ON Saturday, Oct. 20, a march of about 500 neo-Nazi demonstrators took place in Dresden. This march, during which the participants yelled racist slogans and gave the Nazi salute, has provoked a sharp reaction from the German public and press, and has brought concern that signs of neo-Nazism in the newly reunited Germany may be early warning of dangers to come from the new Germany. Many German voices questioned the decision of Mayor Herbert Wagner to permit the march and called for tough action against the neo-Nazis. The incident raises two fundamental questions: How serious is the neo-Nazi movement in Germany today? How has the government of the Federal Republic of Germany dealt with such movements?
Karl Bracher, the dean of German historians writing about the Nazi era, reminds us of the insignificant nature of the Nazi movement when it began to agitate in the early 1920s, and how the history of the rise of Nazism was the history of the constant failure to take seriously the menace of National Socialism and Adolf Hitler.
No Adolf Hitler is on the horizon, however; more important, the Germany of the 1990s is a vastly different place from that of the 1920s. Sixty million Germans have lived in a stable democracy with an institutional base of political parties, churches, courts, and schools that are dominated by people committed to humane values and democratic processes. This Germany has been prosperous and stable, and has had the time to build the institutional flexibility and citizen participation that should make it able to survive even a substantial economic downturn.
The 17 million Germans who lived under oppression in the East have struggled hard for freedom and participation. They are much more likely to adopt the dominant democratic values of the majority of their fellow citizens who lived in the Federal Republic than those of fringe extremist groups.
The neo-Nazis are very much a fringe group in Germany today. Several political groupings, most prominently the Republicans, espouse neo-Nazi ideas and compete in elections. In their best showing in this year's elections, the Republicans received 4.9 percent of the vote, less than the 5 percent necessary to achieve representation in the state legislature. Most observers feel that this is the limit of their vote-getting potential and that like other similar groups, such as the Nationalists and the Peoples' Union, they will destroy themselves by inner conflict. Groups such as the skinheads exist, but they are often into punk bashing and football hooliganism and have no clear political focus.
However, since there are groups such as those that demonstrated in Dresden, how will the German state deal with them? The Federal Republic, aware of Germany's history, has never allowed the freedom for radical groups to function that is allowed in the United States under the First Amendment. While the Germans have borrowed so much from American tradition, they have borrowed their way of dealing with extremist groups from the Canadians and the Swedes, who keep tighter control on these groups.
As early as 1952, the Bonn government banned a political party, the SRP, as being neo-Nazi, and the nations highest court upheld that act. It is against the law in Germany to display Nazi symbols, wear Nazi uniforms, or give the Nazi salute. Thus the police in Dresden could have arrested the demonstrators if they had received orders to do so. In 1979, Michael Kuhnen, a neo-Nazi leader who received considerable press attention but had relatively few followers, was sentenced to a four-year prison term for incitement to racism and the glorification of violence. The organization he led, the Nationalist Socialist Action Front, was banned. Other groups such as the Military Sports Group Hoffman have also been banned.
Thus the decision to let the neo-Nazi group parade in Dresden was not typical of German policy. American civil libertarians may question the German approach, but German leaders, pointing to other democracies such as Canada and Sweden, and aware of their own history, are not likely to change their policies. The present German government with its democratic institutions and participating citizenry, and its policy of not giving radical groups much room in which to operate seem in no danger from neo-Nazis.