n the past, Germany's far-right NPD party was associated with skinheads and violent thugs. In recent years, however, the party has been trying to appeal to mainstream voters by cultivating a respectable image and campaigning on populist issues. But the party needs its links to the neo-Nazi scene to maintain its political power. By SPIEGEL Staff
This is part two of SPIEGEL's cover story on the NPD. You can read the first part here.
The NPD, anxious to ensure that no one says the wrong things, is putting a great deal of emphasis on self-control at the moment. Because of the NSU's alleged killing spree uncovered in November and the public debate over what should be done about the NPD, the party is faced, once again, with the prospect of a possible ban. This makes it all the more important for the NPD to project an image of itself as a well-behaved and rational mainstream conservative party. Hence its self-portrayal as a "party that cares" about people in Germany -- provided they are ethnic Germans, of course.
In the past, the NPD used the term "National Socialism" as a provocation. But Apfel doesn't like the term anymore, characterizing it as being "burned by history." Instead, the party now prefers the slogan "respectable radicalism." It describes the attempt to camouflage (but not necessarily dispense with) the party's unpleasant associations, so that ordinary citizens can identify with it more closely. The party is putting on its mainstream façade for ordinary people by engaging in social grassroots activities, but always in the hope that the national awakening of its fellow Germans will eventually follow.
"Tutoring, children's sports, providing advice on Hartz IV (welfare benefits) -- wherever we see an area where the government isn't doing enough, we move in," says Peter Marx. He speaks with the soft, singsong-like inflection of people native to the western state of Rhineland-Palatine, an accent he took with him when he moved to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania a few years ago. Marx, the manager of the NPD's parliamentary group in the state, exploits the fact that the famous "blooming landscapes" that former Chancellor Helmut Kohl promised for eastern Germany never materialized in many places. If there were functioning civil-society structures in Western Pomeranian towns like Anklam or Ueckermünde, the right-wing extremists would be little more than an annoyance in the region. The fact that these structures are absent is what makes the party so dangerous.
The Right Clothing
Some 300 kilometers (190 miles) to the south, the Wartburgkreis Bote, a local newspaper, is on display in the pubs of Eisenach in the state of Thuringia. The paper deals with such hot-button topics as a wind-turbine project potentially spoiling the view from nearby Wartburg Castle, school closings, donations to the local animal shelter, the euro crisis and efforts to ban minarets. "This enables us to reach conservative groups we wouldn't have been able to reach in the past," says publisher Patrick Wieschke, a member of the NPD's national executive committee. The right-wing extremists captured 5 percent of the vote in elections to the Eisenach city council, putting Wieschke in one of the roughly 350 local political offices the party holds nationwide.
This attempt by the NPD to appeal to a broader public by painting itself as a normal conservative party even extends to the way party supporters dress. A document drafted by the party's national leaders, which addresses the appearance of members, is now making the rounds of the state organizations. "It's important to me that we don't come across as a fringe group," says Apfel. "Attending protests dressed in black tends to scare people away," he adds, pointing out that he would prefer to see "friendlier colors."
In an internal memo, Bernd Kümmel, an adviser to the NPD in Bremen, writes that casual outdoor clothing, of the sort that "hikers" might wear, is appropriate, because, after all, "clothing is a marketing instrument." And not just clothing, he adds. "We make ourselves vulnerable to attack and compromise our credibility if some of us show obesity or poor posture," Kümmel writes. "If possible, there should be no overweight or unathletic-looking elected representatives. Those who are, should make it a priority to work on their appearance." This doesn't bode well for party leader Apfel.
The Parliamentary Party
The most important stages on which the NPD performs its "respectable radicalism" show open once a month in Dresden and Schwerin, the respective capitals of the eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. This is where the party holds seats in the state parliaments and exploits the respectability of the parliaments -- even though Apfel once derided the Dresden assembly as a " gleichgeschalteten Schwatzbude" (loosely translatable as "conformist talking shop"), deliberately choosing words that were also used by leading Nazis to attack the democratically elected parliament during the Weimar Republic.
