It seems self-evident that neo-Nazi political parties should be illegal in Germany. But as the battle against Hitler's last holdouts reaches the highest ranks of politics this week, it's worth asking whether maybe it's time for Germany to do what other countries do: Ignore them, and let them self-destruct on their own. It may be that outlawing the politics of hate is not the best way to combat it.
On Friday, the upper house of Germany's federal parliament will vote on motion, approved last week by the leaders of all 16 states, to ask the constitutional court to outlaw the neo-Nazi NPD party, which has defied all attempts to outlaw it over the last 50 years and remains a distant-fringe voice in state politics.
However, Chancellor Angela Merkel and several of her ministers still appear wary of the attempt to ban the party, fearing that it will do more to help the far-right movement than to harm it. Ms. Merkel declared that while "fighting far-right extremism is a task for our whole society… there are, from our point of view, some legal risks," then backed out of the decision, announcing that she would not make her own decision on the court act until the spring of 2013, which would presumably shunt any court verdict until after next year's national elections.
She had good reasons for putting off the decision: The last time Germany tried to ban the party, in 2003, it proved an embarrassing failure after the Federal Constitutional Court rejected the request when it turned out that a significant proportion of the neo-Nazi party's senior leadership were actually undercover police agents who had infiltrated the party. Because it was so hard to discern the acts of the party itself from those of the police, the court ruled that it could not determine if the NPD is unconstitutional.
That handed a big victory to the fringe party, which had been on the verge of disappearance in 2003 but saw its fortunes rise after that, winning its first seats in the regional parliaments of two states in the former communist East Germany, Brandenburg and Saxony.
The NPD has never held a seat at the national level; in fact, it has been mainly a thuggish municipal force in a few pockets in the impoverished east. The party has an estimated 6,300 members in this nation of 80 million, and achieved 1.5 per cent of the national vote in the last election – but polls show that its support has since sunk below 1 per cent (parties need to attract at least 5 per cent in order to get any representation in parliament).
There's no question that the party, formed in 1964 by Hitler loyalists, is racist, anti-Semitic and ultimately opposed to democracy. But to be banned, it would be necessary to prove that the party is actively and aggressively acting against the democratic order – something that most extremist parties are careful not to suggest publicly that they are doing, in order to avoid just such a ban.
This year's attempt at a new ban was launched after Germans learned in November of 2011 that a neo-Nazi terrorist gang, some of whose members had links to the NPD, had carried out a seven-year murder spree, killing at least 10 people who were mainly Turkish shopkeepers.
So the politicians are telling the courts that the NPD acts in Germany much as Sinn Fein once did in Northern Ireland, acting as the political front for a terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army. But, skeptics point out, the approach there was to combat the IRA using military and criminal-justice tools, and allow its political branch to sink or swim in the electoral arena.
"The plans to ban the party could make the NPD seem more important than it is," Dierk Borstel, a German expert on the extreme right, told the broadcaster Deutsche Welle. "The NPD is currently a party in decline… even in its core areas like Saxony, there are entire regional groups that are leaving the party."
But, he says, the attention generated by the ban could give it renewed support – and it could still pop up again in a different guise. Better, he says, to allow the party to suffer a quiet death from fast-falling membership and crushing debt (the party owes millions, mainly from spending on lawyers).
What particularly offends Germans is the knowledge that the NPD, which was founded by former Adolf Hitler loyalists in 1964, receives taxpayer funding of almost €1.2-million each year as a national party. A successful ban on the party would end that funding – but so would allowing its support to fall below 1 per cent, which seems likely unless it uses an unsuccessful ban to gain publicity.
Extremist political parties have filed to gain significant ground in Europe in the wake of the recession that began in 2008. With the exceptions of Greece and Hungary, where devastating conditions have given extremist parties as much as 16 per cent of the vote, most such parties have failed to gain more than a few seats in any country, and are generally on the downturn.
Germans today are well aware of their national guilt in having tolerated Hitler's rise (he, too, started out as a distant-fringe candidate). There is widespread revulsion at these tiny neo-Nazi factions, and a sense of national embarrassment that the world's media focuses upon them incessantly.
Outlawing such parties has been part of German law since 1946, and there are good reasons why Germany might want to devote extra attention to ensuring neo-Nazis have no legal place in their society.
But it may also be that Germany has turned a corner: The spirit of fascism is no longer etched into any significant part of the national psyche, beyond a negligible group of outsiders, and it may be a better idea now to devote police and counter-terrorism efforts to the really dangerous criminal extremists, and let the politics fall back into the historical dustbin.