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Vol 2, No 29
4 September 2000
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Enemies in the Fog
The Federal Republic's difficult stance on the menace of right-wing extremism
Jens Boysen

The wave of right-wing violence that has been flooding Germany for years now has finally reached a point where the political mainstream considers it appropriate to react to it-even though nobody seems to have any idea of how to do this. It is not entirely clear why public attention has turned to this problem at this precise moment in time. For the fact that groups of xenophobic thugs chase, injure and sometimes even kill "un-German"-looking people is not a novel one. Throughout the 1990s, asylum seekers, blacks, Asians and other foreigners have fallen victim to actions born out of xenophobic or racist hatred.

A decade-long process

This "wave" started in 1990 and reached its first peak in 1992 to 1993, when several cases of arson on houses and dormitories left dozens of "foreign co-citizens" (a typically ambiguous term for those foreigners who have their de facto "centre of life" in Germany) and asylum seekers dead or badly injured. At that point, a first counter-movement of citizens sought to awaken public resistance against the violence. The fact that it did so in a hapless, idealistic fashion-forming Lichterketten (chains of candles) at night and calling on the good in man-soon made them objects of ridicule as "do-gooders" and ineffective preachers.

If the "first wave" of violence in the early 1990s ebbed away(though it did not end), then this owed less to any coherent strategy on the part of the democratic state and society than to the fact that the right-wing potential could not yet be fully organised. But the networking continued, notably through use of the Internet. Slowly, connections were created between scattered groups of activists, and between these groups and the existing right-wing parties, principally the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands(National Democratic Party of Germany -NPD).

This "old" West German party represents the bridge between former Third Reich activists and young cohorts of mostly educated "Yuppie Nazis." Although the NPD had long distanced itself from right-wing extremists and skinheads, the Bundesverfassungsschutz (Federal Service for Protection of the Constitution) could, in recent years, record the party's growing field of co-operation with such groups. Apparently, the NPD lends its party structure as a roof to otherwise disorganised street gangs; in return, it can draw them into its party network and secure its leadership of the right wing.

An important feature is that the "wave" has at no point been limited to Eastern Germany, as many self-righteous Wessis would have it. Whilst it is true that the relative share of criminal incidents is larger for the new Länder-the former GDR territory-than for the "old" Federal Republic, the neo-Nazi network as it has emerged during the 1990s is a sad example of "all-German" co-operation.

East and West

A lot has been written about the authoritarian background, handed down from the former Communist system, with regard to the easiness with which right-wing extremist or even outright neo-Nazi ideas are absorbed by a large part of the East German youth and tolerated, if not endorsed, by the adults. Two consecutive dictatorships have all but erased the older civic tradition-including, not least of all, a grounding in the Christian faith, and the ten years of materialistic-minded integration into the Federal Republic has done little to replace these lost values. Accordingly, the social body in the Eastern Länder is especially vulnerable to the lure of "ethnic solidarity," which is what "National Socialism" literally means.

However, after 1989, the ideological input as well as the logistic know-how came primarily from West Germany. It was from West Germany, where, starting in the 1970s, right-wing extremists had been but a marginal political force (the Republikaner who had some successes in the late 1980s were then basically a club of reactionaries without neo-Nazi affiliations), that demagogues came to find "new pastures" in the tabula rasa that opened up after the demise of the Communist rule, and which West German politics took over in an administrative manner, rather than a political-cultural one.

Unemployment is less decisive for the growth of an anti-democratic worldview than is often thought. Indeed, most of the youth who become criminals have jobs and pursue their "political" activities after working hours. To define their self-image, notably in contrast to their left-wing opponents, they even underscore the meaning of regular work. Thus, economic need is not the primary source of racial hatred. On the contrary, unsheltered and poor people number among the preferred victims of neo-Nazi assaults. The right-wing "death squadrons" seek to destroy everything and everybody that does not fit into their image of a "healthy" environment in ethnic, social and behavioural terms. In doing so, they compensate for the feeling of being second-class vis-á-vis the "colonising Wessis." All this adds up to a clear National Socialist profile.

A gradual attack

Still, open endorsement of neo-Nazi views is a fringe phenomenon in Germany, as elsewhere. This is less true, however, of an unconscious or even clandestine backing of at least part of the right-wing ideology. It is true that right-wing extremists, particularly in Eastern Germany, have managed to take root in the public sphere and, in some places, to carve out for themselves not only a secured place where nobody challenges them-save left-wing extremists, ever the poor alternative-but even a "cultural hegemony." They speak of national befreite Zonen (nationally liberated zones), which they want to use as elements of a parallel state, in the fashion of national underground movements elsewhere.

As the borders between groups on the extreme Right are becoming blurred, it remains uncertain whether there is a unified strategy, ie whether the "grand assault on the system" as announced on numerous websites is based on any real fabric. It could as well be just an expression of the thrill felt by those who realise how their brutal acts and unashamed disregard for human life keep shocking the "good society" and sending it down into painful soul-searching. In any case, state agencies see a spreading of terrorist ideas and structures among the right-wing groups.