At first glance, the NPD doesn't seem to have achieved very much in its work in the state parliaments. All it requires is a look at the bookshelves in Apfel's office. There are five shelves, of which two are completely empty and two are half-empty. Apfel doesn't seem to have a high opinion of the kind of specialized literature that normally fills parliamentarians' offices.
But it isn't quite that straightforward. In fact, the right-wing extremists are busy in the parliaments, exploiting speeches, motions, minor and major inquiries -- in other words, anything that attracts public attention. It doesn't really matter that the other factions are notorious for rejecting the NPD's motions, mainly out of principle. For the party, pushing the limits in a calculated fashion is the name of the game.
In Schwerin, the six NPD representatives accumulated 483 calls to order in a single legislative period, while the remaining 65 members received only 72 rebukes. Pastörs alone was ejected from the chamber 27 times. But being ordered off the floor also presents the party with an opportunity to request a review of the parliament's decision to do so, and there is nothing more gratifying to the right-wing extremists than to witness the state constitutional court ruling in their favor.
The NPD has established itself within the parliamentary system, at least in eastern Germany. In states of the former West Germany, like Schleswig-Holstein and Hesse, the party failed to even pass the 1 percent threshold in recent elections. Apfel has already written off 2012 and 2013, because the only elections scheduled for those years are in western states. Instead, he is pinning his hopes on successes in 2014 elections in the eastern states of Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg, as well as in the European election, in which the 5 percent threshold no longer applies.
In the 2009 election campaign, Apfel focused on such issues as the rural exodus in the east, the shortage of doctors and crime in the border region. This strategy helped the NPD get itself elected into state parliaments once again -- and to escape bankruptcy in the process.
Subsidisies from the Enemy
The NPD may consider the current political system to be rotten, but it clearly doesn't mind taking its money. From 1998 to 2009, the party collected about €10 million in government subsidies, which translates into 70 euro cents for each vote in a state parliamentary election where it captured more than 1 percent of the vote. It has also collected another 38 cents in subsidies for each euro in donations and membership dues. It is only possible for the party to wage its fight against foreigners and Jews, against democracy and pluralism, and against the German state because that very same state subsidizes its efforts.
Since 2005, about 40 percent of what Pastörs calls the "war chest" has come from government funds (see graphic). The subsidies to the party's parliamentary groups represent another source of funding: €1.2 million in Saxony this year and €600,000 in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, plus the members' expenses. This is a lot of money for a party that calls itself radical. The NPD, incidentally, has been involved in more contribution scandals than any other party. The administration of the Bundestag is currently demanding that the NPD repay €2.5 million it collected on the basis of false accounting statements.
One of the biggest recent political donations came from a retiree named Robert Weber, who tried to pay €140,500 in cash into an ATM in Thuringia in August 2009. Despite allegations of money laundering, the 84-year-old insisted that he wanted to donate his savings to the NPD. Soon afterwards, the money was deposited into the party's account.
In the past, the party often had a tendency to bend the truth when it came to its finances. In Thuringia, for example, the head of the state chapter, who for legal reasons can only be identified as Frank G., wrote receipts for nonexistent donations for years. The supposed donors were able to use the fake receipts to cheat on their taxes, while the NPD used the fake donations to fleece the government for even more money. It was an "exception," claimed the national party treasurer at the time, Erwin Kemna. The only problem was that Kemna himself turned out to be the next perpetrator.
Hole in the War Chest
On Feb. 7, 2008, the authorities arrested Kemna, the owner of a kitchen store in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. After combing through his records, they discovered that Kemna had inflated party revenues by €870,154.15, and that he had also moved more than €700,000 in party funds into his personal and business accounts. Kemna was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. However, investigators are convinced that then-NPD leader Udo Voigt must have noticed something, which is why the Berlin public prosecutor's office is still investigating the case. Voigt calls the allegations "ridiculous."
