FRANKFURT, GERMANY — For the past decade, right-wing extremist parties have done well in most major European countries - except the one many people expect: Germany.
Earlier this month both France's National Front and Austria's Freedom Party again demonstrated their ability to capture about 15 percent of the vote. But right-wing parties in Germany received so few votes in regional elections in the state of Lower Saxony that they were barely mentioned in the results.
Although right-wing extremist violence is on the rise in Germany, parties with nationalist, xenophobic, and racist platforms so far have made few inroads.
There have been no lack of attempts to organize the far right. But the parties have been plagued by in-fighting, personal rivalries, poor organization, and a lack of charismatic leaders. Furthermore, some have been tainted by ties between their leaders and former Nazis, current neo-Nazis, or groups that deny that the Holocaust took place.
Heiner Kappel says he thinks can solve these problems. Together with Manfred Brunner he has founded a new far-right political party that they hope will attract affluent, bourgeois voters.
The creation of the League of Free Citizens - the Offensive in Berlin this past January attracted national media attention.
"Here in Germany we panic at the mention of right-wing political activity," Mr. Kappel said in a recent interview at his office in Bad Soden, a well-heeled village in the gently rolling Taunus hills west of Frankfurt. "But right-wing does not mean extremist. There is a political vacuum we want to fill."
Since founding their party, Kappel and Mr. Brunner have been traveling nonstop. Their appeals for more nationalism, fewer foreigners, and a return to traditional family values are filling town halls. At a recent gathering in Friedberg, north of Frankfurt, about 150 people turned up to hear Kappel. The serious, well-dressed audience listened attentively to his criticisms of big government, arrogant politicians, ineffective crime policies, high taxes, and poor schools.
Kappel himself is a long-time member of the parliament in the state of Hesse. But no one took him amiss for his critique of the current system. Instead, they applauded him when he told them that most politicians have lost touch with ordinary citizens. They nodded attentively when he said statistics showing that crime was decreasing were manipulated. And the nods got even more vigorous when he called for a reform of the education system to reward talent and create an elite.
His tone became even more fervent when talking about foreigners, refugees, and what he considers world pressure on Germany to tone down its patriotism.
"I am proud of my country, Germany - why not?" he asked the group defiantly. "This has nothing to do with racism or Nazi ideology." However, that didn't stop him from praising the bravery of German soldiers and recalling the suffering of the German people in World War II.
Right-wing parties in Germany have only about 35,000 members, according to Bernd Hafeneger, a political science professor at the University of Marburg. But "about 10 to 15 percent of the population is prepared to vote [to the] right of the established conservative parties, similar to the numbers in other European countries," he says.
Parliamentary elections this fall could be a watershed, Professor Hafeneger says. If the ruling conservative coalition led by Chancellor Helmut Kohl is thrown out, it could cause a major shift in the political landscape, unravel party loyalties, and give new parties room to grow.
Political observers do not expect Kappel's party to capture more than 1 or 2 percent of the vote nationwide this fall. But it may establish well-functioning organizations in several regions, creating power bases for future elections.
The National Democratic Party of Germany, the most extreme of the right-wing parties, is attracting hundreds of new members in eastern Germany. Authorities in Saxony say the party could break the 5 percent barrier in some local elections next year.
Jewish leaders are speaking out, warning that right-wing ideology and violence have been on the rise since German reunification in 1990. Their warnings were underlined in a poll this week in the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. Asked whether a dictatorship would do a better job than a democracy in solving the nation's problems, 7 percent of west Germans said yes, in east Germany, a sobering 14 percent said yes.
* Previous articles in this series appeared March 23, 24, and 26.