Now, at the height of the "second wave" which started at some point in 1999, neo-Nazi networking seems to have reached a critical degree of concentration. Apparently, this has led to a dramatic increase of violent acts against the victim groups. What has also increased is the proportion of lethal assaults. In the recent months, several trials of primarily young perpetrators have resulted in heavy sentences for murder, manslaughter or similar offences. A longer period of lenience against right-wing criminals appears to have been terminated. The state has realised that using the full force of the law against capital criminals is not only a formal requirement, but also necessary to retain its authority in the eyes of the victims-and maybe even in those of the perpetrators.

The "system" strikes back-or does it?

The "system," as the neo-Nazis call the Republic, finally seems willing to react. The "official" trigger for this was a bombing assault on 27 July in Düsseldorf injuring ten students of a language school for Aussiedler (resettlers) from the former Soviet Union. The fact that most of them were Jewish caused particular alarm. Cynics were quick to point out that the habitual complacency of the German public towards the violence was overcome only when Jews were targeted, while as long as it hit "only foreigners" the urge felt was not that great. Be this as it may, the debate has begun. Apart from criminal investigation, however, useful concepts are scarce. And the motives on the part of the public actors are rather divergent. The Jewish community is naturally highly concerned about any development on the neo-Nazi front, even when the rhetoric is not explicitly anti-Semitic.

For many, however, the greatest concern appears to be with potential repercussions in the area of foreign investments, rather than genuine concern for the victims. It was just some months ago that the Chancellor launched the "green card," granting foreign IT experts a five-year work and residence permit. Germany wants to compete on a global scale and cannot afford to scare off foreign personnel. Such utilitarianism is never particularly appealing, but it has led to a broad coalition of social actors "against the Right." Corporations and trade unions, political parties and civic organisations, unite in their efforts to mobilise the "civil society" against the common enemy. Countless civic "alliances" have been founded. And if it works against the Nazis, even liberals seem ready to resort to more repression than they usually would.

This approach, however, reveals somewhat messianic features that raise a number of questions. The most common suggestion has been to prohibit the NPD-the most important logistic node of the rightist network.
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Presently, a common committee of Federal and Länder officials is collecting material to be presented to the Federal Constitutional Court, which must rule on such a prohibition. This seems to be a well-directed initiative; it is flawed, however. Not only is it far from certain that such a step would effectively paralyse the extreme Right, which has shown remarkable adaptability after a number of neo-Nazi organisations were forbidden in the mid-1990s. Unlike these organisations, however, the NPD is a legal political party, and the hurdles entailed in wiping it from the playground of politics are extremely high.

The search for counter-measures

For the fundamental right of free political association to be limited-because that is what is at stake-it needs to be proved that a party's activities are actively directed against the Constitution. Similarly doubtful seem ideas to introduce a more restrictive demonstration law, to fire members of right-wing organisations and parties from their workplaces, to deny them bank accounts, etc. In particular, the growing Internet-based networking of the extremists has triggered police efforts to indict, filter, censor or block right-wing websites.

Arguably, this tendency to cut freedoms makes society pay the wrong price for the crimes of the few. Rather, free societies should avoid emulating the enemy's exclusionist approach. They should leave him his unalienable rights, less for his sake than for their own. Of course, this cannot mean a naive attitude towards the threat. Thorough determination of the majority presupposed, liberal democracy has sufficient means at hand to check its enemies.

It is here that the call upon "civil society" to strengthen its human standards comes in, and without a doubt the idea is a very good one. The recent "counter-offensive" by the liberal media on the Internet, Netz gegen Rechts (Network against the Right), is a mix of information on neo-Nazi presence on the Web and suggestions for dealing with the right-wing challenge in real life. But here again, a sort of double self-deception regarding the addressee of such a call may hamper all well-intentioned efforts. Targeting the enemy directly is difficult since the right-wing extremists have grown into a counter-culture to liberal democracy, based on violence and by definition not ready to engage in a thoughtful discussion with "liberal weaklings."

At the same time, however, the neo-Nazi nightmare is a product of contemporary society, and its deficient features have contributed to an environment in which the counter-culture could grow. The utter materialism of our era and its reduction of social relations to ever less personal interactions based on either economic interest or its complement, mindless "fun," have helped along the fading of "unrewarding" humanism. This was to some extent a back-door completion of the dehumanisation actively pursued by Hitler and Stalin.

This means that in fighting the enemy we have to fight part of ourselves. Whether this re-invention of liberal society will work is perhaps the decisive issue of the decades ahead, not only in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. But certainly here in the "heartland," the joint legacy of two totalitarian regimes is coming back to us in a way that will be less forgiving of failure than elsewhere.

Jens Boysen, 2 September 2000

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