Kemna was replaced by Stefan Köster, the NPD official with an office in the Thinghaus. Köster's appointment would turn out to be painful, both for him and, to an even greater extent, for the party. The party's 2007 financial statement was completed in a great hurry, and not until the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2008. As a result of what an NPD memo called an "almost superhuman performance," Köster ended up with "bursitis in the right elbow." The party, for its part, would soon find itself facing its next disciplinary proceedings.
Because of an accounting error, Köster was unable to account for almost €900,000. As a result, the Bundestag administration suspended all payments to the NPD for a period of time. Just how severely this affected the party was revealed in a maudlin letter from its attorney, who had filed a complaint against the suspension of payments in a Berlin administrative court. Without the government funds, the attorney wrote, the NPD's "political existence would be threatened."
The hole in the party's assets is currently bigger than ever. According to the most recent 2010 financial statement, there is a shortfall of €1.068 million. Meanwhile, the government, that hated, despised and demonized entity, is supposed to fork over the cash -- and quickly, if possible.
Part 2: Violence in Its Genes
But where exactly do the government's payments go? They go to a party that merely pretends to be upstanding and respectable. In fact, it's a party whose leadership is peppered with convicted thugs and bomb makers, and that aligns itself with hardcore fighters from the loose-knit, autonomous neo-Nazi groups known as Freie Kameradschaften ("free comradeships"). And although it claims to strictly renounce all violence, the darkly violent fantasies of top officials speak a different language.
Ever since its beginnings in the 1960s and 70s, the NPD has exhibited the "tactical relationship to violence" that, according to Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, remains one of its trademarks to this day. With a worldview shaped by conspiracy theories and doom-and-gloom scenarios, the NPD has violence in its genes. The party constantly sees the German people being threatened, embattled and embroiled in a defensive struggle to survive. In their view, there is an ongoing struggle against the pollution of its blood, contamination of its cultural heritage and enslavement by foreign powers. The NPD's self-image is shaped by the belief that its role is to lead the people in this alleged battle.
The NPD has sometimes sought to align itself with nationalists prepared to use violence, only to abruptly cut off ties to these groups and eventually return to embracing them. In the mid-1990s, after a number of these policy shifts, the party began sucking up everything it could along its right-hand fringe -- whether or not these people were prepared to use violence. The NPD's ranks had been depleted and it needed new members. Its new chairman, Udo Voigt, wasn't overly picky.
The NPD today describes the activities of the Zwickau terror cell, which is suspected of murdering at least 10 people in a 2000-2007 killing spree, as "despicable murders." But its claims to be appalled by these acts of violence are undermined by the party's track record. In the past, it showed a complete lack of inhibition over associating with the worst of the neo-Nazis, and of allowing anyone, even the most brutal street thugs, into the party. Take, for example, Peter Naumann, who had worked for the party in Dresden for a period of time before being sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison in 1988 for his involvement in a bomb attack. Or Thomas Sattelberg, one of the co-founders of the notorious Saxon Switzerland Skinheads (SSS), named after a hilly region in Saxony, which engaged in paramilitary exercises to train for hunting down foreigners. He too now works for the NPD legislators in the Saxony state parliament.
Hijacking the Party
And then there is Patrick Wieschke, who now publishes the Wartburgkreis Bote newspaper and has advanced into the NPD's national executive committee. He began his career with a group called the Thüringer Heimatschutz (THS), loosely translated as "Thuringian Homeland Protection," the same neo-Nazi network that once counted Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe, the trio of suspected NSU terrorists, as members. And like them, Wieschke also once had plans to commit acts of violence against foreigners. In August 2000, he hatched a plot to blow up a döner kebab stand in Eisenach, for which a court sentenced him to two years and nine months in prison.
Anyone who welcomes such people with open arms shouldn't be surprised to hear that presumed supporters of the NSU terrorists were or still are, NPD members. German prosecutors are now interested in André K., an NPD member and neo-Nazi from the eastern city of Jena. He is allegedly one of the people who helped the trio go underground in 1998, an accusation which K. denies. Carsten S., a former NPD district chairman in Jena and former deputy chairman of the party's youth organization, the Young National Democrats, in Thuringia, is in custody today. He was arrested two weeks ago on charges of having obtained a weapon for the right-wing terrorists. And then there is Ralf Wohlleben, a former NPD deputy chairman in Thuringia, who has been in custody since the end of November, because of his connections to the NSU.
