German court opts not to ban Nazi-like political party

Germany's Constitutional Court ruled on Tuesday that far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) bore similarities to Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, but opted not to ban it, saying that it was too weak to endanger democracy.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) party leader Frank Franz (r.) and the party's lawyer Peter Richter react after the verdict of the Constitutional Court about the attempt by the country's 16 federal states to ban the far-right party, in Karlsruhe, Germany, Tuesday.

On Tuesday, a top German court opted not to ban the country's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). The NPD has suspected neo-Nazi connections, but attempts to ban the party outright have failed on multiple occasions.

Various Jewish advocacy groups have expressed disappointment in the German court's latest decision to keep the party alive. 

The latest failure to ban the NPD comes as far-right groups continue to see significant victories across Europe, spurred by anti-immigration sentiments and EU skepticism, though the political power of the NPD has been minimal since it was first established in 1964. In that year, the NPD united various splinter groups in an unsuccessful attempt to draw the vote away from political moderates in West Germany, and has maintained a radical right-wing agenda ever since.

Currently, there are only about 5,000 members in the NDP, and only about 1.3 percent of votes went to the party during parliamentary elections in 2013, short of the 5 percent of the vote needed before a party can be represented in the Bundestag. In 2014, however, a member of the NDP was elected to the European Parliament, and some NDP officials have been elected to local positions across Germany.

The NPD has been strongly eclipsed over the past few years as many far-right voters have shifted towards the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), a right-wing populist party founded in 2013 that has effectively capitalized on anti-immigration sentiments in the country. The AfD has been heavily criticized by politicians and voters alike for its policies and xenophobic rhetoric in a similar manner to criticism against the NDP. 

The NDP's agenda, however, is more radical.

"The NPD intends to replace the existing constitutional system with an authoritarian national state that adheres to the idea of an ethnically defined 'people's community,' " the court said on Tuesday. "However, currently there is a lack of specific and weighty indications suggesting that this endeavor will be successful."

While the court agreed that the NDP displayed an "affinity" with Hitler's Nazi Party, it also found that the group was too weak to pose a real threat to democracy. In light of the group's weakness, the bid to outlaw the party was rejected.

"The stain has gone, the party is not banned, now we can start again politically," said NPD leader Frank Franz following the ruling.

After years of the Nazi party crushing dissent, Germany adopted post-World War II policies that make it difficult to ban a political party outright. Since then, only the Socialist Reich Party (a successor to the Nazi Party) and the Communist Party were fully banned in West Germany.

As Elisabeth Braw reported for The Christian Science Monitor in March last year:

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.”

Despite these concerns, many groups condemned Tuesday's ruling.

"We must never forget how little time it took Hitler and his party to destroy German democracy, to murder 6 million Jews and to plunge the entire European continent into mayhem," the head of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, said in a statement. "The situation today may be different, but there is absolutely no reason to be complacent. Germany must continue to combat the neo-Nazi movement vigorously."

For many German critics of the far right, Tuesday's ruling and the rise of divisive anti-immigration sentiments in Europe means that their country's battle with the legacy of Nazism is far from over. 

"No ban alone would get rid of xenophobia and racism," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement. "Society's struggle against far-right extremism isn't something others can do for us."

This article contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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