The mural is 2 meters (6.6 feet) high, several meters long, and looks as if it came straight from a 1935 German schoolbook: a young family in farmer’s clothes, the mother cradling a baby, the father putting his arm protectively around his older son’s shoulders. Next to the painting in old German font, it reads: “Village community Jamel: Free – social – national.”
Jamel is what neo-Nazis in Germany call a “nationally liberated zone,” a no-go area for foreigners, ethnic minorities, and overt left-wingers. It is one of the places where the National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany’s legal far-right party, has won the battle for hearts and minds – and probably did not have to fight very hard. In some villages and towns of this region, the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the NPD easily reached 20 percent in regional elections earlier this year.
“The authorities have given up on Jamel,” says Horst Krumpen, chairman of the Network for Democracy, Tolerance, and Humanity, a campaign group in the nearby town of Wismar. “We don’t have problems with right-wing violence here – there hardly is any. Our problem is the widespread support for the NPD in the region and the impotence of the state.”
For years, places like Jamel were more or less ignored by the German authorities. In a speech this summer, Germany's Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich called right-wing extremism a phenomenon on the decline, and stressed the threat of Islamic terrorism. But the shocking revelations a month ago about a terrorist cell of neo-Nazis, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), which is alleged to have killed as many as 10 ethnic-minority citizens as well as a policewoman and carried out several bombings and bank robberies over the past decade, have put such enclaves back in the focus, along with a debate about whether the NPD, which gives a legal voice to extreme right-wing sentiment, should be banned.
Jamel is a tiny village of only a dozen houses, close to the Baltic coast in northeast Germany. It is surrounded by idyllic landscapes, but there are metal shutters on most windows, attack dogs behind fences, a shooting range outside a collapsed barn with a playground in front of it. Everywhere you look there are manifestations of the inhabitants’ world: a tall cross with the words “Better dead than a slave” on it, flags with Germanic runes and symbols, and signposts pointing to various places in Russia and Poland which used to belong to Germany before World War II. A placard reminds people: “NPD – we keep our promises.”
The NPD, which is represented in the regional parliaments of two German states but has never played any role at the federal level, has tried for some time to shed its extremist image. “People can come to their party offices and get help filling out welfare application forms,” says Mr. Krumpen. NPD members are running youth clubs and local soccer teams, and sitting on local councils. Just last month, the party elected a new leader, Holger Apfel, who is regarded as less radical than his predecessor.
In a poll last week, 74 percent of Germans were in favor of banning the NPD. “A ban would destabilize the right-wing scene, throw it back for decades,” says Bernd Wagner. The ex-policeman is Germany’s foremost authority on right-wing extremism. He runs “Exit,” an organization that helps neo-Nazis leave the scene and reintegrate in society. “We need to act,” says Mr. Wagner. “The official statistics show a decline in the number of right-wing extremists. But we at Exit see a core of neo-Nazis that is better organized and more radical than before.”
But the German government needs to show a concrete and direct link between the NPD and the terrorists of the NSU. Otherwise it risks a repeat of the embarrassment of 2003, when an attempt to ban the NPD failed, because Germany’s constitutional court rejected the case. Back then, the NPD was so heavily infiltrated with informers of the domestic intelligence service that the court decided most of the evidence brought against the far-right party would be inadmissible.
The arrest of a former NPD official who is accused of actively supporting the NSU last week could make the case for a ban and push the informer problem into the background, politicians hope. “If we can produce a watertight link between NPD and terrorists, we have an important argument on our side,” the Interior minister of Lower Saxony, Uwe Schünemann, told a German newspaper. Bavaria’s Interior minister, Joachim Herrmann, said the support for a ban was growing on a daily basis.
Not everybody agrees, though. Hartfrid Wolff is an MP for the Free Democrats, the junior partner in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. He sits on the Parliamentary Oversight Committee that controls Germany’s intelligence services. “The failure of the domestic intelligence agency to stop this terrorist gang was a disaster,” he says. “But we should not in a knee-jerk reaction try to ban a party that has a considerable electorate. It would be much better to dry up its voter base, win over its supporters.”
Mr. Krumpen has a more practical approach. “If we ban the NPD, we don’t get rid of a single right-winger,” he says. “What we lose is a target whose structure and weaknesses we know well enough to fight. Ban it, and the neo-Nazis just go underground.”