For a long time, the NPD was too tame, well-behaved and self-important for such militants. But just as the party needed the Kameradschaften groups to organize election campaigns and at least send a few hundred supporters into the streets for protests, the militants could also benefit from the NPD. It had structures, a known name and money from public funds -- all good reasons to hijack the party.
In January 2009, for example, Maik Scheffler, the leader of a Kameradschaft from the town of Delitzsch in Saxony, told his group that the NPD had approached him and said that because it had a shortage of candidates, it wanted to open up its lists to activists from the neo-Nazi scene. "Decide for yourselves whether you want to take advantage of the NPD's manpower problems," he said. They did, as it turned out. The skinhead Scheffler, who had previous convictions for aggravated battery and illegal possession of a weapon, joined the NPD. Soon he became the district chairman for northern Saxony, and then the state deputy chairman and a close associate of Apfel.
In 2007, Scheffler formed the Free Network (Freies Netz), the most dangerous and best-networked force within the eastern Kameradschaften.
Wohlleben, the presumed NSU helper, turned up in Free Network chat rooms. In February 2009, when the militants had plans to attack a police station in Dresden, he wrote: "Attacking the police station will certainly meet with broad support in our community." Scheffler responded: "Without stabbing one of them to death? That's boring." Now that Scheffler has admitted that he did actually write these two sentences, NPD leader Apfel claims that Scheffler must have meant them "ironically."
Reaping the Whirlwind
And even though senior party officials officially renounce violence, they also regularly indulge in dark insinuations that things could also be completely different, if need be.
Many still remember the speech Pastörs gave in 2009, when he told his audience that the party would "oppose the Muslim threat," if necessary. He also said: "Work, fight and bleed if you have to. The slogan is attack." And then there was the threat he made, saying that when the NPD is in power, it will "impose a just punishment" on all those who are "now grinning at us so insolently." He continued: "Well then, dear ruling class, watch yourselves, because those who sow the wind reap the whirlwind. Let us be the whirlwind."
Apfel, the supposed NPD pacifist, is more careful, but this could merely be evidence of his tactical skills. And what about the fact that he plans to open his citizens' affairs office in a building owned by Yves Rahmel, a neo-Nazi in the eastern city of Chemnitz? Rahmel's record label, PC Records, which produced the album "Adolf Hitler lebt" ("Adolf Hitler Is Alive"), also published the song "Dönerkiller" in 2010, long before the Zwickau terrorist cell was discovered. (The series of killings of Turkish and Greek immigrants used to be referred to in the German press as the "döner murders," because some of the victims worked in döner kebab stands.) A sampling from the song's lyrics is telling: "He has killed brutally nine times already, but his thirst for killing hasn't been quenched yet." Apfel claims that Rahmel is nothing more than his landlord. "We just say hello and goodbye."
It's quite possible that this is true -- at least at the moment, in the aftermath of the NSU revelations, and ahead of a possible new attempt to ban the party. Now the National Democrats have to be careful what they say and, more importantly, do. That's why Martin Wiese, a Kameradschaft leader from Bavaria, hasn't been welcome at NPD events lately.
But the party wasn't that squeamish last October, at the regional convention of the NPD in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, where Wiese made a speech praising the national struggle for freedom taking place there. In 2005, a court concluded that Wiese had been the leader of a terrorist group that had planned to bring about a "bloody overthrow" of the system through "murder and manslaughter." He was sentenced to seven years in prison, and he served the entire term, because parole boards were not convinced that he was contrite about his involvement in the plot. In a letter written while he was in pre-trial detention, he wrote: "I will not rest until the final victory has been achieved. Heil Hitler."
