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Germany: How to fight neo-Nazis?

Despite banning Nazi symbols, Germany's constitution and legal tradition complicate cases against the NPD.

A man is questioned by German police during protests by supporters of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) and left-wing activists in Hamburg on Sept. 11, 2009. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

BERLIN, Germany — The government of the state of Bavaria has said it will soon request that Germany's highest courts ban the country's largest far-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), for subverting the tenets of the national constitution.

It's a policy that is popular among most of the public, and has earned backing from both of the country's major parties. But it's also a course of action that most political elites acknowledge has little chance of success.

“There's very little chance of the courts accepting this argument,” said Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, a former justice on Germany's Constitutional Court.

This is not the first time the German government has considered how to position itself toward the crimes of the country's past. Indeed, the history of post-World War II Germany is fraught with morally dubious decisions toward the legacy of Nazism — from Konrad Adenauer's choice in the 1950s to avoid a thorough de-Nazification of his government, to the Red Army Fraction's campaign in the 1970s to purify West Germany of its Nazi-era sins by means of terrorism and murder.

Nonetheless, the contemporary German state has mostly tried in good faith to feel its way toward an ad hoc accomodation of its Nazi past, one that acknowledges the unique scourge of the Third Reich, while protecting the core freedoms of a liberal democracy. Symbols from the Nazi-era, such as the swastika or the “Heil Hitler” salute, are illegal in Germany, but far-right political groups have also been granted equal right to hold demonstrations to air their views. Holocaust denial is punishable by imprisonment, but neo-Nazi parties have been tolerated as long as they draw no explicit links with the Nazi regime.

The policies might sometimes may seem contradictory, but they are meant to hang together as a carefully managed compromise, one that pays respect both to the tragic origins and the decades-long success of the modern, democratic German state.

But, when it comes to the NPD, the country's largest far-right party, many Germans insist that the government redraw the boundaries between freedom of expression and historical deference. Indeed, the calls for action against the NPD have gotten louder in recent years, a development coincident with the party's increasing successes, especially in eastern Germany.

The party has earned seats in a number of state legislatures by winning more than 5 percent in several state-wide elections, which has also given it the right to receive government campaign financing. Charlotte Knoblauch, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, supports the renewed effort to ban the party, insisting that it's unacceptable that the party receives tax money to spread its “racist propoganda.”