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Germany's far-right NPD party faces political exile. Will a ban really help?

Understanding the debate

Germany's top constitutional court will soon rule on whether the 'neo-Nazi' NPD should be barred from politics. But a ban might force it underground where it could be more dangerous.

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    NPD party chairman Frank Franz (l.) talks to his lawyer, Peter Richter, at the German constitutional court in Karlsruhe, southern Germany, on March 1.
    Uwe Anspach/dpa/AP
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Time may be finally running out for Germany's 'neo-Nazi' National Democratic Party (NPD).

For a decade and a half, Germany has unsuccessfully tried to ban the far-right party, which has long been accused of xenophobic and racist policies. Last week, Germany's top constitutional court, the Bundesverfassungsgericht, finally heard arguments over whether the NPD's platform is unconstitutional and thus should be banned from the political scene. The court is expected to issue its ruling within days.

But while the NPD earns little sympathy for its agenda, the idea of an outright ban troubles some Germans. Since its founding in 1964, the party has walked a fine line between legal and illegal behavior, yet barely gained political traction and has never won a seat in the federal parliament.

That leaves some Germans to wonder: Is it worth the effort to disbar such a seemingly impotent party?

“Trying to get the party banned is a risky strategy,” says Carsten Koschmieder, a political sociologist at the Free University in Berlin who specializes in extremist movements. “If the court doesn’t ban it, the NPD can say, ‘look, we’re democratic.’ But if the court bans the party, there’s a risk that its members become radicalized, go underground, or begin launching physical attacks.”

'The NPD is already dead'

For the past three years, Germany’s states have built a case against the NPD, claiming that the party does not support the country’s democratic principles and should be banned under the country’s basic law. The NPD has called immigration "genocide" and demanded abolition of Germany's right to asylum. The Facebook page of the party's faction in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of the few states where it holds any political power, has accused immigrants of "excessive violence."

That rhetoric has fed calls for the NPD's ban. “A ban is more important than ever,” said the social democratic SPD party’s deputy leader, Eva Högl, ahead of the court proceedings. “The NPD is racist, contemptuous of human beings, and unconstitutional.”

Though the party scored several triumphs in Sunday's municipal elections in the state of Hesse, winning more than 12 percent of the vote in three local councils, overall its star has been in decline. It holds a scattering of city council seats, five state lawmakers in Mecklenburg and a single member of the European Parliament.

In recent years it has lost ground to the new far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and the anti-Islam Pegida movement. According to recent polls, only some three percent of voters nationwide support the NPD, far below the five percent needed to win seats in the federal parliament.

“In reality, the NPD is already dead,” notes Mr. Koschmieder, the sociologist. “But the court process is giving it a lot of attention.” Indeed, on Facebook the NPD is presenting its court defense as one of freedom of expression against the enemies of democracy.

Sebastian Striegel, a political scientist and Green parliamentarian in Saxony-Anhalt, where the NPD also used to be strong, says that the NPD of today is a “party of retirees that poses no threat.” In his state, which holds elections on Mar. 13, the far-right AfD party is polling at 19 percent, far ahead of the tiny NPD vote. 

About the money

Given that trajectory, it could make more sense to let the NPD decline into political insignificance, much like the Ku Klux Klan. No party has been banned in Germany since the KPD communist party 60 years ago; 65 percent of Germans consider a ban on the NPD risky.

Even so, 69 percent of Germans support a ban, in part because of its access to public financing according to German law. In 2014 it received €1.4 million from the government – peanuts compared to the Christian Democrats’ €48.6 million and the SPD’s €47.9 million. Still, says Mr. Koschmieder, this “allowed the NPD to hire various extreme-right thugs as research assistants.”

Its status as a political party also allows the NPD to stage events and demonstrations – featuring a variety of extreme-right supporters – much more easily than if it were just an interest group. And to uninitiated global audiences, the NPD’s presence suggests that Germany tolerates its views.

Open debate

At an academic-track high school in Radebeul, a town 15 minutes from Dresden in Saxony, students debated the pros and cons of an NPD ban in an online interview. Dresden is Pegida’s base, and until two years ago, the NPD had seats in the state parliament.

“The fact that the party gets money from the government to spread its message is a major reason to ban it,” says Tobias Jedermann, one of the students. “But our democracy has to be able to survive parties like the NPD. If our only answer is to ban it, our democracy is not very healthy.”

He notes that extreme-right thinking doesn’t begin with a political party but in school. “That’s where you have to start in order to make the thinking unattractive.”

Tobias’s classmate Jens Mai, however, supports a ban. “The seeds that the NDP plants stay in people’s heads,” he says. “Once people have adopted this kind of thinking you can’t reverse it in their heads.”

Then again, Jens points out, a ban would just make the NPD more attractive. “And it would allow them to paint the state as the enemy of the NPD,” he notes. “And the thinking lives on even if a party is banned.”

These teenagers aren't the only ones grappling with this moral dilemma. 

Even Katharina König, a left-wing activist who has been physically attacked by neo-Nazi thugs, doesn't think a ban will fix much. It “wouldn’t change the concrete threats, racist excesses, and increasing neo-Nazi activities,” says Ms. König, the Left Party's anti-fascism spokesperson in the Thuringia state parliament.

A realtor in the city of Neubrandenburg in the state of Mecklenburg, who asked not to be identified for his security, strongly favors a ban on the NPD. He says it gives his state a poor reputation among the many Poles who buy homes here or consider doing so. But he's skeptical that it would stop the march of extremism, citing a spate of attacks on dozens of asylum seeker homes across Germany.

"A ban is just an excuse that would allow our politicians to say they’ve done something about far-right extremism,” he says. 

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