Holger Apfel meets with SPIEGEL in his office in the eastern German city of Dresden, with a view of the Semper Opera House. For this meeting to discuss his right-wing extremist views, he is wearing a gray, midrange suit by Mishumo and socks by Tommy Hilfiger. He appears to have a comfortable body mass index in the region of 30, and his stomach is pressing against the buttons of his blue business shirt. He is soft-spoken and has a slight lisp.
Apfel, who has been the new chairman of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) since November, says that his party finally wants to appeal to ordinary citizens and to address their concerns, fears and hardships. The NPD, he says, is a party that comes from the center of the population and is for the center of the population.
But, in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, a very different face of the party is on display -- one that reveals Apfel's rhetoric for the charade it is.
The NPD's office there is on an arterial road in the town of Grevesmühlen. The local branch of the party has its headquarters on a commercial strip occupied by the likes of the local construction yard, a carpet store and a Mercedes dealership. The black, white and red flag of the German Reich flying above the property identifies the NPD office, which is surrounded by a 2-meter (6.5-foot) fence topped with barbed wire. Behind the fence is a watchtower, complete with floodlights, next to a building with bars on the windows.
The Germanic Elhaz rune, the symbol of the Third Reich's "Lebensborn" program, which supported the production of racially pure Aryan children, hangs above the entrance.
Welcome to a building called the "Thinghaus" in Grevesmühlen, the local headquarters of the NPD. (The name is inspired by the old Germanic word for a governing assembly, "thing.") Instead of being located in the midst of the populace, the building is in fact where the National Democrats are still to be found today: on the periphery -- on the periphery of the town, the periphery of society and the periphery of public beliefs.
Most of all, the NPD is also on the periphery of legality.
Guarantee of Tolerance
The interior ministers of Germany's federal and state governments are in the process of re-examining whether they can -- and should -- ban the NPD. Since authorities uncovered the Zwickau terrorist cell and its supporters, who were apparently organized in a group calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU), the ministers have been asking themselves the kinds of questions that are critical to a possible attempt to ban the party. How much potential for violence does the NPD hold? Does it intend to violently abolish the democratic system? Can it be proved to be similar in nature to National Socialism? And, perhaps most importantly, would the party be more dangerous if it were banned?
The answers to these questions depends on the statements made by the NPD and how they are interpreted, as well as the actions of the NPD and how much weight they are given. In other words, the answers ultimately depend on the details.
First, however, a fundamental principle needs to be considered, namely, that a party should not be banned merely because it is deeply critical of the prevailing form of government. This is the historic lesson Germany learned from the years of the Nazi reign of terror, when Hitler united society under the swastika and had parties like the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party banned.
The German constitution's response to this despotism is a guaranteed tolerance, which also applies in the political combat zone. Bans should be democracy's last line of defense, nothing less and nothing more. In the case of a political party, another determining factor in considering a ban is whether the party can be accused of having an "actively combative, aggressive posture against the prevailing system." These are the words of the Federal Constitutional Court in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe, the only body in Germany that can impose a ban, and that only with a two-thirds majority.
Paradoxically, the NPD's neo-Nazis are now the main beneficiaries of this anti-Nazi clause in the German constitution. That's why the process of examining a possible ban raises questions that extend beyond the current discussion, such as: How much freedom against the enemies of freedom can a democracy afford, and how much does it want to afford? And, 67 years after the end of World War II, is it an expression of the weakness or strength of German democracy if it takes the case to the Federal Constitutional Court, at the risk of failing there and thus making the right-wing extremists even stronger?
The Ugly Face of the NPD
These questions will accompany the interior ministers when they present their summary of the facts, presumably in March. They are searching for evidence that the NPD wants to overthrow the government, using violence, if necessary, or that it is too closely tied to neo-Nazis who will stop at nothing. There are many indications that those seeking to protect the constitution will not find the information they need at the Dresden offices of NPD members of the state parliament, where the party shows its tame face but, rather, in places like the Thinghaus in Grevesmühlen.
In the spring of 2010, shortly after the building had opened its doors, a party member enthusiastically referred to it as a "national free space" (a phrase used by neo-Nazis to describe what they see as their territory) on a website registered to the Thinghaus address. The domain owner is David Petereit, an NPD member of the state parliament and a former member of a neo-Nazi group called the Mecklenburgische Aktionsfront, which was banned in 2009.
