REUTERS — In his decade as a neo-Nazi skinhead in eastern Germany, Manuel Bauer says he beat up foreigners and disabled people, stabbed a cigarette in the eye of a 12-year old boy and assaulted a Muslim man and his pregnant German wife.
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Bauer, who led two racist gangs, the "League of Aryan Fighters" and "Revenge Act", says groups like his carried out violence on behalf of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which has a seat in the European Parliament and five seats in one of Germany's 16 state assemblies.
Bauer was jailed on a 22 month sentence for extortion, causing bodily harm and arson, before he quit the right-wing scene with the help of a support group. Today he works with refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. He says the NPD should be banned.
"There is too much democracy if you allow anti-democratic forces like (the NPD) to exist," said Bauer.
The NPD denies that it is behind violence, and says it is being unfairly targeted as a group over the behavior of some individuals. Reuters was not able to verify independently any relationship between the party and Bauer's former groups.
The upper house of parliament is trying to impose just such a ban. It has lodged a court case which alleges the NPD is inspired by the Third Reich, believes in ethnic German supremacy and incites people to torch refugee hostels. The Constitutional Court is expected to rule in coming months.
Germany recorded 1,408 violent acts carried out by right wing supporters last year, a more than 42 percent rise from the previous year, and 75 arson attacks on refugee shelters, up from five a year earlier, according to an annual report by the BfV domestic intelligence agency published in June.
But at a time when far right parties are winning votes across Europe, and Germany itself is struggling to integrate an unprecedented influx of more than 1 million foreigners last year, some experts in right-wing extremism say a ban could be counterproductive. Germany's federal government, while officially supporting the case, has declined to sign on as a party to it.
A ban would deprive the NPD of around 1 million euros it receives in public funds as a lawful political party, and prevent it from contesting future elections, although it is not clear what would happen to its existing seats.
The party would be barred from holding rallies in public, and the authorities could punish people who persisted as members. But in practice, followers could avert punishment by forming new organisations, or take their activities under ground, making them harder to detect.
That would "make it even more difficult to recognize right-wing extremist players and to develop appropriate ways of countering them," said Matthias Quent, director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society in Jena, in eastern Germany.
"Bans can easily lead to people and small groups being criminalized and being driven underground and then they radicalize. Then the danger, which is already large, from right-wing terrorism would increase."
The NPD publicly disavows violence and rejects accusations by the authorities that it is connected to skinhead gangs like the ones Bauer used to lead, or to the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground blamed for the murders of nine immigrants and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007.
NPD lawyer Peter Richter said it was wrong to judge the party based on the actions of individuals.
"No one can predict whether an acquaintance who seems completely normal today will tomorrow commit a terrible crime," argues Richter in his defense to the court, which he sent to Reuters in response to a request for comment.
Individual NPD figures have fallen afoul of German laws that ban Holocaust denial and punish praise of the Nazis.
The NPD's European lawmaker Udo Voigt has described Hitler as a "great German statesman". Before being elected to the European parliament, he was found guilty of incitement, including honoring Hitler's SS. He was given a 10-month suspended sentence which was upheld on appeal.
The case to ban the NPD is being brought on behalf of the Bundesrat, parliament's upper house, which represents Germany's 16 regional state governments.
The federal government's decision not to sign on as a party to the case is seen by some as a sign that Berlin is uncertain of the wisdom of pursuing a ban. The government denies it is half-hearted.
"The German government, in particular the BfV domestic intelligence agency, supports the Bundesrat case for a ban and is contributing its expertise. The government therefore does not deem it necessary to have its own motion," said a spokeswoman for the German Interior Ministry.
She also noted however that a ban's impact would be limited since it "cannot eliminate the extremist mindset".
Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, Germany's justice minister from 2009-2013 when the federal government was considering its position in the court case, said there was a high risk the trial could conclude without a ban, making it counter-productive.
"The NPD is an appalling party. But that is not sufficient for a case to ban them," she has said.
Despite Germany's strict laws against hate crime and expressing Nazi sympathies, it also sets high hurdles for outlawing political groups. Only two parties have been banned since World War Two — the Socialist Reich Party, a successor to Hitler's Nazis, in 1952, and the Communist Party in 1956.
"A ban is a heavy weapon and the hope was, after the war, it wouldn't have to be used. But it is there if necessary," said Christian Pestalozza, a law professor in Berlin.
The NPD has been around since 1964 and survived a previous government lawsuit to ban it, which collapsed in 2003 as some of the party officials used as witnesses turned out to be government-paid informants.
To ban a party, the Constitutional Court has to find that a party's aims or behavior seek to undermine or abolish German democracy. But it also has to find that it poses a genuine, serious threat.
Declining public support for the NPD may make this harder to prove, said a senior legal source.
Support for the NPD has dwindled as Germany's migration crisis has changed right wing politics, with parties that express dissatisfaction with immigration growing far bigger than ever before, but also trying to distance themselves from the radical right fringe to win over more mainstream voters.
This past year, a new group, the AfD, founded in 2013, has seen its support in opinion polls swell to about 12 percent by adopting an anti-immigrant stance, while disavowing the far-right trappings and rhetoric of groups like the NPD.
The NPD is too small to appear in most opinion polls, but German officials estimate its support has ebbed to just 1 percent from closer to 1.5 percent. NPD membership has fallen to just 5,200 from around 7,000 a decade ago.
The AfD now has seats in eight state legislatures, compared to the NPD's one.
Removing the swastika
For Bauer, banning the NPD is necessary to stop far right politicians from using racist gangs as muscle.
After prison, fearing reprisals, he left his home in the state of Saxony, gave up his nickname "Pistol" and removed tattoos including a swastika.
He spoke to Reuters at a location he asked to keep confidential to protect his security. NPD lawyer Richter said he had never heard of Bauer and had no comment on his allegations.
Bauer was never a member of the NPD but says some members of his racist gangs were linked to the party, which provided them with vehicles. While party figures would keep their hands clean, they would use gang members to carry out violence, he said, without naming the party figures involved.
"If I've got a business and want to harm my enemy I can get someone else to do it for money or for a promise. That's how the NPD does it," said Bauer, between long puffs on a cigarette.
"It was racist. We were against people with mental and physical disabilities. Everything the Third Reich targeted."