Germany rejects ban on Nazi-like extremists

BERLIN — Pro-democracy advocates are lamenting the German government's unsuccessful attempt to ban an extreme right-wing political party.

The country's highest court rejected the government's case last week against the National Democratic Party, or NPD, because paid government informants were among the experts to be subpoenaed for hearings.

That contradicted the law protecting political parties from state interference, the court said.

"It is a shame the case couldn't proceed simply because the investigation was poorly handled," Anetta Kahane, director of the Berlin-based pro-democracy group, Amadeu-Antonio Foundation, said.

Kahane, a former member of the board of Berlin's Jewish community, described the NPD as "an anti-democratic party that is a major source of violence and right-wing extremist propaganda."

The government said it would not attempt to retry the case.

Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse told the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he "regretted the court's decision," which "could be misunderstood by the right-wing extremists as a victory over their enemy, the democratic state."

The leaders of the NPD, Horst Mahler and Udo Voigt, publicly celebrated the decision.

Only two parties have been banned in postwar Germany: a communist party and a neo-Nazi party, both in the 1950s.

The decision will give right-wing parties "new impetus," Gerhard Vogler, president of the German police union, told Reuters.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has compared the NPD, which had some 7,000 members in 2001, to the Nazi Party of the 1920s.

The party blames "outsiders" for Germany's social and economic woes, believes Germans have been made to feel too much guilt regarding the Holocaust and expresses vehement racist, anti-Semitic and anti-American views.

Most dangerous is the party's advocacy of violence, observers say.

The government's move to ban the NPD was approved in late 2001 by both houses of Parliament and the federal government. But it was doomed after the Supreme Court learned in February 2002 that paid informants would testify in hearings.

The revelation cast doubts on the strength of the government's case against the NPD, as the right-wing party could argue that material used against them was created by provocateurs. The scandal shook public faith in Interior Minister Otto Schily, and there were calls for his resignation.

Some 15 percent of the NPD leadership reportedly has been employed by the Federal Agency for Internal Security.

In a March 18 decision, three of the seven judges reviewing the case rejected it because of the informants. A two-thirds majority was necessary to continue the process.

"It was a very embarrassing story for the government," Markus Zeeh, co-founder of the Leipzig-based Network for Democracy, said.

The only reason to outlaw a party is "to prevent it from gaining federal financing," Zeeh said. Aside from that, banning does not work because there is a broad network of "ersatz right-wing clubs'' to take the place of any outlawed group.

Kahane said that she prefers alternatives that can attract the alienated youth who make up a majority of active right-wing extremists.

Though the NPD has had no electoral success, the party attracts disaffected young Germans through a campaign stressing xenophobia and violence.

Recently, some of its leaders openly associated in Berlin with members of a now-banned Islamic extremist group.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.