Today Apfel characterizes Wiese's guest appearance with the NPD as "unfortunate." He distances himself from people like Wiese, as part of the image makeover under his leadership. "The most important thing is protecting the party, not the fate of individuals," Apfel pontificates.
At the same time, the new course forces the NPD to perform a balancing act that is already difficult enough. While the party has been shrinking for several years now, the independent neo-Nazi organizations, which refuse to allow anyone to tell them what to do, are growing. The more the party moves toward the center under Apfel, the more disappointed militants it loses to the independent groups. But without its street fighters, the party is hardly capable of holding up the flag and organizing its struggle anymore. For this reason alone, the NPD leadership must fear any effort to ban the party, because it forces it more than ever to keep a low profile and deny its own nature.
The Perplexed Republic
Should the NPD be banned? Can it be banned? The revelations about the NSU terror cell, which is believed to be responsible for killing nine immigrants and a police officer, have reignited the debate in Germany over banning the NPD. In the end, the government will have to do something, even if it only means taking a stand. But because it was triggered by the revelations of NSU acts of terror, the debate over banning the party is also a debate over the extent to which the NPD is prepared to use violence -- and as far as can be foreseen, that debate will have few consequences.
It is certainly true that the NPD, from its ideology to its aesthetic, is all about its tough-guy image. But actively supporting the NSU group? "For reasons of self-preservation alone, our activists wouldn't be so stupid as to seriously consider something like that," says Apfel. In other words, the party wouldn't provide the government with that kind of ammunition, quite apart from the fact that the NPD claims to oppose violence anyway.
Of course, there are the well-known connections to earlier and current party officials. There is no question that some eastern German neo-Nazis who would go on to join the NPD, and thereby achieve a veneer of respectability, came from the same scene as others who joined militant groups or went underground. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, a member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), isn't the only one who talks about "ideological sludge."
But this still doesn't mean that the party and its leadership knew about or even supported the murderous plans of the neo-Nazis. So far the results of the NSU investigation have produced little evidence that this was the case. There were no money transfers from the NPD to help support the NSU killers while they were in hiding, and there are no emails, memos or even meeting minutes from the NPD that could incriminate the party. When André K. traveled to Berlin in 1998, shortly before the trio went into hiding, to ask Frank Schwerdt, the NPD's deputy national chairman, to help the three NSU militants, he was actually clearly rebuffed. "I didn't want to do it and I couldn't do it," says Schwerdt. Perhaps this is merely a self-serving declaration, but even Interior Minister Friedrich concedes: "I am not aware of a direct connection between the NSU and the NPD."
Part 3: 'The System Is the Mistake'
So what else can be done? At this point, only the painstaking work of putting together the pieces of a puzzle, from bits of conversation to fragments of chat room remarks by overly outspoken NPD members -- in other words, finding evidence that the party as a whole doesn't take its renunciation of violence that seriously. Friedrich calls this "making progress through individual pieces of evidence." But despite all the contacts to violence-prone Kameradschaften and the occasional darkly whispered threats coming from NPD officials, it remains questionable whether the subject of violence will provide the right approach for banning the party.
The attempt to prove that the party promotes an aggressive and combative stance toward democracy, with the overthrow of the system as its ultimate goal, is more promising. It is certainly noticeable how Apfel, sounding like a model citizen, has recently emphasized that the NPD derives its legitimacy from the liberal democratic constitutional order.
A statement Apfel made in 1998 is probably closer to the truth. It played a role in the first attempt to ban the party, in 2001, and today Apfel describes it as a muddled attempt that was "ambiguous" and "rash." "We are proud of the fact that we are mentioned every year in reports by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution," he said, referring to the domestic intelligence agency, "and that we are described in those reports as hostile, anti-constitutional and against this system. Indeed, we are anti-constitutional."
People on the Inside
Is that really an ambiguous statement? The same applies to words spoken by Apfel in the state parliament in 2008, when he said: "The system has no mistakes; the system is the mistake." He now claims that these words were merely directed against the "system in this form of degeneracy," and that he wasn't talking about the constitution.
