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Behind the Headlines: West Germans Searching for Line Between Extremism and Neo-nazism

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West Germany is grappling with the question of whether right-wing extremism is a legitimate form of political expression or unacceptable because of the country’s Nazi past.

The issue has taken on a degree of urgency with the sudden rise of the Munich-based Republican Party, an extreme right-wing group headed by a former Waffen SS official, Franz Schoenhuber.

The Republicans surprised the country and shook the political establishment by winning seats in the West Berlin municipal legislature on Jan. 29.

More recently, on June 18, the Republicans won 7.1 percent of the popular vote in the election of deputies to the Parliament of Europe, the legislative body of the European Community, based in Strasbourg, France.

The Republicans displaced the Free Democratic Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition, as the fourth largest political group in the Federal Republic.

Those elections were viewed by many as a barometer of the next elections for seats in the Bundestag, West Germany’s parliament.

If the Republicans equal or improve their performance in next year’s Bundestag elections, they could hardly be bypassed for a coalition with Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s governing Christian Democratic Union, assuming it retains its leadership.

None of the parties, not the conservative CDU, the centrist Free Democrats, nor the Social Democratic Party and the Greens on the left could command a parliamentary majority.

ONE POLITICIAN STANDS UP

Because the Republicans seem to have the makings of a political force to contend with, politicians here are wary of characterizing it as anything more than extreme right-wing.

Another reason is to protect West Germany’s image abroad from suggestions that a large bloc of voters is willing to support a party that evokes memories of the Third Reich.

This reticence was broken last week, when Graf Lambsdorff, chairman of the Free Democrats, referred to Schoenhuber as a “neo-Nazi.”

“Yes, for me this man is a neo-Nazi,” Lambsdorff stated in a newspaper interview published June 23.

He accused Schoenhuber of deliberately trying to play down Nazi crimes. As an example, he cited a recent remark by the Republican leader that Germans gave the world far more than Auschwitz had ever destroyed.

According to Lambsdorff, that remark showed that Schoenhuber is trying to justify the most outrageous Nazi crimes by employing absurd equations.

The leader of the Free Democrats argued that the Republican leadership is rife with neo-Nazis and the party itself far to the right. But he warned that the people who voted for the Republicans could not be lumped together under one label.

Chancellor Kohl insists his CDU would not consider a coalition with the Republicans. But he has given the impression this is a matter of tactics, not a matter of such an alliance being repugnant.

The deeply conservative Kohl, in fact, has equated the Republicans with the ecology-minded, pacifist Greens, saying they were “extremities” of the right and left respectively.

POLITICS OF RESENTMENT

Another CDU leader, former party secretary Kurt Biedenkopf, said Monday that it is wrong to boycott the Republicans or to portray them as neo-Nazis.

According to Biedenkopf, their electoral successes are grounded in a comprehensible sociological phenomenon.

Germany, he said, is increasingly flooded by immigrants. Its low-income citizens are in competition with the newcomers for jobs and scarce housing.

They resent this because they are Germans with deep roots in this country, Biedenkopf explained.

But West Germany’s Jewish community strongly opposes efforts to play down the neo-Nazi nature of the Republicans.

They may recall that the politics of resentment, skillfully played on Germany’s lower middle class between the wars, was one of the tools of the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933.

The leader of West Germany’s Jewish community, Heinz Galinski, has repeatedly warned the established parties that to delay confronting the Republicans will only enhance the popularity of Schoenhuber and his associates.

“Unfortunately I was right,” Galinski said after seeing the returns from the European parliamentary elections.

They were a severe blow to a nation that has come to believe that a neo-Nazi upsurge is out of the question, Galinski said.

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