You could not possibly make this up. Amidst a legal-constitutional battle over the NPD’s survival, the General Secretary (top executive manager) of Germany’s oldest right-wing extremist party NPD resigns over what is by now affectionately known as the Saarbrücken Penis Cake Affair. The story (as ridiculous as it gets) also involves Miss Nationalist Santa, and a lot of backstabbing hidden behind the moral outrage. Publikative has the full story and the original reporting (in German), whereas Spiegel Online (also in German and apparently a bit lax on the reporting part) has the pictures (if you absolutely have to see them).
What Did the Court Say?
The German Constitutional Court ruled today that Germany’s three per cent electoral threshold for European elections is unconstitutional because it violates the principle of equality. The ruling was not exactly a surprise: In 2011, the court had already abolished a five per cent electoral threshold on account of the European Union not being a parliamentary system that would require large and coherent parliamentary groups and stable majorities. The three per cent threshold was enacted only last October in a constitutional gamble. Lawmakers wanted to keep smaller parties out of the EP, although they were perfectly aware that the logic of the first ruling would probably rule out a lower threshold, too.
What Are the Consequences?
The court has just made a bunch of smaller parties very happy. Germany has 99 seats in the EP, so without a legal threshold, the effective threshold is just over one per cent. The AfD is currently polling around six per cent, so unless something dramatic happens, the ruling virtually guarantees them representation in the next parliament. That would give the AfD a parliamentary foothold that they will use to establish themselves firmly in the German polity.
Things also haven’t looked so good for the Pirates and the NPD in a long time. The latter case is particularly interesting: If the Constitutional Court should ban the NPD further down the line, their MPs would lose their seats under German law. Will this also apply to MEPs?
Germany’s ultra right-wing NPD is the party that never fails to amaze. After leader Holger Apfel was forced to resign over the (alleged) harassment of ‘young comrades’ just before Christmas, his predecessor Udo Voigt made it clear that he wanted his old job back. But Udo Pastörs (what is it about this name?), who helped Apfel to topple Voigt two years ago emerged as a caretaker instead. Shortly afterwards, Pastörs was appointed leader, though only for a nine-month period.
This weekend, the NPD selected their candidates for the upcoming European election, with both Voigt and Pastörs vying for the top spot. Voigt won, and Pastörs subsequently withdrew from the selection process altogether. I’m sure there will be another leadership challenge in September, or even earlier if the party takes a beating in the May election.
This is all against the backdrop of bankruptcy, political irrelevance and a looming ruling of the Federal Constitutional Court that may (or may not) declare the party unconstitutional. I have said this before and I’m saying it again: This is more than a bit like a struggle over who is in charge on the bridge of the good ship Titanic.
Germany’s National Democratic Party in Turmoil
The NPD ended 2013 with a veritable Christmas Panto. On December 19, Holger Apfel, who had become party leader in 2011, stepped down from this and other party offices citing his ill health – a proposition that seemed implausible to your humble blogger (and many others). On December 22, the party’s highest decision making body appointed Udo Pastörs as interim leader. They also published a communique that urged Apfel to ‘disprove allegations directed against him’ and threatened to expel him from the party. Within hours, the nature of these allegations emerged, first in the blogosphere, then in the mainstream media: One (or two, according to other sources) ‘young comrades’ (male) claimed that the (drunken) leader had sexually harassed them during the electoral campaign. Shortly afterwards, Apfel left the party for good.
Homosexuality and Ultra-Nationalism
Sexual harassment is a crime. Homosexuality is not a crime. But it is the latter which ended Apfel’s long and distinguished career within the NPD. During thecurrent legal proceedings against the NPD, it emerged that a quarter of NPD functionaries has criminal convictions, mostly for hate crimes. Apfel’s predecessor (and potential successor) Udo Voigt as well as the interim leader Pastörs were convicted for inciting racial hatred. Voigt’s predecessor Günter Deckert, who was leader in the 1990s, served several years in prison.
Back in the 1990s, Herbert Kitschelt, in his seminal study on the ‘Radical Right in Western Europe’, traced the electoral weakness of the German Extreme (or Radical) Right to its obsession with the past. Part and parcel of this obsession are the style and culture of the interwar right. The Extreme Right of the 1920s and 1930s, with its images of hypermasculinity, became the spiritual home for scores of young men traumatised in the trenches. The NPD’s insistence on comradery echoes the spirit of these all-male paramilitary organisations.
The Nazis purged homosexuals from their own ranks and killed them on a large scale in the concentration camps while turning women into breeding machines for Reich and Führer. It does not take a great deal of psychoanalysis to make you wonder.
The latest NPD electoral manifesto is an arguably much tamer version of these homophobic (and possibly schizophrenic) tendencies within the right. The party wants to ban single homosexuals (let alone homosexual couples) from adopting children and opposes the notion of ‘homosexual families’ or marriages. According to the NPD, there is a biological struggle between (ethnic) Germans on the one hand and ‘foreigners’ on the other, and Germans must be encouraged by all means (including mini skirts) to breed faster, and more.
