An ugly alliance in Germany

December 11, 2012

Sean Larson explains what's leading to the growth of Germany's far right.

THE RISE of the far right in Germany has been underscored by a neo-Nazi terror scandal that has unfolded over the past year. Details which continue to surface have implicated Germany's domestic intelligence agency as complicit with the Nazis--and point out how the state itself is structurally racist.

The discovery of a neo-Nazi trio calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) in November 2011 provided the key link in a string of ten murders and two bombings, committed between 2000 and 2007, which primarily targeted Turkish immigrants.

When two of the NSU members committed suicide and the third turned herself in last November, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV by its German initials), the government agency in charge of internal intelligence-gathering, immediately destroyed documents related to the case. All signs indicate that these documents linked the BfV itself with far-right organizations. The agency was engulfed in a public scandal, forcing its president to resign in July.

Thilo Sarrazin
Thilo Sarrazin (Richard Hebstreit)

Even before the discovery of the NSU group, Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) had already pointed to the close ties between the BfV and leaders in the neo-Nazi scene. It was also discovered that the agency tipped off several neo-Nazi leaders, alerting them when they were under surveillance. Officials from the BfV are accused of having hindered attempts by members of parliamentary investigation committees to access information about the NSU.

As outlined in a November 2012 report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, evidence of the reach of the BfV in right-wing extremist groups has continued to emerge. It appears the agency had an influence in the formation of the NSU, perhaps even helping to initiate it.

Yet culpability isn't limited to the BfV. The BKA has faced heavy criticism, too, especially after a parliamentary investigation revealed that it failed to identify the NSU trio despite abundant evidence acquired in a raid on the home of a neo-Nazi in 2007--and this is after all ten of the murders committed by the NSU.

As recently as this October, police in the city of Hoyerswerda in Saxony refused to help a couple being threatened by neo-Nazis, suggesting instead that the couple should leave the city. It has since come to light that police in other parts of Saxony have told victims of Nazi threats and violence that they could not be protected--and sometimes put the blame for this on the victims themselves.

RANGING FROM participation in elections to terrorist attacks, the neo-fascist scene in Germany has deep roots.

The aftermath of the German reunification in 1990 witnessed a surge in fascist activity, especially in the economically devastated East, previously ruled by a Stalinist dictatorship. Violent attacks on foreigners in the eastern cities of Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen were accompanied by increasingly frequent neo-Nazi rallies.

In the former West, neo-Nazi arson attacks in the northern town of Mölln resulted in the deaths of three Turkish women in 1992, and another far-right arson attack in Solingen killed five members of a Turkish family and injured 14 more. The NSU is a product of these turbulent years.

On a broader scale, many German politicians and public figures have not only fallen in line with the anti-foreigner racism rampant in the post-reunification environment, but they have been actively involved in fanning its flames.

In 1991, then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) came out with a public campaign against the "flood of asylum-seekers" into the country. Shortly after reunification and only days before asylum seekers were attacked in xenophobic riots in Hoyerswerda in September 1991, CDU leader Volker Rühe sent out a memo to all the regional chapters of the party, according to Die Zeit. In it, he suggested CDU politicians should pose questions like "Are asylum seekers housed in hotels or boarding houses? For how long? At what cost?"

Contemporary government efforts continue this legacy of scapegoating with attempts at wholesale denial of asylum for persecuted Roma and Sinti people from Serbia and Macedonia. All of these actions have helped to create a social climate that encouraged the racist attacks during the early 1990s and after.

Add to this the economic backdrop of increasing unemployment and unstable jobs created under a program of austerity, which undermines confidence in the future and feeds into racist scapegoating.

This is clearest of all in Greece, where the economic situation is far more dire than Germany. An openly fascist party, Golden Dawn, has exploited the crisis in order to claim to stand for workers--as long as they are ethnic Greek workers. Golden Dawn's xenophobic hate and anti-immigrant violence are the human price that EU leaders are willing to require Greeks to pay for maintaining the austerity regime.

In Germany, the initial impact of the world economic crisis of the late 2000s was, to a large extent, deflected for the permanent workforce, and the slight dip in profitability experienced by German big capital was quickly overcome. But it has become increasingly difficult for any European workers to avoid the consequences of the shared austerity project of EU leaders. While overall German unemployment rates have so far remained between 5 and 7 percent since the onset of the crisis, prospects for an economic recovery within the neoliberal framework are looking increasingly grim.

In Germany, during the seven years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, right-wing extremist crimes, including violent acts, almost doubled from just over 10,000 cases in 2001 to 19,894 in 2008. This dramatic increase corresponds to the same time span during which Germany had the fastest growing inequality and poverty rate of all OECD countries.

In line with the trend elsewhere in Europe, anti-Muslim racism in Germany has grown over the last two decades. The far right has been riding the wave of Islamophobia, which swelled in 2001 with the launching of the U.S. "war on terror" and to justify Germany's participation with the U.S.-led war on Afghanistan.

Now, in response to the need for a scapegoat following the crisis in 2008 and the accelerated austerity program that ensued, sections of the German ruling class have demonstrated their interest in making racism an acceptable part of public discourse. With the sanction of many conservative politicians, the media and even many leaders of the center-left Social Democrats, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia have been steadily elevated in legitimacy.

