Germany has no shortage of neo-Nazis but a rally like last weekend’s gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, would not have been possible here because the public display of swastikas and all other symbols deemed hostile to the constitution is forbidden and carries a sentence of up to three years in jail.
So even if they had been as quiet as church mice, the protesters waving swastika flags would have had to be arrested, and the police would likely have forbidden and dispersed the whole demonstration on the spot.
The country prides itself on its constitutional right to free speech but draws the line when it comes to expressions of support for Nazi ideology, understandably given that it started the Second World War and perpetrated the Holocaust.
That’s why neo-Nazis here need to tread carefully. In April, an appeal court ruled that a 28-year-old county councilor from the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), Marcel Zech, must serve eight months in jail for showing a tattoo of a concentration camp with a watchtower, barbed-wire fencing and the Buchenwald camp gate inscription “Jedem das Seine,” (“To Each his Own”) on his expansive lower back during a visit to a swimming pool.
Germany must be credited with having learned the lessons of its past. The public is shunning the temptations of right-wing populism.
Right-wing extremist Ursula Haverbeck, 88, was sentenced to 10 months in jail in February for denying the Holocaust, which is also an offense in Germany. She’s not behind bars yet, though, because she keeps appealing.
Authorities are cracking down on the web presence of far-right groups and racist trolls, banning the neo-Nazi platform Altermedia Deutschland in January last year and passing a controversial law in June that will slap fines of up to €50 million on Facebook and other social media sites that fail to take down criminal postings by users within 24 hours.
In March 2016, the “Weisse Wölfe Terrorcrew,” a neo-Nazi group, was banned. The NPD, the closest thing Germany has to a Nazi party, faces tough times too. It survived a legal bid to outlaw it in January, but only because the country’s highest court decided that it was too insignificant to pose a threat to the constitution. And a new law passed in June aims to cut its access to public election funding.
The party got just 1.3 percent of the national vote in the last general election, hopelessly short of the 5 percent needed to enter parliament (see graphic below), and is unlikely to fare any better in the September 24 election despite lingering fury among many Germans over the 2015 refugee crisis and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. It also crashed out of the two regional state assemblies where it had held seats, in Saxony and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania, in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
This week, the NPD drew ridicule for a TV campaign spot set in the Middle Ages showing a red-robed “grand inquisitor” ordering an NPD man to be burned at the stake for the crimes of demanding border controls, being a “patriot” and “not wanting Islam and criminal foreigners to rule Germany.” The spot ends with the inquisitor himself being pelted with vegetables by the salt-of-the-earth peasants attending the execution.
The NPD appears to have misjudged the Zeitgeist because, despite the influx of 1.2 million refugees in 2015 and 2016, the peasants aren’t throwing vegetables.
The perceived culprit, Ms. Merkel, looks set to cruise to a fourth term in September, and it is significant that the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which shares the NPD’s anti-immigrant stance but is deemed more socially acceptable, scored between just 8 and 10 percent in the latest opinion polls released on Sunday.
Germany must be credited with having learned the lessons of its past. The public is shunning the temptations of right-wing populism. The PEGIDA movement, a German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident, has attracted thousands of people to its weekly rallies, but attendance peaked at 25,000 in Dresden in January 2015 and it has remained largely confined to eastern Germany and Dresden in particular.
It failed to grow into a political force partly because its leader Lutz Bachmann was discredited. A photo of him posing as Hitler came to light in January 2015, and he has since been convicted of incitement to hatred for calling refugees “scumbags.”
Some estimates put the number of deaths from far-right violence since 1990 at close to 200.
The current watchfulness of German authorities can be attributed in part to their failure to tackle an upsurge in neo-Nazi violence in the former communist east in the wake of Germany’s unification in 1990.
The intelligence services were caught out by the existence of a right-wing terrorist group that shot dead eight Turks and one Greek man – ordinary shopkeepers including a flower seller, a grocer and a tailor – in a killing spree by a neo-Nazi group between 2000 and 2006. The same pistol was used in all the murders, but astoundingly, the police refused to consider racism as a motive in what media to their shame dismissively dubbed the “doner killings,” after the Turkish sandwich served at food stands in Germany.
The alleged perpetrators of those shootings – members of the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) group – were discovered by chance in 2011.
The case was a huge blow to Germany’s reputation, exposing authorities as institutionally racist and blind to neo-Nazi violence that never endangered the political order but posed a real, everyday threat to immigrants.
Young men with poor job prospects were especially receptive to far-right ideology and Nazi hero worship. That was particularly the case in the east, where foreigners became scapegoats for the economic upheaval caused by the restructuring of the regions’s creaking industries, and where Nazism was less of a taboo because in the decades of communist rule, schools had failed to teach children about the nation’s collective responsibility for Germany’s crimes.
Some estimates put the number of deaths from far-right violence since 1990 at close to 200, prompting anti-racism campaigners to warn that large swathes of the east were no-go zones for foreigners and that the government was turning a blind eye to the problem.
The victims include Amadeu Antonio, an Angolan worker who suffered fatal head injuries when he was attacked by skinheads in 1990. Or Algerian asylum seeker Farid Guendoul, who bled to death in 1999 after cutting his leg on a glass door while being chased through the eastern town of Guben.
The violence continues. Last year, the country’s domestic intelligence agency counted 1,313 cases of physical assault resulting in injury, up from 1,116 in 2015, and 18 attempted murders, up from 8. There were 113 arson attacks, up from 99, many targeting refugee hostels. And 12,476 so-called “propaganda offenses,” which include daubing swastikas on walls and wearing T-shirts with the SS runes, another banned symbol.
The country has a total of 12,100 right-wing extremists deemed ready to commit violence, up from 11,800 in 2015.
But that figure in itself is reassuring because it shows that the country is counting its neo-Nazis, even as the focus of counter-terrorism efforts remains squarely on Islamist extremism in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks.
David Crossland is a contributor to Handelsblatt Global. To contact the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org