Germany’s heated debate over refugees and its troubled political past are set to collide as the country’s top court begins considering whether to outlaw a far-right party accused of espousing Nazi views.
The Federal Constitutional Court on Tuesday starts three days ofhearings in a bid by Germany’s 16 state governments to ban the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland, or NPD. It’s the first time in 60 years that the court is trying such a case after the communist party and a successor to the Nazis were banned in the 1950s.
The hearings in the southwestern city of Karlsruhe come as Germany is torn by fierce debate over how many asylum seekers the country should accept, with an increase in xenophobic attacks on shelters after more than 1 million refugees arrived last year. The nation’s constitution, drafted three years after World War II in reaction to its Nazi past, aims to make sure such atrocities won’t be repeated by allowing for the outlawing of parties that seek to topple democracy. The country also has laws against actions that elsewhere would be covered by freedom of speech, such as denying the holocaust.
“The federal government views the NPD as an anti-democratic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic party that’s opposed to the constitution,” Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters on Friday, voicing her government’s support for the case even though it decided against joining the suit. “All of us oppose it forcefully.”
Not everyone thinks the suit, filed three years ago, is a good idea. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, who served as German justice minister in Merkel’s previous government, warns the case could backfire legally and politically, with a ban far from certain and the NPD unnecessarily gaining publicity in the process.
“I’m very skeptical,” she said in an interview. “There are significant risks, the hurdles are high. In a democracy, banning a party must be the absolute exception. You’ve got to confront extremists politically and with arguments.”
The states argue that the NPD champions Nazi ideology and seeks to abolish democracy. More than a decade ago, a first attempt to ban it failed. The top court in 2003 decided against holding a trial then because there were too many government spies in the party’s leadership — a practice they say they stopped before filing the new case in 2013. To win now, the states must show the NPD is actively working to overthrow the constitutional order, not just criticizing it. Racist propaganda alone is not enough for a ban because individuals can be prosecuted for that under criminal laws.
Recent “attacks on refugee homes and xenophobic demonstrations have their roots in other elements of society” like an anti-immigration group called Pegida that sprung up last year and has drawn thousands of supporters to its rallies, said Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger. “You can’t simply attribute this to the NPD.”
The states need a two-third majority at the eight-judge panel to win their case. If the constitutional court bans the NPD, the party can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. That tribunal has overturned similar national rulings where the party in question had limited political impact. Th NPD in the 2013 national elections got 1.3 percent of the vote, down from 1.5 percent four years earlier. The NPD has deputies in one state parliament and on some local municipal councils.
By defending against the suit, the NPD is also defending the rights of Germans to freely debate key future issues, the party said in astatement on its website. In the current climate, any position defending “the national identity and sovereignty of Germany is being denounced as politically and morally reprehensible,” it said.
Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger also believes that outlawing the party won’t solve the root issues.
“The people with that mind set would remain,” she said. “They would quickly establish a new umbrella.”