Neo-Nazi rock bands like Stahlgewitter, known to the authorities for its album "Auftrag Deutsches Reich" (German Reich Mission), perform at the Thinghaus on weekends. An appearance by a former Ku Klux Klan leader was only cancelled because German authorities put the American agitator on a plane back to the United States the day before.
The Nazi fortress in Grevesmühlen belongs to Sven Krüger, a right-wing extremist who is currently serving a four-year prison term for dealing in stolen goods and possession of a weapon without a permit. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, believes that Krüger is the local head of the "Hammerskin Nation" in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, an American extremist group that is prepared to use violence and believes in the ultimate victory of the Nordic master race.
And one of the tenants here, in this bunker-like building surrounded by a tall fence, is Udo Pastörs, the second-in-command in the NPD national leadership and the party's leader in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state parliament. The "citizens' office" that Pastörs shares with Stefan Köster, the NPD regional chairman for northeastern Germany, is located in the Thinghaus. Neither of the two politicians seems troubled by the links to the neo-Nazi and skinhead scene.
And why should they be? It is precisely their ties to neo-Nazis and other far-right groups that make the NPD as strong as it is.
Associated with Skinheads
It is arguably true that the ultra-extremists of the so-called Freie Kameradschaften ("free comradeships") -- small, loose-knit groups of right-wing extremists who are not officially organized as associations or political parties -- are more uninhibited in their expressions of hate and more prepared to use violence than the NPD. But, without the NPD, they would be nothing but local splinter groups. Only the NPD brings together the right-wing extremists, guaranteeing them nationwide notoriety and, at least in eastern Germany, a significant role as a regional party.
Conversely, the NPD wants to be associated with the street skinheads and with their visceral strength, which repeatedly manifests itself as raw violence. No one, least of all the leaders of the NPD, should be surprised that some of the presumed helpers of the Zwickau terrorist cell were, or still are, members of the party. After all, a hatred of the democratic German state is not just a characteristic of autonomous neo-Nazi groups, but also of the NPD. The desire to combat the state is the party's raison d'être. And the NPD's tactics involve pushing the boundaries of the legal as far as they can go -- even if the party has expressly distanced itself from the murders allegedly commited by the NSU.
So how far does the NPD actually go, and how deeply does it venture into the forbidden zone? Today, sources within the party portray it as a group that:
agitates against foreigners and Jews;
idolizes Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich;
flirts with the idea -- even at the highest levels of its national leadership -- of carrying out political change in the country, using violence if necessary;
uses its activities in regional parliaments as an opportunity to combat the state;
conceals its worldview behind the image of a party that is concerned about the needs of voters, which has enabled it to penetrate deeply into middle-class society in eastern Germany.
In the end, there is only one goal for the NPD: to overthrow the system, democracy and pluralism. This conclusion supports the notion that the NPD could in fact be banned. But whether such a ban would be a good idea is another question altogether.
At the moment, the NPD seems to be its own worst enemy. The party's membership is down from 7,200 four years ago to just 5,900 today. According to party leader Apfel, however, that number should also include another 200 to 300 nominal members, people who haven't been paying their €12 ($16) in monthly dues. One in 10 NPD members is unemployed, a higher number than with any other party.
"Their social milieu seems fully exploited," concludes a new study by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is associated with the conservative Christian Democratic Union. Even Apfel estimates that the hard core -- activists who take to the streets for the NPD, get involved in election campaigns and run for office in city councils, local administrative councils and state parliaments -- consists of no more than 3,000 members.
One would think that Germany, a country with a population of 82 million, could tolerate a right-wing extremist group with no more than 3,000 core members, especially when this party has a tendency to expose itself to ridicule. Take, for example, Apfel's campaign to rescue the German language from Anglicisms and his habit of referring to what 82 million other Germans know as the Internet as the "Weltnetz" ("world net"). In fact, this party comes across as a bad joke, and it might be enough to simply avoid repeating that joke.
On the other hand, it is the most important melting pot for xenophobes, anti-Semites and America-haters, and for the revisionists and revanchists who deny the Holocaust and admire Hitler. It is the only political arm of the ultra right, now that the German Republican Party and the German People's Union (DVU) have lost all significance.
