Judging by the apathetic response in Israel to the latest incident surrounding the German neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), it is unlikely President Hoerst Koehler will face any tough questions on his official visit, which starts here tomorrow. The unmasking of the "national-democratic" party has caused shock in the homeland of the hangmen, but has virtually been ignored in the land of Nazi victims.
NPD, accused of racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric, is demanding the return of territory that Germany lost after the war and is calling for the end of multi-nationalism in the country. The party says Muslims should be sent back to their countries and the Jews, to their land - Israel. In September 2004, the party got 9.2 percent of the popular vote in Saxony and is therefore represented - for the first time in 36 years - in one of Germany's state parliaments.
Ten days ago, with perfect timing, the 12 NPD representatives walked out of the plenum in a blatant manner to protest the minute of silence in memory of Nazi victims. The party leader in Saxony, Holger Apfel, used the occasion for launching a revisionist performance, including calling the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden a "cold-bloodedly planned, industrial mass murder" and comparing it to the Holocaust. Apfel attacked Germany's "guilt culture" and the establishment parties that "disgrace the memory of German victims, who number a quarter million in Dresden alone" - far higher than the official death count of 35,000. Had his microphone not been unplugged, he probably would have gone on to use his parliamentary immunity to outline an entire neo-Nazi worldview.
Can Germany of 2005 allow this? Can a democratic regime digest the public hearing of a theory like this without endangering its very existence? These questions form the basis of the profound public debate that has resurfaced in connection with the possible ban of NPD.
Politicians' declarations, editorials and Internet chats indicate the answer is essentially positive: No party has ever been banned in post-war Germany. Germans would like to preserve that record for a variety of reasons. One claim is that it's better to fight these organizations while they operate openly: Banning them gives them the aura of a persecuted organization, increases their power and leads them to go underground, where they are harder to supervise.
Another claim is that, to deal with neo-Nazism, it is necessary to concentrate on its supporters' motivations and to fight its causes: ignorance, unemployment, and feelings of alienation and inequality.
Finally and most importantly, many Germans exalt democracy and "normality." According to their viewpoint - which is even shared by the extreme left - German society is mature enough to deal with those who seek to break taboos without boycotts: The NPD should be allowed to express its dangerous position and be fought from within accepted political discourse. Outlawing it would damage the character of democracy, of which freedom of expression and association are the very foundations.
But these arguments are inadequate: The important struggle against the roots of neo-Nazism doesn't contradict the need to fight its ramifications. Outlawing the NPD will prevent the party from convening and demonstrating, will reduce its ability to distribute venomous propaganda, and put an end to the ridiculous situation in which the authorities are forced to finance racist activity. In addition, international experience indicates that while some outlawed organizations do go underground, others evaporate and disappear.
Finally, espousing the democratic rights of those who oppose democracy is a dangerous, distorted reaction to Nazi history. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said last week: "No strong democracy should tolerate the enemies of democracy and tolerance."
It is also hard to talk about "normality" with the Nazi past echoing in the background and the clear similarity of the NPD's "national Democrats" to Hitler's "national socialists," who assumed power due to the tolerance of the Weimar Republic's democratic regime. In this context, Tony Blair's comments during the British parliament's Auschwitz memorial service also reverberate: "We must remember above all that the Holocaust did not start with a concentration camp," but with small acts of hatred - "a brick through the shop window of a Jewish business, the desecration of a synagogue, the shout of racist abuse on the street."
The NPD's brick was thrown long ago. The writing on the wall was there in capital letters.
While the NPD has shifted into high gear to gain its first, historic entry into German federal parliament in 2006, Israel would do well to rise above the inane argument that has broken out here over what language Koehler will use to address in Knesset, and focus on the truly worrisome phenomena.
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