The ghosts of reunification

Germany threatens to ban a far-right political party with skinhead ties following the murder of a Mozambican immigrant.

Published September 1, 2000 6:00PM (EDT)

A German court Wednesday convicted three neo-Nazis of the beating death of Alberto Adriano, a Mozambican meat-packing plant worker living with his German wife and their three young children. During the trial, which captivated Germans and drew unwelcome attention to the country's struggles with racism and reunification, the perpetrators -- two of them only 16 years old -- said they were motivated by nothing more than the alcohol they had consumed and the fact that Adriano was a black man who dared to walk alone through a Dessau public park in the middle of the night.

Found guilty of murder, Enrico Hilprecht, 24, was given the stiffest sentence possible: life imprisonment. His two cohorts, Christian Richter and Frank Miethbauer, were tried as juveniles and sentenced to nine years in prison, one year less than the limit for minors. Their stunning lack of remorse marked the trial: One of the teens grinned during the reading of the indictment and the other claimed he didn't "give a damn" what happened to the victim. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder described it as "a suitable verdict for a heinous crime."

The Germans have resuscitated the long-running debate over xenophobia in their country and the best way of dealing with it. Increased media attention has helped illuminate an issue that had largely disappeared from the front pages in recent years, if not from Germany's streets. In recent months there have been Adriano's murder June 11; a July bombing in D|sseldorf that injured 10 immigrants, including six Jews; and innumerable far-right incidents, including neo-Nazi demonstrations and the physical and verbal harassment of immigrants.

Not surprisingly, violence is at its worst in eastern Germany, where the economy collapsed following reunification in 1991 and the unemployment rate is hovering at a stratospheric 17 percent, a figure almost double that in the west. Against the backdrop of soaring unemployment, 1.5 million asylum seekers have flowed into Germany since 1993, intensifying the nationalist sentiment that spawned the recent violence.

Many Germans, including prominent politicians like Secretary of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer and members of Germany's ruling Social Democratic party, are dismayed by the latest incidents, saying they damage Germany's standing abroad and jeopardize foreign investment. Fischer recently lamented to the New York Times that the current wave of xenophobia reminded him of the "twilight zone" between democracy and German totalitarianism during his youth, telling the paper that it would take at least a generation and a half to eliminate rightist extremism in the former East Germany.

Despite the skepticism of Fischer and others about a short-term embrace of diversity in Germany, Berlin is pushing ahead with the launch of a $35 million education effort aimed at dispelling racism. And Schroeder has begun a two-week tour of the former East Germany. He will visit a makeshift memorial at the spot in Dessau (better known to Americans as the birthplace of Bauhaus and modernist architecture) where Adriano died and rally former East German citizens against the neo-Nazi menace and racism.

More dramatically, on Aug. 11, Germany took the first steps toward banning the right-wing National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands or NPD), a group that plays a key role in mobilizing young skinheads and promotes blatantly racist and nationalist rhetoric that many believe helped fuel the recent attacks.

In early August Bavaria's interior minister, G|nther Beckstein, had called for the NPD's abolishment. (Under the terms of the Grundgesetz, Germany's constitution, the federal constitutional court can abolish any party that threatens democracy within the country. "Parties which, by reason of their aims or the conduct of their adherents, seek to impair or destroy the free democratic basic order or threaten the existence of the Federal Republic of Germany will be considered unconstitutional," Article 21 of the Grundgesetz states.)

The government appointed a group of legal experts to assess whether NPD posed a constitutional threat. If the committee -- which will announce its findings in October -- determines there is enough proof to go forward, the government will ask the constitutional court to consider abolishing the party.

"It is not enough that a party is hostile to the constitution," explained Reiner Lingenthal, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, describing the burden of proof the government must meet before it can ban the party. "There must be proof that it is actively and aggressively fighting against our constitution."

"It is crucial for us to know whether or not the NPD is dealing with those who are committing anti-Semitic [and anti-immigrant] crimes, attacking and murdering people," Lingenthal continued.

Of course, that kind of violence is not openly advocated by the party. Instead, NPD leaders couch what many would perceive as racist statements in classic isolationist chestnuts. In a recent interview with the New York Times, party leader Udo Voigt said, "We support the separation of races, but we don't say that one race is superior to another. There is no justification for banning us."

Sascha Rossmiller, 27-year-old chairman of the NPD's youth organization, the Young National Democrats, recently told Salon News, "The NPD has always put a great distance between itself and people who have used violence to their political ends."

"The NPD stands for community for people in every country. We stand for people who are against foreign infiltration because we think that real cultures can only develop if there is a separation between countries. With a mixed population, you have problems between the different groups: social problems, language problems, education problems. We also stand against global capitalism -- against all the countries coming under the so-called globalization," Rossmiller asserted.

Asked for his opinion about efforts to link the NPD to the right-wing attacks, either physically or ideologically, Rossmiller got defensive. "If a society has more and more problems, it will get more and more violent," he said. "The NPD has said for years that if [German government officials] go on with their policy of foreign infiltration, you'll get racial problems."

"It is only the political establishment, not the NPD, that is responsible for violence," he continued. "They have gone too far with the policy of foreign infiltration. People come here from poorer countries to improve their standard of life. But Germany can't give any longer. It is not possible for us to be the social charity for the whole world."

