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German extremists get reprieve

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A December march of the far-right National Democratic Party in Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

A December march of the far-right National Democratic Party in Berlin. (Toby Axelrod)

BERLIN, Jan. 28 (JTA) — Jewish leaders and politicians from across the spectrum are outraged that the case for banning a far-right party may fall apart due to government bungling. The Interior Ministry and the Ministry for Constitutional Protection had worked for more than a year to build a strong case against the National Democratic Party, which the government has likened to the Nazis. German officials have accused the party, known by its German initials NPD, of inciting violence and promoting a platform based on anti-Semitism, xenophobia and hatred of democratic values. Last year, in a move supported by both houses of Parliament, the government asked the country´s highest court to consider banning the NPD, which recruits its members from skinhead groups around Germany. But last week, the Federal Constitutional Court said it was postponing a Feb. 5 hearing because it had learned that one of the most vocal members of the party had worked as an informant for Germany´s domestic intelligence agency. The court said it would have to check the legal implications of hearing a case based on statements made by an informant. The court decision was a major embarrassment for the government. Interior Minister Otto Schily now is struggling not only to put the process back on track, but to save his reputation. Jewish leaders were among those outraged by the government´s mistake. "What a scandal it is, that when the society is ready to deal with this we are confronted with such terrible news, day after day?" Michel Friedman, a vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Sunday at an event marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. "We as the Jewish community will always be in the first row" in calling for the ban, said Alexander Brenner, head of Berlin´s Jewish community. The NPD held a march last December that passed close to one of Berlin´s main Jewish communal centers. "It is important that the NPD be forbidden. And any obstacles to that are very, very bad," Brenner added. The postponement of the hearing was announced Jan. 23, a day after news emerged about one informant. Then last Friday, a parliamentary committee leaked news that there was at least one more NPD informant whose writings were material to the government´s case. Since then, additional names have emerged. The newsweekly Der Spiegel said about 20 percent of the evidence for the hearings against the NPD comes from informants. Even if this material is disqualified, however, the proceedings are not doomed, said Dieter Wiefelspuetz, domestic affairs expert for the Social Democratic Party of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. "We have impressive material," he told Der Spiegel. The revelations indicate that, at best, the government agencies failed to coordinate preparations for the hearings. The federal level apparently did not know about informants on the local level. As a result, it is quite possible that a banal mistake may cost the government its case against the NPD. The case is based primarily on the party´s incitement to violence and its anti-Semitic and xenophobic propaganda. The NPD was founded in 1964 and has about 7,000 members across Germany. Its headquarters have been in Berlin since 1999, the same year the federal government moved to the new capital from Bonn. Not all right-wing related crimes can be traced to NPD members, but observers say the party has contributed significantly to an increasing problem by calling on supporters to take their fight against the pluralistic, democratic society "into the streets." In 2000, the last year for which full statistics are available, reported right-wing extremist crimes totaled 12,000, up nearly 60 percent from 1999. Violent right-wing crimes were up 8.9 percent in 2000, for a total of 649. Despite a string of racist murders in 1999-2000, the government did not suggest banning the NPD until after a bomb in Dusseldorf on June 27, 2000, injured several Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and after arsonists damaged the synagogue there in October 2000. Some critics suggested that the government cares more about its reputation abroad than about solving problems at home. Many also doubt a ban would have anything more than a symbolic effect. When several violent right-wing clubs were banned in the 1990s, members started new groups, ignoring a ruling that forbid them from doing so. Ultimately, many ended up joining the NPD. Whether a ban would achieve its stated goal of suppressing extremist activity is unclear. What it undoubtedly would do is prevent the NPD from gaining tax money for its political campaigns. Alfred Schobert, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Duisberger Institute for Linguistics and Social Research, said the NPD must be taken seriously. The party is "radical not only in its propaganda and agitation, but also in its cooperation" with " militant neo-Nazis in the streets." In addition, Schobert said, "The party has become more openly anti-Semitic during recent years." Germany´s other two extreme right-wing parties, the German People´s Union and the Republicans, avoid making illegal statements because they are "looking for official recognition," Schobert said. "But the NPD under the leadership of" Udo Voigt "doesn´t make any compromises on these issues. Therefore they are much more dangerous," he said. Juliane Wetzel, an expert on right-wing extremism at the Center for Research on Antisemitism in Berlin, agreed. "The NPD is worse than the other two" parties partly because it is "trying to attract younger neo-Nazis," Wetzel said. "The party that for years consisted of old Nazis is now more interesting for younger people, who are finding a platform for their ideas. "Anti-Semitism is a very important part of the NPD platform," she added. NPD leaders, meanwhile, are gleeful about the court´s decision. NPD attorney Horst Mahler reportedly said the party was looking forward to the hearings, because "We always said that the politicians would get a bloody nose."

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