"Proud to be Goyim," read the man's appropriately brown T-shirt, "Goyim" written in Hebraic-style English letters. "100% Unkosher."
This was my welcome to a rally two weeks ago for the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD ), which provocatively dances along the line separating far-right politics and neo-Nazism. What stops the NPD from embracing full-on National Socialism is not any sense of historical awareness or moral responsibility, but rather German law, which prohibits display of the swastika and outright calls for mass murder. But attendance at an NPD gathering leaves no doubt as to the group's nature.
About 500 people gathered in the middle of a cornfield in Pasewalk, a small town in the former East Germany, to hear speeches calling for the deportation of immigrants, purchase racist T-shirts (my favorite: "Heil Kitty!" ), and drink beer. Posters affixed to a tent showed the party's former leader, Udo Voigt, a knowing grin on his fat face, bestriding a motorcycle and gripping the handlebars with the words, "Give it Gas!" written underneath. (Lest there be any mistaking the subtext, the NPD hung these advertisements outside Berlin's Holocaust memorial last year ). A sign posted outside a tent wherein lay a wide assortment of books (a representative example: "My Life with Reinhard," by the widow of the assassinated Gestapo leader Reinhard Heydrich ), ordered that no photographs be taken of the merchandise.
Most NPD followers, however, are not ashamed of being fascists. Stefan Gunther, 38, manned a booth for an innocuous-sounding outfit called the "German-Scandinavian Friendship Society." The organization's mission, he told me, is "protecting the white race," which sounds like an awfully busy job. Given Nazi Germany's history in lands to its east, I was strangely heartened to hear Gunther say that, "we have nothing against Slavic people, because they are also white" (you take what you can get with neo-Nazis ). Following his logic, I asked if Jews, many of whom are also white, would be welcome. "You're Jewish, aren't you?" he said, asserting more than inquiring, before informing me that Jews are not eligible for membership.
Hanging around NPD members for an afternoon, one has to at least respect their self-control. I felt myself amid a throng of Dr. Strangeloves, people constantly resisting the impulse to deliver a spasm of "Sieg Heils" (also illegal in Germany ). Were it not for the hundreds of police standing outside the fair grounds (and, presumably, the undercover officers inside ), the crowd of men (and some women ) would have been goose-stepping in no time.
The NPD is a negligible force in German politics; it has no presence in the federal parliament and just a few seats in two regional ones. Nevertheless, whenever and wherever the NPD rears its head, the country's political establishment can be relied upon to denounce it. Under the slogan "No Place for Neonazis," some 2,000 protesters - at least four times as many as at the NPD event - traveled to the remote town and formed a human chain along the road leading to the gathering. All of the major German political parties set up information booths announcing their opposition to "right extremism."
This is all well and good, but in light of a march held by Islamists in Berlin the following Saturday, I can't help but feel that Germany's resolve against extremism is a tad misplaced.
Since 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has designated the last Friday of Ramadan "Al-Quds Day," leading worldwide protests calling for the destruction of Israel. In that spirit, over 1,000 protesters (one bearing a sign that proclaimed, "I ¨ Gunther Grass" ) marched through downtown Berlin on Saturday denouncing Israel and praising Hezbollah, Iran's proxy army in Lebanon.
Unlike the neo-Nazis rocking out to "white power" music in a secluded cornfield, the Islamists calling for the destruction of the Jewish state in the heart of the German capital did not stir the consciences of the country's major political parties. As opposed to the 2,000 people who trekked out to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, only 300 or so anti-Islamist protesters, the majority of them affiliated with Jewish organizations, held a separate counter-demonstration, where the only political figure to speak was a former member of the German Bundestag.
In a free society, extremists ought to be able to say whatever they like. But a graver issue was highlighted by last Saturday's open support for Hezbollah. The European Union, unlike its allies in Australia, Canada and the United States, refuses to treat the faction as a terrorist group, allowing it to organize and raise funds. The New York Times describes Germany as "a center of activity" for the group.
European governments (with the honorable exception of Holland ), justify this position by pointing to Hezbollah's political activity as if it were somehow dispositive of its terrorism. This stance became particularly egregious last month, when, according to American and Israeli officials, Hezbollah bombed a bus of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria, an EU member state. As for the effect a European ban on the group might have, look no further than Hassan Nasrallah, who said it would "destroy Hezbollah. The sources of our funding will dry up and the sources of moral political and material support will be destroyed."
European governments have fashioned a perverse quid pro quo whereby they permit a foreign terrorist organization to operate on their soil, provided that its targets are Israeli, not European.
Sixty-five years after the end of World War II, it's reassuring to know that Germany has "no place for Neonazis." A more pressing question is why it has room for those carrying on their legacy.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor for The New Republic.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now