Apfel is married with three children, and that was part of his political persona. But while ‘respectability’ was at the core of his personal brand and his strategy for the party, ‘allegations’ of homosexual acts involving consenting adults would kill any political career in the party. And Apfel came to power by a narrow majority vote and was always controversial during his term as leader, making more than enough enemies within the party.
The NPD is bankrupt, has very little electoral support and is embroiled in internal strife. The current leadership crisis will obviously not help the party. Apfel’s predecessor Voigt has already declared that he wants his old job back, while interim leader Pastörs will have his eyes on a more permanent arrangement. That is one lousy start of the European Parliamentary campaign.
I have often argued that trying to get the NPD banned by the Federal Constitutional Court is unnecessary and imprudent. Without the publicity brought about by the Court proceedings, it might simply have faded into virtual oblivion, just like the Republikaner party of 1990s fame. But even if the FCC refuses to ban the NPD (or, god forbid, if the ECHR overturns a ruling by the FCC), the NPD’s future does not look too rosy. While there is certainly a demand for eurosceptic and xenophobic policies, most voters find the NPD’s tarted-up version of grandpa’s fascism unpalatable. My medium-range prediction is therefore the emergence of a more modern anti-immigrant party in Germany.
NPD leader resigns in shock move
Holger Apfel, the leader of Germany’s right-wing extremist National Democratic Party (NPD), resigns, citing health reasons. He also steps down as head of the party’s caucus in the Saxonian state parliament.
Apfel’s move adds to the party’s many woes: The NPD is very nearly bankrupt as a result of financial irregularities. Moreover, the party’s constitutionality is currently being investigated by the Federal Constitutional Court. These proceedings could result in a ban of the NPD.
Following an acrimonious leadership contest, Apfel became party leader just over two years ago in November 2011. His main strategic aim was to slightly tone down the party’s radical ambitions in a bid to make it more acceptable to conservative voters. In this respect, he was not in any way successful.
Why, and why now?
Apparently, the party and its leadership were taken completely by surprise. Within minutes, it was leaked that Apfel suffers from ‘burn out’, which could boil down to ‘too much interaction with dear comrades’. [It is up to the reader to insert a silly pun on the NPD’s obsession with “the Leader”/their leadership troubles at this point]
Apfel’s predecessor Udo Voigt, who was leader from 1996 until 2011 and then grudgingly became Apfel’s deputy, has certainly made life miserable for Apfel during the last two years. Also within minutes, Voigt has declared that he was ready to take the helm once more ‘under certain conditions’.
But citing health reasons and stepping down is not the way things are done in the NPD. And while infighting is common enough within the NPD’s national leadership, it seems odd that Apfel should also give up his position in Saxony, which is his power base, unless he is really seriously ill. Therefore, fellow anoraks and conspiracy theorists will contemplate another explanation: That Apfel could have been one of those informers (paid by the government’s many secret services) whose involvement with the leadership led to the collapse of the first bid to ban the NPD back in 2002.
German political parties enjoy a special constitutional protection. Only the Federal Government, the Bundestag (parliament), and the Federal Council can apply for a ban, and only the Federal Constitutional Court can declare a party unconstitutional and subsequently dissolve it. Over more than six decades, the court has banned two parties: the neo-Nazi SRP in 1952 and (slightly more controversially) the communist KPD in 1956. In both instances, it was the government who initiated the process.
Back in 2001, the then Red-Green government sought to ban the NPD. The attempt failed spectacularly because a qualified minority of the judges raised procedural concerns about the very large number of informers within the party, and the unwillingness of the state to provide the names of these people. While the whole thing was ill-advised, it is best seen as part of a larger symbolic drive against right-wing extremism, which was rampant after unification and fuelled a whole host of violent hate crimes. Back then, the government cajoled the CDU/CSU and FDP into supporting the cause, and all three institutions jointly applied for a ban, thereby raising the stakes and putting a lot of pressure on the court.
This time round, the Federal Council (dominated by the SPD and Green, but with support from the centre right-led state governments) pushes for a ban, while the government has long dragged its feet and finally came up with a statement saying that they would not co-sponsor the bid but still provide assistance. While this sounds half-baked, it might actually be a sensible position, given what sort of evidence against the NPD has been collected.
The most bizarre performance, however, was delivered in today’s debate in the Bundestag. CDU/CSU and FDP tabled a motion not to support the ban and won with their majority, while the opposition voted against. Then the SPD table a motion in favour of a ban. The government parties voted against, the Left and some Greens supported the move, of course to no avail. Next came the Left with their own motion, which was supported by the SPD while the Greens abstained. Finally, the Greens argued that issue should not be rushed through parliament. Now the government and the SPD voted against, while the Left abstained. Throughout the day, everyone agreed that the NPD (which, although bankrupt and electorally battered beyond recognition held their party conference last weekend) was indeed a very nasty party. Five months to go until election day.
