Neo-Nazis in the Bundestag?

Not if the mayor of Loenigstein, a far-right stronghold in eastern Germany, has any say about it.

Published February 11, 2005 5:10PM (EST)

It is one of Germany's most picturesque regions. There are mountains with bizarre rock formations, formidable castles and the Elbe River, which winds its way majestically through steep gorges and forests of birch. Germans call it Saxon Switzerland. Until recently, this alpine region in former Communist East Germany was best known as a center for walking and kayaking. Now, it is famous for something else: as Germany's new Nazi-land. Sixty years after the demise of the Third Reich and the end of the Second World War, Germany's far right is back in business.

It has staged a remarkable comeback here, among the pretty timbered villages close to the Czech border, and along the banks of the Elbe. In federal elections in Saxony last September, the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) won a stunning 9.2 percent of the vote, giving it 12 M.P.'s in the new Saxon parliament in Dresden. Since then, the NPD has staged a series of parliamentary stunts -- for example, walking out last month during a one-minute silence for Holocaust victims. This Sunday, the party and its supporters intend to carry out their most flamboyant protest yet: a "funeral march" to mourn the 35,000 Germans killed during the raid on Dresden 60 years ago by Allied bombers. According to Holger Apfel, the NPD's 33-year-old leader, the allied attack on Dresden during Feb. 13-14, 1945, was a war crime. It was a "Holocaust" of Germans, he said last month, and an "act of gangster politics."

The NPD's rise has caught most German politicians unaware. But it comes against a background of mass unemployment, with more than 5 million Germans now on the dole and disillusionment with the mainstream parties increasing. This week, Edmund Stoiber, the conservative leader of Bavaria's ruling Christian Social Union Party, suggested that present-day Germany bore an increasing resemblance to 1932, when mass unemployment helped Hitler seize power the following year. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was to blame, Stoiber said. He had failed to reduce unemployment, thus driving voters into the arms of the far right.

German columnists and historians have this week been pondering the same dark question: Is this the Weimar Republic all over again? Thursday, Frieder Haase, the mayor of Loenigstein, a town 30 kilometers south of Dresden, said he was confident that German history wasn't repeating itself. "I'm here to try to stop 1933 from happening again. That is why I'm standing here," he said. "If it happened, I would be the first person to leave."

Koenigstein, with a population of 3,200, is a small town in the heart of Saxon Switzerland, in what was once a part of Bohemia. Its main attraction is a 16th century fortress that was visited by Napoleon, and later used to incarcerate French, British and American prisoners of war in the Second World War. The town also boasts a Baroque church and a riverside hotel. In summer, tourists cruise past Koenigstein on paddle steamers, sometimes stopping for lunch on its duck-filled banks. In common with most of the neighboring towns along the Elbe, during last September's elections almost 20 percent of its population voted for the NPD. Who, then, are the NPD's supporters? "They look like you and me. They are completely normal," Haase, who sits as an independent, says. "They work on building sites. They are women shop assistants. They don't look like skinheads."

An alarmed German media has given differing explanations for the NPD's rise. They include the fact that the Communists ran the area until 1989, the unemployment rate of 18 percent and disillusionment with Germany's red-green government in Berlin. But the phrase most frequently mentioned in Koenigstein is "bürgernah," which, loosely translated, means "close to the people." While German politicians have argued endlessly, and often abstrusely, about economic reforms, the NPD has quietly built up its local base. Since the late '90s it has fielded well-known candidates for key elections. And it has assiduously gathered support among its core constituency -- the young -- with barbecues, discos and canoeing trips.

"If you have politicians sitting in big cities, you can't reach them. But if you have politicians living in your street, you can," Kristin Katzchner, a youth worker in Koenigstein, explains. Instead of wearing bomber jackets and Doc Martens, NPD supporters these days prefer a more insidious sporting chic, especially the British brand Lonsdale. (Worn with a leather jacket, the letters "Lo-" and "-le" are hidden. That leaves "nsda," the first four letters of Hitler's Nazi Party, the NSDAP -- a subtle code for those in the know.)

