Far-Right German Party Tries to Remake Its Image
In most European countries, far-right parties are an accepted part of the political landscape.
Because of its Nazi history, Germany is different. The German government has tried in the past to ban the right-wing National Democratic Party, known as the NPD.
The NPD is controversial in Germany because it takes a hard anti-foreigner line and says it wants to preserve German culture. Although some active party members admit recruiting from extreme organizations, the NPD officially plays down suspected ties to groups that work to overthrow the government or violent groups that beat up foreigners.
They also are aware that it's a problem for their image. The group is now trying to make over its image — even portraying its members as victims of intolerance.
Mother Loses Day-Care Connection
The way Stella Palau sees it, she was unfairly kicked out of a parent-child co-op because of her political beliefs. Palau is a leading member of the NPD's executive committee, but for about a year, no one at the co-op knew that.
"The first thing was a phone call from one of the mothers who said they were really disappointed and didn't want to see me there anymore," Palau says. "I understood because they have a completely wrong image of us."
Palau chats with her daughter and cuddles her 18-month-old son on a park bench at a playground. She told her nearly 4-year-old girl that the children's center has closed. Palau says she didn't try to talk politics with the other moms at the co-op, but she stuck to topics like children's health and nutrition.
Susanne Mosch runs the co-op. She had never met a member of the NPD until Palau brought her daughter in.
"Just like the other mothers, she sat here with us, sang songs with us," Mosch says. "We talked a lot. She was a completely normal mother."
And Mosch was shocked to learn that Palau was a proponent of what Mosch considers dangerous, extreme views. Now Mosch feels abused.
"Of course, no one is here to express their political beliefs, but she intentionally kept back a lot of things," Mosch says.
The National Democratic Party Scene
Academics and officials who study the far right say the NPD is now trying new tactics, organizing volunteer fire brigades in small towns, or putting on children's festivals — anything to be seen as more mainstream. They're up against people like Alexander Froelich, a journalist who specializes in tracking the far right.
"The NPD is just a party," Froelich says, "but it represents a scene in Germany — a radical, violent scene."
Froelich informed the co-op staff that Palau was a leading member of the NPD after seeing her picture in the paper at a co-op event. Even though Palau has no record of criminal activity and belongs to a legal political party, Froelich believes he was right to warn the public.
"I have been the judge, but that's why the press is there," Froelich says. "I'm just based on constitution. And for me the NPD is an enemy. They don't want this constitution."
Outcast Status Unites Members
Palau says she's being tarred with too wide a brush.
"My personal opinion is not being heard; it's generalized," Palau says. "In Germany, everything we call right-wing, or nationalist, is bad. And there's no gradation, no differentiation."
She will not say that she has been discriminated against. But the perception is powerful among far-right sympathizers that Germany's World War II guilt is stifling certain views. Using the anonymity of online chat rooms, they say the Web is the only space where they can voice their opinions without alienating neighbors or losing customers. NPD official Patrick Wieschke says this sense of victimhood helps unite the party.
"The pressure of persecution against the NPD really strengthens the cohesion of party members," Wieschke says. "Because of the fight against us, there's more camaraderie in our group than in other parties."
Germany has long banned certain slogans and symbols associated with Hitler. At the same time, far-right groups have the constitutional right to gather and demonstrate. They are almost always protected by the police.
Responding to the Party's Presence
There was a police presence at last month's Jena Festival, a European nationalist festival in the eastern German town of Jena. Among thousands of counter-demonstrators was mayoral chief of staff Mattias Bettenhaeuser. He says people should confront the NPD on the street and at the ballot box, not try to restrict their speech.
"A democracy, if it's a strong democracy, they should be able to live with these opinions," Bettenhaeuser says. "Like we have in France, for instance, or in the U.S.A. In Germany, I think the German democracy is strong enough, but the laws are as they are at the moment."
Other opponents of the NPD aren't ready to go that far. They say the country where Adolf Hitler took power legally, nearly 75 years ago, still needs certain restrictions.
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