Gerhard Frey, one of the most colourful characters of the German Extreme Right, has died one day after his 80th birthday. Frey, a famously rich businessman and right-wing journalist, began building his empire in the late 1950s. Over the decades, he published two rightist weeklies (which he was later forced to merge in a declining market), countless revisionist and openly racist books, and ran a mail-order service for Nazi memorabilia. He was one of only four persons who ever stood trial under a procedure called “Grundrechtsverwirkung”. Basically, the Federal Government tried to strip him of his right to freedom of speech (and also his right to vote, to stand in elections and to take public office) because – according to the government – he had abused these rights to incite racial hatred and glorify Nazism (the Federal Constitutional Court squashed this and all similar cases on the grounds of these measures being disproportionate).
Frey made various forays into politics, but was repeatedly rejected by Germany’s oldest relevant Extreme Right party NPD (although sat on the party’s leadership committee for a short while). Over the years, many a right-winger has accused him of being only in it for the money.
In the 1980s, he converted his German People’s Union DVU (“Deutsche Volksunion, essentially a right-wing book club) into a political organisation that during the decades successfully contested various land elections, only to tank abysmally once they had entered another land parliament. The DVU was never a proper party. Leaving the DVU immediately after assuming office, embezzling money or getting caught while downloading child porn in their parliamentary office was more or less de rigeur for its MPs.
For most of its existence, the DVU wholly depended on its party chair, Gerhard Frey, who had taken out considerable loans from Gerhard Frey, the publisher, to safeguard his position. As far as we know, there was never any meaningful political competition or genuine party life within the DVU, which has been dubbed a “virtual” or even “phantom” party. In 2009, Frey, already in his late 70s, finally stepped down from the leadership and dispensed with the money the party owed him, thereby paving the way for the eventual merger with its longtime rival NPD.
Once more, German authorities are pondering what to do with the extreme right NPD (officially “Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands / Die Volksunion” after merging with its longstanding competitor DVU). While the Federal Council (which represents the 16 federal states) has already applied for a ban, government and parliament have not yet decided whether they support this move. Only the Federal Constitutional Court can ban a party, only these three institutions can act as plaintiffs, and the hurdles are high, as a qualified majority of the eight judges sitting on the case would have to vote in favour.The last ban was issued in 1956, and the government is duly afraid of another failure after the 2003 disaster.
Interestingly, both the Federal Council’s activism and the other institutions’ reluctance are based on a confidential report by a joint working party compromised of security people from both tiers of government and led by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, i.e. one of the federal secret service agencies. In a shock move, the NPD has posted what appears to be a 140-page executive summary of this report on its website today. Apparently, the party leadership is of the opinion that they appear as mostly harmless in the dossier.
The three-part PDF, apparently a scan of a paper copy, looks genuine enough. Its style, diction and classic Word 95 typography are all in line with what one would expect from such a document, and so is its content. The 2003 disaster was due to the excessive number of activists who moonlighted for Germany’s many secret service. This time, the authors have gone to great pains to collate material that is both public and not produced bye “source”, i.e. paid informers within the party. Interestingly, the statements in the document are classified into two categories: “A” for people who were not informers after January 1, 2003 (but possibly before that date), and “AD” for people who were not on the payroll at the time they made the relevant statement.
Consequently, most of this stuff is disgusting but phrased so that it is right at the boundary of what is legally acceptable. Germany’s extreme right has decades of experience in crafting their statements in a way that remains just under the constitutional radar. Going through that material, one can see why the party published it on its website and gets the impression that it will be different to ban the party without relying on internal communications.
One of the most interesting points is the recommendation. The paper suggests in rather strong terms that a ban feasible and proportionate and yet, the government dithers. This indicates that either the federal people on the working party were outvoted (which seems unlikely from the phrasing), or that there is a rift between the political leadership and the services.
A final point concerns the way through which the party got hold of the document. Today, the internet is rife with speculation: Has the NPD, for decades targeted by agents, in turn infiltrated the services? Given that relations between the services and the party have been too close for comfort in the past, that would not be entirely implausible. There is, however, a simpler explanation. The document is stamped “VS – nur für den Dienstgebrauch”, which is the lowest classification level. Such files are normally accessible by a large number of people within an office. Given the rather enthusiastic recommendation issued in the report and the reluctance of the government to act on it, it’s easy to imagine someone in an agency or a ministry leaking the paper to the press, where anyone could have passed it on to the party.
The NPD is Germany’s oldest surviving Extreme Right party. It has been around for about five decades. After merging with its long-time rival German People’s Union (DVU, the ruling mentioned in the post was finally squashed), it is also a serious contender for the coveted title of Germany’s daftest party (see exhibit number one). While it has been electorally successful occasionally, for most of its history it has been confined to the lunatic fringe. While parties such as the Front National, the Freedom Parties in Scandinavia or the Austrian FPÖ have thrived, the NPD has, apart from a brief period in the late 1960s, always been at the very margins of German politics.
This is not to say that the NPD is not a dangerous, racist and outright nasty party. Therefore, the idea of banning the NPD has surfaced time and again, becoming its own Doppelgänger after the 2001-2003 disaster. Upon granting the matter due consideration, I think the plan is largely bonkers. If this kind of concise verdict does not impress you much, you can read my full analysis of the proposed NPD ban at the extremis project, the go-to site for all thing, well, extreme.