The NPD's new M.P.'s don't look like skinheads, either. They wear suits; they are in their 30s; and they are impeccably polite. Speaking at his new, second-floor offices in Dresden's glass-filled parliament building, Holger Apfel says that other parties made a classic mistake: They underestimated him. "We have very good local structures. We have people representing us in local areas who don't talk in clichés. If you know the person who represents you, you don't believe what you read in the newspapers," he says.

But why is Germany's far right enjoying a renaissance? Apfel, a 33-year-old former publisher, admits high unemployment has a lot to do with it. Life for most east Germans has not improved since reunification, he says. Germany's then chancellor, Helmut Kohl, famously promised east Germans "blooming landscapes." "Many people believed Kohl's promises. But the blooming landscapes didn't happen. In fact, things got worse," Apfel says. The party now has representatives in 22 of 27 local councils, in Saxon Switzerland and in the Erzgebirge Mountains, another NPD stronghold. Getting rid of the NPD would be hard, he adds.

Other parliamentarians in Dresden have responded to the NPD by trying to ignore it. The Greens turn their backs in the chamber whenever an NPD member gets up to speak. They also avoid the second-floor lavatories, in case they bump into an NPD member. The NPD caucus eats alone in the canteen. German television stations refuse to interview Apfel. Still, the NPD's views find a subterranean resonance among some German voters -- not least its argument that it is time Germans stopped feeling guilty about being, well, German. "For us, Dresden was a war crime," Peter Marx, the NPD's chief whip, says. "It was a senseless act. The city was full of refugees from the east. There was no military need. We think it's wrong to treat it selectively and talk about the war crimes of the Germans without talking about the war crimes done to the Germans. Young people are fed up with being told: 'Guilt, guilt, guilt.' Why should I feel any less proud of being German than you do about being British?"

Marx, a lawyer, makes no secret about his party's ambitions. The NPD is fielding candidates in next week's federal elections in Schleswig-Holstein and in the key state of North Rhine-Westphalia in May. But it is Germany's 2006 general election that is the ultimate prize. There is the tantalizing possibility that the NPD will, for the first time, get more than 5 percent of the popular vote, and thus win seats in Germany's national parliament.

The prospect of neo-Nazis sitting in the Bundestag fills German leaders with horror. Germany's Social Democrat-Green government is considering a ban on the NPD and its far-right sister party, the DVU. The chances of success, however, are slim. A similar attempt three years ago was bungled after it emerged that police agents had penetrated both groups.

I ask another of the NPD's young M.P.'s, Johannes Müller, whether he was, in fact, a Nazi. "I see myself as a national conservative," he says. "The party was founded in 1946. Most people in it are between 30 and 35. We have no relationship with that time."

In the meantime, Haase and other Koenigstein citizens are doing their best to shed the town's reputation as a neo-Nazi stronghold. Last November, someone broke the windows of the shop belonging to Koenigstein's Vietnamese grocer, Herr Minh. Minh moved to the town in 1988, just before Communist East Germany disappeared, at a time when there were few tourists and when most of the houses were falling apart. Although the NPD blames many of Germany's problems on "foreigners," especially those from eastern Europe, Minh is one of only two non-Germans in Koenigstein. The other one runs the local Imbiss, or snack bar. "They smashed the window on a Saturday night," Minh recalls. "Most people 'round here are very nice, though," he adds. Afterward, locals collected cash worth 690 pounds to buy Minh a new window.

A short walk away is the Crime Store, a clothing shop that sells labels popular with the far-right scene. Outside, someone has sprayed an anti-Nazi slogan which echoes that used by Nazis against the Jews: "Kauf nicht bei Nazis" ("Don't buy from Nazis") and "Raus Nazis!" ("Nazis out"). The shop was shut. "The Nazi phenomenon is not going to happen again," Haase predicts. "In 1933, Germany was broken, the war had been lost, and along came a big, powerful man -- Adolf Hitler. Things are different now."

By Luke Harding

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