Germany has taken the long road on its way to becoming the progressive force that it is today. Their recent election to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations underlines the level of trust and recognition Germany has earned from the international community. But despite the progress it has made, rightist extremism in Germany remains a matter of concern. It will take unity between all actors within German society in order to end the persistent problems of intolerance and hatred.
Right extremism is a very sensitive issue in Germany and, given its troubled past, it is very hard to distinguish between German patriotism and racism. Germans have continuously lamented that they wish to be proud of their ‘Vaterland’ again. They say they wish to exercise peaceful patriotism without being condemned right-radicals, or even Nazis. This makes extremism very difficult to quantify.
A study by the Friedrich-Ebert Institute has shown that 1 in every 10 Germans examined show ‘right-radical tendencies’. It is difficult to assess what to make of such information since ‘right radical’ tendencies could describe a patriotic German that thinks that German values should be protected, or it could also describe an extremist that actively tries to confront immigrants. The same study showed that in East Germany, which became part of the Federal Republic in 1990, every 6th citizen showed signs of these same ‘right-radical’ tendencies.
The right-radical National Democratic Party (NPD) has had electoral success in Eastern Germany, having surpassed the five percent threshold needed in order to enter the parliaments in two Eastern states. Right radicalism offers a new home to those unhappy with Germany’s increasingly costly role in the European Union. Germany’s transition into to a multicultural society, and the abandonment of German values are two other key factors for the rise of rightist extremism. It is especially attractive to East German youth who face higher unemployment rates than their counterparts in the West and have, historically, not been exposed to the same levels of immigration prevalent still today in West Germany.
Right wing extremism is a multi-dimensional issue. Its most common form of expression in day-to-day life is the blaming of immigrants for criminal and unemployment problems. Yet it can also occur in the most extreme cases as exemplified by the recent actions of the NSU (Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund), which recently conducted a series of crimes and murders on mostly Turkish-owned businesses and families.
The actions of the NSU sparked a scandal in German domestic politics. To many, it was shocking that German investigators had not been aware of the NSU’s serial rampage until 2011. The fact that an NSU bomb containing 800 nails, injuring 22 civilians in a Turkish neighborhood, did not incline the police to investigate a right-extremist terror attack raises questions about how serious the authorities take right extremism in Germany. German policymakers now suggest broadening and enforcing the mandate of the ‘Verfassungsschutz’, which observes all organizations suspected to be undemocratic, as well as conducting an investigation into how it has been possible for terror groups like the NSU to operate without being suspected. Policymakers have been eager to remove any institutional safeguards for right extremist groups. The most ambitious multi-partisan initiative to ban the right-radical NPD has continuously resulted in failure because Germany’s constitutional court may only ban undemocratic parties. The NPD continues to successfully deny any allegations of being connected to extremists groups.
Institutional reforms by Berlin’s policymakers cannot be the only means of confronting rightist extremism. Civil society has to actively oppose such currents by promoting transparency through educational and multi-cultural events but also by making it clear to the rightists that they are not welcome to march in their cities. Although some Neo-Nazi demonstrations remain uncontested, a recent counter-demonstration of civil activists in the South-Western German city of Göppingen forced 400 right extremists to change their march route and time and ultimately abandon it.
Civil initiatives like this make it clear that Neo-Nazis are not welcome in Germany and civil initiatives like ‘Stoerungmelder’, one of the most well-organized initiatives against right extremism, show that there is a will to tackle this issue seriously. Unfortunately, civil society engagements are not constantly strong in all parts of Germany. German Social-Democratic politician Wolfgang Thierse argues that the higher rates of right-extremism in Eastern Germany is linked to the weakness of its civil society (this is surely connected to the suppressive nature of the communist East German regime after WWII). The German government has to finally make fighting radicalism a priority and strengthen more civil initiatives through financial support.
Germany is inevitably becoming an increasingly diverse society, having always relied on immigration to fill the employment gap in her booming export economy. The first sentence of Germany’s constitution states that human dignity is inviolable; underlining that radicalism shall never undermine civil rights in Germany again. Germany’s policymakers and its civil society have to work hand-in-hand to show the world that the Federal Republic of Germany upholds tolerance and successful integration by actively fighting right extremism.
– George Kibala-Bauer
(Featured photo: Stephen Mackenzie, Creative Commons, Flickr)