government, and drive them toward hard-line parties when it fails to provide them with jobs and security.

“Since the German reunification, the majority of the population in [the former] East Germany trusted that the state and society represent solutions for individual lives,” Welt said. “So this is a kind of echo of [that] regime that took care of every aspect of everyday life.” 

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In West Germany, the right-wing party has found very little support since winning a few local parliamentary seats in the late 1960s. No far-right party has ever managed to win representation at the federal level. Analysts say the country’s history of totalitarianism is the main factor.

“In Germany, the media is very critical of the far-right because of the Nazi past,” said Florian Hartleb, who specializes in populism at the Center for European Studies in Brussels. “Other factors are the strong federalism [here] — which makes it difficult to build up a national organization — and lack of a prominent charismatic figure to lead such a party.”

Right-wing populist parties have been gaining ground across Europe in recent years. In Denmark and the Netherlands, ruling coalition governments depend on far-right parties that campaign on anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platforms.

But although Germany’s neo-Nazi party has similar policies, analysts see it as distinct from the wider trend because of its roots in fascist ideology, which saps its popularity in much of the country.  

Earlier this month, for example, Germans were outraged after the party hung a campaign poster in Berlin that depicted the party’s leader on a motorbike with the slogan “Gas geben�� — step on the gas. The party denied the image was a reference to execution methods used in the Nazi concentration camps, but the damage was done.

If they can’t ban the party, opponents of the party are hoping to boost voter turnout in Mecklenburg-Pomerania, which they believe will lower the neo-Nazi’s share of the votes enough to force them out.  

Current polls predict that the party will win just four percent of the vote. But polls conducted just before the last election gave the same forecast — and the party won 7.3 percent. 

“Not getting into the parliament would be a major setback,” said Philippsberg, the political scientist. “But the party has been in existence since 1964 and has had prior setbacks, and it has not gone away. Once again, even if it comes out defeated, it will not disappear so quickly.”

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