BERLIN, Germany — Reeling from revelations that a neo-Nazi cell allegedly robbed banks and murdered immigrants with impunity for more than a decade, the authorities have been at pains to show they’re acting against extremism.
Leading the effort is a drive to ban the far-right National Democratic Party, which is alleged to have neo-Nazi links.
All 16 German states filed a motion in the federal constitutional court to ban the NPD in December, arguing that it propagates racism and aims to overthrow the democratic government. But the court's dismissal of a similar case in 2003 suggests the going won't be easy, especially when neither Angela Merkel's government in Berlin nor parliament has joined the fight.
More than that, critics say, the move will do little to stop hardcore neo-Nazi street fighters even as it galvanizes support for a political organization that was already about to self-destruct.
Germany has tough laws to prevent the resurgence of Nazism, such as a ban on displaying the swastika and an edict that makes it illegal to deny the Holocaust.
However, constitutional protections for free speech have made it difficult to ban the NPD just because its ideology bears some similarity to Adolph Hitler's. To do that, the plaintiffs must show the party is actually working to overthrow the state through violence.
Experts say that may be very difficult to prove.
“There are some similarities between today's neo-Nazis and the Nazi Party of the 1920s and '30s,” says Bernd Wagner, a longtime veteran of the anti-extremist unit of the German police. However, he adds, the party lacks a formal structure with a leader at the top. “There are countless cells and networks with separate activities and projects and horizontal, vertical and diagonal connections.”
The danger those informal networks pose hit home in 2011, when police allegedly connected a string of bank robberies and murders to a terrorist cell that called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
Among the group's alleged crimes are the murders of nine immigrants between 2000 and 2006, the bombing of an immigrant-owned barbershop in Cologne in 2004 and the murder of a policewoman and attempted murder of her partner in 2007.
Police initially failed to link the crimes to an ideological motive and insisted at first that the Cologne bombing couldn’t have been a terrorist attack.
It soon surfaced that the earlier effort to ban the NPD may have aided the terrorist group.
In 2012, the Interior Ministry announced it was investigating suspicions that an NPD official named Ralf Wohlleben — who had acted as a confidential informant for the authorities seeking to ban the party — had during the same period supplied the terror cell with the gun allegedly used in the murders of the nine immigrants.
The development gave ominous new meaning to the constitutional court's 2003 dismissal of the case against the NPD.
Back then, the court ruled that the authorities had flooded the party with so many undercover agents and informants that it was impossible to ascertain whether its alleged plotting to overthrow the government had actually been hatched in the minds of the police.
Now it looked as if they had also indirectly supplied the weapons.
“Wohlleben and other functionaries of the NPD were also active in this terror network,” says Wagner, who now heads a group that helps neo-Nazis who want to leave the movement.
“Even though in public they presented themselves as a non-violent democratic party, at the same time they were providing support and logisitics for violent activities.”
Prompted toward new vigilance by the revelations, the Interior Ministry reopened investigations into some 3,300 unsolved murders and attempted murders committed between 1990 and 2011. As a result, nearly 750 cases were added to the 60 killings previously attributed to right-wing extremists.
The 16 state governments now seeking to ban the NPD argue that the party gives the network real political power. They allege that as many as 1 out of 3 party members is a convicted criminal or faces police investigation, according to a copy of the complaint leaked to a German newspaper.
By providing the NPD with the state funding afforded to all German political parties, German taxpayers are essentially paying for the neo-Nazi groups' propaganda, the interior minister for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia argued.
“We can't be the shoemaker who continually resoles their combat boots with this party financing,” Ralf Jäger told German media after the case was lodged.
However, police say it will be difficult to establish the existence of a command structure or a money trail from allegations that the membership rosters of the NPD and informal Kameradschaften, or “fellowships” of neo-Nazis, share some common names.
There's little or no direct proof to suggest that the NPD operates like the political wing of a broader, militant neo-Nazi movement — as Sinn Fein acted for the IRA in Ireland, says Oliver Stepien of the Berlin police.
“The inland intelligence service and our own information suggests that the neo-Nazi action groups try to use the NPD structure to advance their own goals,” he says.
“But there's no general rule that the NPD pays for the lawyers when a right-wing activist is accused of a crime. In fact, the party distances itself from the action groups when they break the law.”
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Some worry that the renewed effort to ban the NPD will galvanize its supporters and bolster its credibility with the hard-core street fighters just as it's about to fade away on its own.
The NPD has seats in only two state parliaments and no presence whatsoever in the Bundestag. In recent elections, it won a paltry 1.3 percent of the popular vote, although that total is much higher than the support it earned between 1990 and 2005.
The party is also practically broke. Its 300,000 euro ($410,000) annual government subsidy has already been frozen due to an outstanding fine of 1.27 million euros ($1.7 million) for accounting irregularities.
And it was thrown into disarray in December when former party chairman Holger Apfel was drummed out following allegations of a “homosexual assault.”
Bringing the full might of the German court system to bear now could grant the party new legitimacy in the minds of potential supporters as well as stoke long-held resentment toward the liberal state's supposed persecution of “patriotic” Germans.
And it would do nothing to eliminate the neo-Nazi “fellowships” and other informal networks that keep the underground movement alive, Wagner says.
“Some might say,” he says, “that the federal government is just trying to silence its critics.”