And there are parts of Germany where the NPD is indeed a political force. They are not, however, in the west, where the NPD has less than 500 members in a state like Baden-Württemberg in the southwest, with its population of 11 million. Neither does it have any seats in the national parliament, the Bundestag, having consistently failed to overcome the 5 percent hurdle in general elections.
But, in the east, the NPD holds seats in the parliaments of two states, Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and it only narrowly failed to secure seats in the state parliaments of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt. In the east, the NPD appeals largely to young men. The average age of party members is lower than that of any other party in the Bundestag. In a survey taken during the 2011 Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state election, one in five respondents said that the NPD is a "party like any other."
Seen in this light, 3,000 can also be an intolerable number for a country of 82 million -- especially when the NPD shows its evil face, its intolerable side.
The Party of the Swastika
Technically speaking, Holger Apfel is now the head of two parties. One is the middle-class NPD, archconservative but socially acceptable -- or at least that's the way it wants to see itself. The second is the NPD that embodies the bogey of the middle classes, with its skinhead neo-Nazis and black-clad street fighters -- the outlaw faction. These are the two wings of the NPD, and this is the party's constant contradiction.
They are actually so far apart that they ought to be incompatible, but what unites them is their contempt for the German state. At the same time, neither wing could be effective without the other. A split would cut the party in half.
This means that Apfel has to be careful about what he says, at the risk of being seen as too soft by some and too extreme by others. "Leave your tape recorder switched off," he says. He doesn't want there to be any evidence that he said something in the interview that might be construed as too soft or too extreme. Hence, a discussion with Apfel about the Nazi period goes something like this:
Question: What is your assessment of the Holocaust?
Apfel: A crime.
Question: A person who orders a crime is a criminal. Do you see Adolf Hitler as a criminal?
Apfel: You won't get me to respond to that.
Question: Why not?
Apfel's "because" reflects one of the party's behavioral guidelines, which directs members to be evasive when asked about the Nazi era. "I won't get into any further historical debates," Apfel adds.
Venerating the Third Reich
Last June, Apfel's deputy, Karl Richter, wrote in an internal research paper that, if necessary, the party ought to "part ways with the incorrigible symbol and remembrance fanatics." According to Richter, these people simply no longer fit into a "contemporary sales strategy."
Richter also wrote that all the "commemorative and memorial events," be it for Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess or the bombing of German cities in World War II, are also counterproductive, and that a memorial march held once a year ought to be enough.
And, according to Richter, anyone who has other "ideological roots and role models" should stick to the motto: "Think about it, but never show it."
Udo Voigt, the party's leading candidate in the Berlin parliamentary election, once pontificated that Hitler was "unquestionably" a "great German statesman," the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler was "insidious" and that "a unique European lifestyle was subjugated and condemned" in the postwar Nuremberg trials. Pastörs, the NPD leader in the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania state parliament, also has a propensity to publicly venerate his Nazi idols. The dashing politician, who is in his late 50s and cultivates an imperious and pseudo-heroic style of speaking, as if he has watched Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" one too many times, called Hitler's deputy Hess an "absolute idealist, comparable with Gandhi." It's an unsual comparison, to say the least.
The number "88," code for "Heil Hitler" ("H" being the eighth letter of the alphabet), with which the prominent NPD politician Thomas Wulff is said to have occasionally signed his emails, strikes closer to home. So does the T-shirt that Stephan Jandzinsky-Joecke, a candidate for the state parliament, was wearing when reporters with the anti-fascist newspaper Blick nach Rechts visited the Thinghaus in August. Not only was the T-shirt brown, the symbolic color of neo-Nazis, but it also had a signature printed on it -- that of Adolf Hitler.
And all of this is supposed to change under Apfel's leadership? On Fridays from 1 to 6 p.m., anyone can go to the Thinghaus to find out just how radically true to Nazi tradition the new, supposedly respectable NPD still is today. That's when members of parliament Köster and Pastörs hold their office hours for citizens.
