Why 13 percent of Germans would welcome a 'Führer'

A new survey signals that Germany, where the term 'Führer,' or leader, is explicitly linked to Adolf Hitler, is not immune from the far-right sentiments that are spreading across Europe.

By , Staff Writer

A new survey in Germany shows that 13 percent of its citizens would welcome a “Führer” – a German word for leader that is explicitly associated with Adolf Hitler – to run the country “with a firm hand.”

The findings signal that Europe’s largest nation, freed from cold-war strictures, is not immune from the extreme and often right-wing politics on the rise around the Continent.

The study, released Oct. 13 by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, affiliated with the center-left Social Democratic Party, revealed among other things that more than a third of Germans feel the country is “overrun by foreigners,” some 60 percent would “restrict the practice of Islam,” and 17 percent think Jews have “too much influence.”

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The study's overall snapshot of German society shows new forms of extremism and hate are no longer the province of far-right cohorts who shave their heads or wear leather jackets adorned with silver skulls – but register in the tweedy political center, on the right and the left. Indeed, the study found, extremism in Germany isn’t a fringe phenomenon but is found in the political center, "in all social groups and in all age groups, regardless of employment status, educational level or gender."

Far-right parties gain power across Europe

The year 2010 is marking a clear shift toward extremist politics across Europe, analysts say. An uncertain economy, a gap between elites and ordinary Europeans, and fraying of a traditional sense of national identity has just in the past month brought more hard-line politics and speech, often aimed at Islam or immigrants – into a political mainstream where it had been absent or considered taboo.

On Oct. 10, the city of Vienna, a cosmopolitan and socialist stronghold since World War II, voted the far-right Freedom Party into a ruling coalition. The party, which ran on an “anti-minaret” platform in a city with only one mosque, was formerly associated with nationalist Jorg Haider, but has been reinvented by an animated former dental hygienist, Heinz-Christian Strache.

On Sept. 19, Sweden, long a Scandinavian redoubt of social tolerance and openness, put the far-right Sweden Democrats into parliament for the first time.

Further, this week the Netherlands saw the rise to influence, if not power, of the anti-Islam party of Geert Wilders, a social liberal who argues for gay rights – but whose main platform is to ban the Quran and the practice of Islam in the Low Countries. Mr. Wilders' party will formally participate in the Dutch ruling coalition without specifically joining it.

This new governing architecture – extreme parties that indirectly join a ruling coalition – is now found in Denmark, where the government must rely on the far-right People’s Party to operate. As author Ian Buruma notes, this form of government gives extreme parties “power without responsibility.”

Growing divide over immigrants' place

To be sure, German politics, which outlaws extremist parties, has no corollary to events taking place in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, or Switzerland.

Yet xenophobic rhetoric has crept in. Germany is currently enswathed in debate over comments by Horst Seehofer, president of the Bavarian Christian-Social Union, who stated days ago, “It is clear that immigrants from other cultures such as Turkey and Arabic countries have more difficulties. From that I draw the conclusion that we don’t need additional immigration from other cultures.” The CSU is a sister party of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.

Mr. Seehofer’s comments are seen as responding to German president Christian Wulff on Oct. 3, German Unity Day, in which he called for a second German unification that would more fully integrate those of immigrant background; he said that “Islam also is part of Germany.”

President Wulff’s statement followed a month of furor over a new book by leftist German central banker Thilo Sarrazin, “Germany Abolishes Itself,” positing that immigrants from Turkey and Arab states are lowering German intelligence quotients due to high birth rates and less education, and “have no productive function except in the fruit and vegetable trade.”

Mr. Sarrazin’s analysis and statistics have been roundly denunciated, and he has resigned his federal banker’s post – but his book quickly sold 1.5 million copies.

Why extreme-right views are coming to the surface

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation study that came out this week is based on 2,411 respondents and was conducted in April, prior to the recent emotional immigration debate sparked by Sarrazin, Seehofer, and Wulff.

The rise of racism and intolerance argued in the study contrasts with similar foundation studies, prior to the economic crisis in Europe, showing a decrease in racism or xenophobia. However, today nearly a third of Germans polled would consider a policy repatriating immigrants if the job market suffers further.

The authors of the study urge fellow Germans not to “underestimate” right-wing sentiment.

Oliver Decker, one of the study's authors, says the findings indicate a new popular willingness to express hardcore opinions.

“In the past the base for extreme-right views in Germany, though present, was more latent in nature. Now these views are being expressed more frequently,” Mr. Decker says. “The economic crisis seems to have allowed aggression come to the surface. Among those looking for a valve, foreigners in general and Muslims in particular fill that role.”

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