BERLIN (Reuters) – Neo-Nazi paramilitary groups have gained strong footholds in economically depressed parts of Germany and are gaining a voice through far-right political parties, Germany’s top Jewish body said on Wednesday.
The National Democratic Party (NPD), which some have compared to Hitler’s Nazis, won seats in a regional election in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Sunday, sparking renewed calls for it to be banned.
The Central Council of Jews in Germany has backed these calls. But its secretary-general Stephan Kramer said a ban on the party alone would not stamp out anti-foreigner sentiment in parts of Germany where paramilitary groups or “Kameradschaften” played a dominant role.
“The neo-Nazis dominated the grass-roots level long ago,” Kramer told reporters at a news conference with other anti-Nazi campaigners.
“They are successful in villages which have no work, no shops and no social clubs any more. Normal citizens are increasingly accepting, even understanding, of their efforts.”
Although some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s right-left coalition have advocated trying again to ban the NPD, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said he was opposed.
Politicians had been slow to pick up on the changes in how the NPD operated in recent years, Kramer said. He also noted the influence of neo-Nazi groups was not limited to the east.
“Nobody can ignore this problem any more,” Kramer said. “It is not just an east German problem. We have to stop pointing the finger at the east and realize that this is a pan-German issue.”
By working closely with the paramilitary groups, the NPD won over 7 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on Sunday, having barely registered in council elections two years earlier, anti-Nazi campaigner Guenther Hoffmann noted.
Kramer called on the government to increase funding for grass-roots anti-neo-Nazi campaigns and broaden their scope from the formerly communist east to other parts of the country.
The closest the NPD ever came to entering national parliament was in the 1960s, when Germany was still divided.
Recent attempts by extremists with anti-foreigner views to buy up property in the west of the country show the far-right is building up its physical presence in communities in the west.
“There are even initiatives in some communities where the right-wing radicals are campaigning for new pavements or the protection of wildlife in order to win votes but then are slipping in their political views through the back door,” Kramer said.
The victory in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the NPD won six seats, means that far-right parties are now present in three of the six eastern German state assemblies. The parties have no influence in national politics and they are comparatively small compared to similar movements in France or the Netherlands.
But Germany’s Nazi past and its responsibility for the Holocaust in which over 6 million Jews and other minorities died make their popularity particularly controversial.
The number of neo-Nazi attacks in Germany rose to 959 in 2005 from 776 in the previous year, and would likely rise again in the current year, Kramer said.
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