During NPD protests, party supporters routinely chanted: "The system is called the BRD (ed's note: the postwar Federal Republic of Germany ), and it's going to go under tomorrow." The message is unmistakable. And even now, in early 2012, a member of the NPD's national executive committee, Patrick Wieschke, says: "My goals are the same as they were 10 years ago: I want to overcome representative democracy. But I've understood that street fighting isn't the right tool for that."
A combination of all of these pieces of evidence would probably be enough to persuade the Federal Constitutional Court -- the only body that can ban a political party -- that the NPD is an anti-constitutional party. But the more important question is a different one, the same question that was asked nine years ago, when the Karlsruhe-based court rejected the first attempt to ban the party. At the time, the court's crucial argument was that it was not possible to distinguish between what had really been done by the party and what might have been instigated by informants working for the intelligence agency.
When Interior Minister Friedrich discusses a second attempt, it is as a doubting politician who knows exactly what this means. About 130 informants provide internal information from within the party, and more than a dozen of them are positioned within the party leadership. The federal and state governments would have to withdraw the majority of these informants (who work for both the federal-level Office for the Protection of the Constitution and its state-level counterparts), especially all party officials and leading activists. In internal discussions, Friedrich has made it clear that he would be willing to withdraw the informants in high-placed positions, but not all informants.
Danger of Stumbling
But that wouldn't be all. It's possible that the intelligence agencies could be forced to release the names of their informants, both to the judges on the Constitutional Court and to the NPD. This, in turn, is seen as impossible, because every informant is given a guarantee that he will not be exposed under any circumstances.
And as if this weren't difficult enough, because evidence cannot come from or be significantly influenced by informants, the evidence-gathering process could probably begin only after all key sources had been deactivated. But if that happened, who would smuggle the incriminating material out of the party? In its fight against the NPD, the state has become so tangled up that it is very likely that it would stumble during any proceedings to ban the party.
This explains the political drama that is unfolding. There is hardly an interior minister who is arguing publicly against an NPD ban. In truth, however, there is considerable skepticism. The wording on which the federal and state interior ministers agreed in December was notable for its subtext. The ministers stated that they supported a "successful proceeding to ban the party." In plain language, however, this meant that, unless it could be guaranteed that the attempt would be "successful," it would be best to leave well enough alone. Since then, the officials have become even more reluctant to move against the NPD. "We cannot and will not take any risks in petitioning for a ban," Friedrich warns.
In Saxony-Anhalt and Berlin, a task force is now developing a list of criteria on what needs to be clarified before a petition is submitted. In the document's half a dozen pages, the authors ask: What happens to the informants? Would their names be revealed? What kinds of evidence can be obtained? "These jointly developed criteria for a successful petition to ban the party must be adhered to," says Friedrich.
Risks of Failure
A meeting of state governors is scheduled for the end of March. It is quite possible that the meeting will result in a top-down directive, with the governors agreeing to support a petition to ban the NPD, even though a majority of their interior ministers are opposed. "We should all act in concert and take the necessary steps to launch a successful proceeding to ban the NPD as quickly as possible," says Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, leader of the conservative Christian Social Union. Kurt Beck, the Social Democratic governor of the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate, agrees: "As democrats, we must all stick together and act in concert." His fellow Social Democrat, Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, is calling upon the doubters to "show more courage across party lines. If there are legal hurdles because of informants at the leadership level of the NPD, these hurdles will simply have to be eliminated."
Behind the scenes, Ronald Pofalla, Merkel's chief of staff at the German Chancellery, is expediting the effort to ban the NPD. In internal meetings, he requests new evidence and campaigns for cross-party unity. Interior Minister Friedrich says that he would support the chancellor, but he also warns: "Everyone must also be aware of the risks of failure, and that we will then have to deal with the consequences of failure together."
Of course the NPD should be banned. It is intolerable and, for a country with Germany's past, unacceptable. But in the end, as Apfel says triumphantly, "our NPD could emerge from a possible ban attempt even stronger."
Strengthening the NPD? Now that is something that should deserves to be banned.