The racist clamor reached fever pitch in 2010 with the publication of the Islamophobic bestseller Germany Abolishes Itself by Thilo Sarrazin, an executive board member of Germany's central bank at the time. Despite two attempts to expel him, Sarrazin remains a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

Sarrazin is at the forefront of the "new" racism in Germany, in which bigotry is condemned in the abstract, but implicitly promoted as a ludicrous and quasi-biological reflex against the alleged invasion of the "homeland." In the name of tolerance, Muslim immigrants themselves are blamed for daring to seek asylum in a society constantly assured that it is "prone to racism."

With the eruption of far-right ideas into the mainstream, more moderate conservatives and even the center-left SPD have been sucked in. Indeed, it was the social democratic district mayor of Berlin, Heinz Buschkowsky, who originally pronounced the sentence that Chancellor Angela Merkel notoriously echoed in October 2010: "Multiculturalism has utterly failed."

The atmosphere of paranoia and fear erected on this racist foundation has led to the persecution of women for wearing religious head coverings, prohibitions on the construction of buildings with minarets (read: mosques), campaigns against religious circumcision, and routine terror warnings by state security.

THE MID-2000s electoral success of far-right parties--most significantly, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDP)--was most prominent in the East, and especially in the states of Saxony and Thuringia. According to Der Spiegel, this geographical distribution has remained constant in the years since. Within Germany, the Eastern states have had a consistently higher unemployment level over the last decade.

The NPD is by far the most dangerous neo-Nazi grouping. It has attempted to combine elements of a right-wing movement on the ground with a legal electoral strategy. A government-initiated case against the NPD in 2003 sought to have the party banned, but the case was thrown out when it was discovered that many high-ranking officials within the party were, in fact, undercover agents or informants of the BfV, and thus the policies and decisions of the NPD were being shaped in part by the government itself.

A new attempt at a ban has gained some momentum since the beginning of the NSU scandal and now has the backing of state interior ministers. A measure to ban the NPD from participation in government would be a positive development, and the nationalist party would no longer receive the financial backing that the German state guarantees to all parties in parliament.

But a ban of this sort won't silence the far right. That requires addressing the social and economic roots of the fascists' appeals--and recognizing the way that officially sanctioned racism, spread by public figures such as Sarrazin to justify wars and austerity measures, is helping the far right to gain a hearing.

The NPD rejoiced in the publication of Sarrazin's book, greeting it with the statement: "The great merit of the German Central Bank board lies in finally making the NPD's criticism of foreign infiltration socially acceptable." An anti-racist pamphlet from the radical left party Die Linke points out that a 2010 NPD strategy paper advises its members to scapegoat Muslims as "the projection screen for everything which troubles the average German about foreigners."

The NPD uses Islamophobic propaganda as a kind of icebreaker tactic in its wider attack on all foreign people, and it explicitly promotes anti-Muslim racism as a stepping-stone to fueling anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, the NPD is making progress. According to a November 2012 opinion survey, the percentage of people in the East German population who approve of right-wing beliefs has more than doubled since 2006. The most dramatic increase came between 2010 and 2012. And for the first time in the short period in which this study has been conducted, the upswing in far-right views was most prominent among young people aged 14 to 30--38.5 percent of those interviewed expressed xenophobic sympathies.

The response on the part of the state has usually been limited to parliamentary inquiries and discussion forums, but leaders like Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich are using the opportunity to strengthen the repressive apparatus of the state.

Friedrich recently opened a third defense against terrorism center in Cologne. The goal of this initiative is to "more efficiently combat left, right, and foreign extremists as well as espionage." The move has been justified by the need to "learn from the NSU scandal," but is Friedrich really learning from mistakes or exploiting, shock doctrine-style, an opportunity to expand the size of state security, which will be used against the left?

The BfV is a perfect example of this. It is peculiar among European countries and product of Cold War anti-communism. Today, it mainly works against left groups and organizations. Twenty-five members of the German Bundestag from Die Linke and four of the party's members in the European parliament remain under surveillance by the BfV.

The state intelligence apparatus is no ally in the fight against Nazis--which is why Die Linke calls for the abolition of all secret intelligence agencies alongside a continuing struggle against the far right.

WHAT WILL be decisive in combatting racism and Nazism is not the further expansion of the security state, but grassroots organizing efforts to resolutely confront the extreme right wherever they appear.

Significantly, refugees themselves have launched sustained protest campaigns against deportations and forced consignment to refugee camps--this led last weekend to an occupation of a Berlin school. The antifascist movement in Germany continues to mobilize against Nazi demonstrations and shut down their meetings. Last month, protests against racism and Nazis brought out 2,000 people in Frankfurt and 5,000 people in Berlin.

The largest annual demonstration of neo-Nazis in Europe previously took place in the East German city of Dresden. But in February of 2010, over 10,000 people came out for a counter-demonstration, where anti-fascist protesters formed human barricades that physically prevented the Nazis from marching.

The racist far right will grow as long as it has real social problems to exploit with its politics of despair and scapegoating. So stopping the fascists will also require presenting the socialist answer--not only fighting against the expansion of the police state, but also for better social services, more jobs and better job security. All of these demands and more are necessary, but the ultimate goal must be the elimination of the root causes of racism and xenophobia, and this can only happen through an organized struggle for a socialist society.

The extended effects of the crisis are presenting two simultaneous developments. On the one side, the rise of the far right with its racist paranoia. On the other, the awakening struggle against austerity, with the bright hope of the transnational general strike of November 14 that sent shock waves across the continent.

Which path is taken will be determined by the ability of workers of all cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds to join together and counter the capitalist assault--and the racism the system perpetuates.

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