NEURUPPIN, GERMANY €” It was only after the crowd of men began shouting at him that Derek Fernandes noticed the Gothic script on their jackets, the shaved heads and the tattoos reading 88, a well-known code for the birthday of Adolf Hitler.
The Brampton, Ont., computer technician had lived in this attractive eastern German town with his wife and children for five years, but had never seen such insignia on the young men who hung out in a small park at night. Until now, the park’s midnight revellers had been normal teenagers and this had been a nice, if economically depressed, place to raise a family.
On this night about three weeks ago, he and his German friends were walking home from a stag party, talking enthusiastically in English, when they heard shouting from behind them. “Why don’t you speak German? Aren’t you Germans?” Soon, the half-dozen men had expanded into a gang of 20 skinheads, and the taunts turned into a chase.
They began yelling “nigger” at Mr. Fernandes, who has light-brown skin, and striking the men in the head. They escaped the blows by ducking into a nearby cafe’, where they called the police. The gang of neo-Nazis waited outside, shouting slogans, and didn’t disperse when the police arrived. In fact, the police didn’t seem eager to respond at all, he said.
“Something has happened to this place,” Mr. Fernandes said. “We never had neo-Nazis before, but now I can’t leave my house at night. When I drive past that park, sometimes I’ll see 50 or 60 of them, fighting.”
A few days after the attack, the industrial town of 30,000 learned that it would be the site of a “peace” demonstration by groups associated with the extremist National Democratic Party, known in German as the NPD, a legal party that has won seats in two German state legislatures and, as a result, receives $1.9-million in election-finance funding as a legal parliamentary party in two states, despite being widely considered a neo-Nazi organization.
“At this point, we realized that time was running out and we had to do something,” said Jens-Peter Golde, the town’s mayor. “We knew that this was a highly organized effort by the far-right to colonize our town, a test to see if they had support here.”
The past few months have seen a dramatic rise in reports of attacks by neo-Nazi gangs in eastern German towns. About 500 attacks were registered in Germany during the past year, a 33-per-cent increase over the previous year, according to the Amadeu-Antonio foundation, which monitors the extreme right.
That has led to a new initiative by German parliamentarians to outlaw the NPD, which was created in 1964 after postwar incarnations of Hitler’s National Socialist Party were outlawed, along with most symbols, gestures and slogans of the Third Reich. (The 88 symbol remains legal.)
“We need to prohibit this party because it acts clearly against the interests of the state and against democratic interests, because it is clearly pursuing a strategic goal to expand its influence, because the number of incidents of violence has increased and because its representation in state parliaments has increased,” said Gabriele Fograscher, the federal MP who is leading the drive to have the NPD banned.
That is occurring amid a difficult debate over the acceptability of far-right thoughts and parties in German society. A recent poll found that one in four Germans agreed that “National Socialism had some good points,” and in September, popular German newscaster Eva Herman was forced to quit after expressing admiration for Hitler’s family policies.
The banning effort now has the backing of all MPs in Ms. Fograscher’s Social Democratic Party, including its cabinet ministers, and a party committee is gathering the research needed to make a ban legal. But the conservative Christian Democrat Party of Chancellor Angela Merkel, which shares power with the Social Democrats in a coalition government, is hesitant to support the initiative.
That’s because the last effort to ban the party, in 2003, was an embarrassing failure. The German Supreme Court ruled that some of the violent incidents attributed to the party could have been carried out by paid government intelligence agents who had infiltrated it. In order to ban the party this time, the government would have to show that it has removed all its spies, something the government doesn’t want to do unless it’s sure the ban will succeed.
“It’s expensive and difficult to prove what the law requires, that they have an aggressive, violent nature,” Ms. Fograscher said. “It creates a difficult position. On the one hand, the state is spending money trying to prevent this party from existing, and at the same time we’re giving them state election funding.”
Unlike neighbouring Austria and Switzerland, which have elected far-right parties to national prominence, the NPD has never reached the 5-per-cent threshold required to hold seats in Germany’s national parliament, the Bundestag, and it has won only individual seats in two eastern state legislatures. Nevertheless, police and MPs believe the legitimacy of a legal party is giving the increasingly popular neo-Nazi street gangs a strong foundation for recruitment.
But, even as the initiative gains wider support among MPs, there are a number of figures who are saying that a ban of the NPD could be pointless or even counterproductive.
Surprisingly, this group now includes Mr. Golde, the mayor of Neuruppin, who, despite being a member of Ms. Fograscher’s Social Democrats, now says that his efforts to purge his town of neo-Nazis wouldn’t be helped by an NPD ban.