Returning to allegations of NPD's involvement in the attacks, Rossmiller offered terse words for the government: "The political establishment knows the NPD has always been against violence and they won't have a chance to win if it goes to the court."

But, if senior party members are found to belong to right-wing groups that espouse violence, the government could succeed in shutting down the NPD. "We need to show that the inner circle is linked to the right-wing violence," explained Lingenthal.

Despite the recent high-profile incidents, there is no evidence that xenophobic attacks are more frequent or severe in Germany than in the rest of Europe. In fact, unlike Austria, Belgium and France, no anti-immigration party in Germany has been able to mobilize a significant share of the popular vote. The European Union even went as far as imposing diplomatic isolation on Austria earlier this year after Joerg Haider's anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FP) was voted into its government, and hinted at expulsion for Belgium because of the FP's strength there.

Yet it is also true that Schroeder and other German politicos are painfully aware that their country's anti-immigrant image abroad -- especially in places like India -- needs improvement to attract much-needed foreign workers who could help the country better compete in the global economy, particularly in the Internet sector. To this end, the government initiated a program in August that will grant five-year work visas to about 20,000 information technology experts; many of the visas will go to applicants from India and Eastern Europe.

"In Germany, it is important that the state and society make it clear that right-wing extremism is not acceptable," said Lingenthal. "This ban would be a clear sign to the people who believe in right-wing extremism and to foreigners that we do no tolerate neo-Nazis in Germany."

But the NPD accuses the government of ulterior motives. Rossmiller claims that Beckstein, the Bavarian interior minister, called for the federal ban out of anger after a German court knocked down his attempt to forbid an NPD party congress in Bavaria. "I think it was an act of personal revenge," Rossmiller said.

As Rossmiller sees it, power-hungry German government officials are intimidated by the recent growth of the NPD, and want to stamp the party out before it becomes a threat to their political prominence. "More and more people are joining the NPD and [the government] can't accept a national opposition," he said.

Still, the NPD doesn't seem poised to become a formidable political force any time soon. The party captured only .03 percent of the popular vote during the last general election. NPD's 6,000-strong membership is far from mainstream when one considers there about 82 million people living in Germany, and more than 7 million are foreigners. Nonetheless, the NPD has become stronger and better organized in recent years under Voigt's charismatic leadership -- membership has grown from 3,500 in 1996.

But NPD and other extremist parties still have a long road to travel before they become established in mainstream politics. Of the six parties presently represented in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, none are affiliated with right-wing extremism. The successes of the far-right German People's Union and Republican parties have so far been limited to seats captured in regional elections.

Of course, there are bigger questions at play in the debate over the rights of the NPD and other far-right political groups. Free speech absolutists have long been critical of the German constitution, written shortly after World War II, for being too influenced by the chilling legacy of Hitler to be truly democratic.

"If parties are banned in a democratic society, then it is no longer a democratic society," Rossmiller pointed out. "That's demo-crazy," he quipped.

This is not the only instance of Germany coming under fire for its controversial interpretation of free speech or religious association. Recently, for instance, civil liberties organizations criticized the German government's efforts to shut down Web sites it accused of hatemongering.

Even more embarrassing, U.S. trade officials alleged in a report to Congress that the German government unfairly discriminates against Scientologists. The Church of Scientology is not recognized as an official religion in Germany, where the group has been monitored for anti-constitutional activities. A German Embassy statement issued around the same time stated that "because of its experiences during the Nazi regime, Germany has a special responsibility to monitor the development of any extreme group within its borders."

The government doesn't take its decision on whether to ban a political party lightly. In fact, according to Stefanie Schmal of Potsdam University law school, only two parties have ever been banned: the Socialist Reich Party (Sozialistische Reichspartei or SRP) in 1952 and the German Communist Party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands or KPD) in 1956. Both were found to promote political policies that were explicitly anti-democratic and to encourage anti-democratic behavior by their members. By the time it was banned, the SRP was already promoting the "f|hrer's principle," a phrase, inspired by Hitler, that granted authoritarian powers to the party's leader. The KPD, meanwhile, planned to establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat."

"The ability to ban parties is based on the conclusion we've drawn from our own history," Lingenthal said. The clause permitting the ban of far-right parties was given a nod of approval by the most influential 20th century democracies: the French, British and American forces who occupied the Federal Republic of Germany after the war.

Christian Jetzlsperger, a political scientist at Erfurt University, has said a ban "won't accomplish anything at all. The neo-Nazis aren't going to stop using violence just because the party is banned."

Yet: "Many radical-right culprits believe they are acting in consensus with the population," German Environment Minister Juergen Trittin recently explained, describing the motivation behind the ban. "We must destroy [that] belief."

But as with most things, the best solution to the neo-Nazi problem may lie in a moderate approach, like the one advocated by Erhard Denninger, a professor of public law and legal philosophy at Frankfurt University. In an open letter published by the German newspaper Berliner Zeitung on Aug. 22, Denninger wrote that banning the NPD, which plays such a small role in the political system, would only consecrate its supporters as heroes. He goes on to say that a better remedy would be enforcing strict punishments against hate crimes and banning right-wing organizations, rather than an entire political party.

After all, Denninger notes, it is the responsibility of the German government to protect every one of its citizens -- including both foreigners and right-wingers -- from discrimination.

By Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly is co-author (with Jack Murnighan) of "Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals."

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