Hard Times Help Hard Right in East Germany

A May Day rally in Leipzig and recent right-wing electoral gains capitalize on frustration with economy.

Extreme-right demonstrations and left-wing marches are nothing new in eastern Germany, but unrest last Friday illustrates how neo-Nazis are trying to break into the political landscape here.

Thousands of extremist demonstrators descended on this eastern German city, hijacking national attention from traditional May Day festivities. Left-wing youths battled police in a futile effort to disrupt a rally of the National Democratic Party (NPD), a neo-Nazi fringe group with a growing presence in the formerly communist east.

Following the recent gains of a far-right party in state elections in Saxony-Anhalt, established parties are waking up to the possibility that in eastern Germany, they will have to compete with right-wing fringe parties at state and local levels. Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government is also struggling to regain lost ground ahead of federal elections in September. Mr. Kohl told a Leipzig newspaper that "we have regularly had such waves," referring to sporadic right-wing electoral successes in the past. The crucial question is whether neo-Nazis can continue to capitalize on widespread disillusionment in eastern Germany.

"Because of the poor economic situation and societal changes, right-wing slogans fall on fertile ground," says Everhard Holtmann, a political scientist at the University of Halle in Saxony-Anhalt. "If the economic crisis should continue, then the susceptibility [to extremism] will grow, as in other Western European countries."

The far right is still significantly weaker here than in Austria, Italy, or France, mainly because in Germany the extreme right is splintered, and Hitler's legacy is widely spurned. But the far right could still influence the fall elections by poisoning the political climate.

The Christian Social Union (CSU), Mr. Kohl's conservative coalition partner in the state of Bavaria, has indicated it will not shy away from trying to win fringe voters vulnerable to antiforeigner rhetoric.

"It is precarious if the CSU tries to make foreigners an issue," Mr. Holtmann says. "The more they play it up, the more it gains a significance."

At the same time, many eastern German youths, who grew up under communism, find an ideal form of rebellion in neo-Nazi ideology. The NPD, in particular, has been feeding off the social and economic turmoil resulting from the collapse of the east's economy after German unification in 1990. Observers note that since last year, young skinheads have been flocking to the party. Two-thirds of the NPD's 4,000 members are under the age of 30.

"It is the only right-wing extremist party that is well organized with widespread support," says Bernd Wagner, whose Berlin-based Center for Democratic Culture keeps close tabs on neo-Nazi activity. It is no coincidence that the NPD chose May 1 - Europe's Labor Day - for the Leipzig rally. Speakers lamented unemployment - the highest in Germany since the end of World War II - using the same mix of nationalist vitriol and socialist rhetoric that Adolf Hitler pioneered in the 1920s.

Renate Friedrich, a kindergarten teacher who was laid off shortly after unification, is alarmed at the rise of the extreme right.

"We went on the streets, we were ready to die," she says, recalling the nonviolent protests in Leipzig that helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989. "This is terrible. We believed in more democracy."

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