To reach their offices, one passes by a bulletin board with two posters in the middle. One reads "Freedom for Erich Priebke," and the other reads "Herbert Schweiger -- Unforgotten." Priebke, a former member of the SS, is serving a life sentence in Italy as a war criminal. Schweiger, who died in 2011, was part of Hitler's personal bodyguard unit, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. Finally, in front of the politicians' office, there is a war painting that portrays the power and glory of German wars of aggression. The World War II work is called "Panzer im Sturm" ("Tanks Attacking").
The Party of Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia
When Barbara Dabrowska, a journalist from Germany's Vice magazine, recently discovered a barbecue grill in front of the Thinghaus that had the words "Happy Holocaust" stamped into it in Gothic script, Köster had the presumption to say that perhaps someone was "poking a little fun at political repression in this country." It's the sort of remark only the NPD would find amusing.
In truth, anti-Semitism is one element of the enduring veneration of the Nazi era in NPD circles. Not even this legacy of the Third Reich's years of dictatorship and murder is off-limits to NPD politicians. In the Berlin state election campaign, for example, leading candidate Udo Voigt used a campaign poster that showed him on a motorcycle, next to the slogan: "Step on the Gas." Mainstream politicians denounced the poster, which was also displayed in front of the Jewish Museum in the Kreuzberg neighborhood, as an open allusion to the Nazi death chambers.
"The poster was unnecessary," says Apfel, to his credit. Nevertheless, he is still proud of the fact that, speaking in the state parliament, he once referred to the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 as a "bomb Holocaust."
Even one of the seemingly moderate members of Apfel's camp, national press spokesman Frank Franz, betrayed his true sentiments when, in 2006, in a notorious attack on the Central Council of Jews in Germany and its then president Charlotte Knobloch, he said: "Ms. Knobloch and her friends are guests in Germany." In other words, he was saying that, in the eyes of the NPD, Judaism is not a religion but a nationality -- and a foreign one, at that. And the NPD, from Apfel to Pastörs, is largely of the same opinion when it comes to dealing with foreigners, namely, that they should be thrown out of Germany.
'Arrogant Welfare Negroes'
Xenophobia is seen as a trademark of the NPD, and on this issue the party is in complete agreement with its voters. This sentiment was all too obvious in the traditional Ash Wednesday address Pastörs gave in the southwestern city of Saarbrücken in 2009, when he rambled on about the "extremely dangerous sperm cannons" that the "Mussulman" man always carries with him and with which he threatens the pure German people. One should resist that threat, he said, "if necessary with the hand." Although a court convicted Pastörs of inciting racism, the verdict is not yet legally binding.
For the racist NPD, foreigners are "social freeloaders," according to the NPD's website. Apfel talks about "arrogant welfare negroes," "marauding bands of gypsies" and, just to make sure all groups are covered, "job stealers." The NPD wants to send them all home. But because young Germans apparently no longer know how to force people into trains and send them out of the country, the NPD placed an online computer game called "Faust räumt auf" ("Faust Cleans Up") on its website during the state election campaign in the city-state of Bremen. The main character in the game is Bremen NPD candidate Matthias Faust, and the objective is to help him send criminal foreigners "back home" on the train as skillfully as possible -- the train being a presumably deliberate reference to the deportation of the Jews by rail during the Holocaust.
This is where the lines become blurred between a computer game and young men, with or without party membership cards, hunting down, accosting and beating up foreigners, sometimes not stopping until their victims are dead. Even if the NPD doesn't go so far as to call for acts of violence against foreigners, in promoting its ideology, it identifies targets for violent right-wing extremists. And it does so with so little inhibition that physical attacks by neo-Nazi thugs come across as a natural extension of the party's verbal attacks. For the NPD, the most important thing is that the right people are targeted, the people known in party jargon as "Kanaken," a derogatory term for foreigners.
For the NPD, it is out of the question that immigrants and their families could ever become part of Germany, and every attempt at integration is nothing but "genocide." Only a "minimal proportion" should be allowed to stay, to be determined on the basis of a very precise, case-by-case examination process, says Apfel. Would that include, say, the Green Party's intelligent and eloquent co-chair, Cem Özdemir, who is of Turkish descent? After all, he was born in Germany and undoubtedly speaks better German than an estimated 98 percent of NPD members. After hemming and hawing for a while, Apfel finally admits: "No one is saying we would put someone like that on a plane." But it clearly takes him some effort to say it.