Banning Germany's neo-Nazis is harder than you might think

Protest against neo-Nazis

Protesters shout slogans against Germany's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) in Berlin, Aug. 24, 2013. The placards say "Nazi free and have fun with it."

MUNICH, Germany — In a country with a track record of murderous xenophobia, one might assume banning neo-Nazi groups should not be too difficult.

Think again.

With Germany’s top court beginning this week to consider a ban on the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), prohibiting any political party here — right-wing extremists included — isn’t exactly easy.

It’s state policy to foster an inclusive democracy by giving a public platform to any political party that’s not breaking the law.

And there’s the rub: The lawyers for Germany’s 16 federal states, which collectively filed the suit, must prove the NPD is actually trying to overthrow the democratic order or undermine the constitution.

The party has long attracted scorn for its ultranationalist and xenophobic rhetoric, which contends the “German character” is under threat by ethnic minorities. 

“All the things the NPD has been warning against for years, is happening now on the political stage,” NPD Chairman Frank Franz told reporters.

But just spouting propaganda may not be enough to get them barred.

What’s more, Germany’s postwar leaders worried that politicians could use official institutions to silence their opponents just like Hitler did, which is why the Constitutional Court is the only body that can ban a party — and even then, only with a two-thirds majority.

In the end, it’s a long shot that critics argue may only boost the NPD’s profile.

“In a democracy, banning a party must be the absolute exception,” Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a former justice minister, told Bloomberg. “You’ve got to confront extremists politically and with arguments.”

Dietmar Woidke, premier of the eastern state of Brandenburg, said the NPD strives to eliminate the "democratic constitutional order," according to Reuters.

Since the end of World War II, Germany has outlawed only two political parties, both in the first decade after the Nazi defeat. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though: The last attempt to ban the NPD fell through in 2003 after the court found that authorities had planted too many informants in the party and contaminated their case.

The suit coincides with growing anger in Germany over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, which has welcomed more than 1 million asylum-seekers in the past year.

That’s led to rising support for right-wing populists and fueled violent attacks against refugee shelters. Both are startling developments for a country that’s worked hard to move on from its recent history of hate violence.