“We talked for a long time about the possibility of drafting a petition to support a ban,” Mr. Golde said. “And after a long discussion, contrary to my original opinion, we decided not to do that. It is not the solution. The people who came to demonstrate in September were not identifying themselves as NPD; they were calling themselves former NPD, a combat group of German socialists, and they would continue to exist if the party were banned. I believe the way to deal with the problem is with democratic constitutional means, not by outlawing the party.”
What the town ended up doing was more dramatic, and perhaps more effective.
The hard-core Nazis of Neuruppin are only about 20 in number, Mr. Golde said. They are organized, his aides said, by an aging Third Reich veteran known as Grandpa Lange. But the worry was that a successful rally held by visiting extremists would bring out tacit supporters, who are much greater in number, and who might help make the NPD an acceptable presence in the town.
“Ever since the Berlin Wall came down, there has been rising sympathy for the far right in Neuruppin, aided by our unemployment rate of 15 to 20 per cent,” said Wolfgang Freese, 51, a schoolteacher who came to the mayor’s aid. “Time was running out and we had to do something. And there are two ways of dealing with this sort of problem: either to ignore it, and avoid giving the extremists the attention they want, or to confront it aggressively. And this is what we did.”
Mr. Freese and his friends got on the phone and called up everyone in the town’s phone directory, explaining that the extreme right was trying to “colonize” the town and urging assistance. In the closed and private culture of eastern Germany, he said, this sort of activity is almost unheard of.
“That’s the problem: People who were socialized in the GDR [Communist East Germany] aren’t used to speaking up; there isn’t a culture of debate, discussion or resistance, so when one of my students says something sympathetic to the Nazis, as they frequently do, it is unlikely that anyone will speak up.”
When the Saturday came, about 1,000 townspeople were gathered in the square. The neo-Nazis ended up being far fewer in number, between 60 and 300, depending on whose account you believe. Whatever the case, they received a far colder reception here than they had in other towns.
“I believe we were able to show that the potential is not here for a far-right base,” said Mr. Golde, the mayor. “But just because our town has an organized opposition, what happened on that September day is not to be disregarded or ignored. It was serious, and there is an issue with unemployment here, there are a lot of restless youth here, and the potential is always here for populist movements.”
But many other neighbouring towns in the east, and some places in wealthier parts of Germany, have not been so lucky. The past three months have seen a constant stream of strikingly similar reports from across Germany: A group of people, usually from immigrant backgrounds, is severely beaten by a neo-Nazi gang. The local police are slow to respond, if they do at all. There is outrage from state authorities, who legally must give priority to all such crimes, but the mayor and town residents respond with silence, denial or indifference. In a widely reported case in August, a mayor told a far-right magazine, in response to such an incident, that he was a “proud German.”
Mr. Fernandes, the Canadian who inadvertently found himself at the centre of this crisis, said he was reassured by the counterdemonstration, but still thinks about leaving. Mr. Golde, the mayor, said that he is still deeply worried, but he is relieved that his town has responded better than others.
“We’re convinced that there are a lot of individuals in the town who have the civic courage to stand up against these things,” he said. “We just need to keep encouraging them.”
Neo-Nazis on the march
Total number of criminal offences in Germany deemed to have a right-wing extremist background.
SOURCE: GERMAN FEDERAL MINISTRY OF THE INTERIOR – ANNUAL REPORT ON THE PROTECTION OF THE CONSTITUTION, 2002-2005
Europe’s far right
Political parties considered to be on the far or extreme side of the right wing have been gaining increased political legitimacy in Europe.
The Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty group, a coalition of far-right European political parties, won official recognition in the European Parliament this year, having met the threshold for official party status by electing 20 members to the European parliament across six EU countries.
The Freedom Party gained notoriety in 1999 when, under leader Jorge Haider, it won 52 seats in the national legislature and joined the coalition government. It won 21 seats in the most recent vote.
The French-language National Front has never managed to win more than one or two national seats, but the Flemish-language Flemish Interest party has seen a steady rise in popularity, now with 17 seats in the legislature. The mainstream parties, however, continue to refuse to take it in as part of a coalition.
The National Union Attack won 21 seats in the last legislative elections, and its leader, Volen Siderov, came second in the first round of the 2006 presidential election. He lost the final ballot, but garnered one-quarter of the votes.
The Danish People’s Party has seen a doubling of its popularity since it made its electoral debut in 1998 and now has 24 members in the legislature.
The National Front has managed to only elect one member at most to the National Assembly since its shocking results in 1986, when it won 35 seats. But Leader Jean-Marie Le Pen came in second in first round of the 2002 presidential vote, though lost the final ballot.
The Progress Party became the second-largest party in parliament in 2005, raising its seat count from 26 to 38.
Led by the right-wing billionaire industrialist Christoph Blocher, the Swiss People’s Party was already the largest single bloc in the National Council going into the election this month, when it picked up even more seats.
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