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Germany shudders over rise of far right

Right-wing parties have made some stunning electoral gains in eastern Germany. NBC's Andreas Bechmann and Andy Eckardt report.
/ Source: NBC News

Nestled between the river Elbe and a 13th-century castle, Koenigstein was until recently best known as a gateway to a very popular national park in Saxony. The small eastern German town, with its 3,200 inhabitants, draws its living from the tourism industry in a region that has been battling high unemployment since German reunification.

Nowadays it also has a different, more sinister reputation. On June 13, 2004, the right-wing Nationale Partei Deutschlands (German National Party) won 21.1 percent of the vote in two council elections, a stunning success that was followed by a strong showing in state elections, when it garnered 9.1 percent of the vote.

The town and the region were quickly branded a Nazi stronghold. Koenigstein, which is located close to the German-Czech border, was overwhelmed with interview requests from Germany's leading newspapers and television stations, and worried that the extensive coverage could hurt its vital tourism.

Not long afterwards, the local tourism board shut down its Web site guest book as readers expressed their dismay, often in crude terms, over the NPD's success. It also called a meeting with local entrepreneurs and other officials to find ways to fix the image problem.

It’s a problem that may defy a quick fix, and which could have wider long-term impact.

Between the years 1990 and 2000 alone, approximately 350 American companies had invested over 18 billion euros ($21 billion) in eastern Germany. Locals worry the bad publicity could hurt further investment in a region that badly needs foreign investment.

Reacting to poor economy?
Mayor Frieder Haase blames the poor economy for the success of the far-right party. "I am convinced, no, I am certain, that the majority of votes are protest votes," he said.  "And, I doubt that all of the voters actually know, who they have elected," Haase said.

But Haase, who has no party affiliation, warned that the extremists can’t be ignored. "Democracy must deal with these parties and politics must do everything to change the election behavior which we see at the moment," he said.

The NPD has held seats on the town council for more than five years. "They do nothing productive, and therefore it is hard to work with them in our council," the mayor said.

For most politicians, it’s impossible to work with the NPD because its policies are entirely beyond the pale of German politics. The party wants to do away with democracy and envisions a larger Germany that would include parts of Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic, incorporated in what was once the "German Reich."

But to their alarm, an increasing number of Saxony residents have found a new political favorite in Uwe Leichsenring of the NPD, the businesslike driving school owner who in the past has admitted having contacts with the banned neo-Nazi group, "Skinheads Saxon Switzerland (SSS).

At a recent trial, Dresden's high court charged 42 members of the group with the formation of a criminal organization, incitement of racial hatred and inflicting dangerous bodily harm.

Leichsenring, himself, also faced some related minor charges that were eventually dropped in return for the payment of a fine.

Feeding on disaffected youth
Experts like Hans Vorlaender, professor for political sciences at the University of Dresden, believe that Germany must dramatically improve its political education. "We have to counter the possibility that right-wing voters will be born out of our youth culture," he said.

"What I am missing at the moment is a vehement reaction from politicians and from the public," Vorlaender said.

Over the past few years extremists groups have sharpened their message as well as their recruiting strategies in Germany. "There is a stable right-wing extremist voting behavior," said a member of the state’s intelligence services, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Vorlaender said the answer was more complex. "Since the far-left PDS [Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus], the former communist East German party, has been integrated into the political landscape, the only parties left to express dissatisfaction seem to be the ones on the political far right," he said.

"Economic problems and hopelessness are compensated by electing far-right parties,” Vorlaender said. “They give easy answers for complicated social and economical failures. We call it the rat-catcher effect."

However, Vorlaender cautioned against making too much of the success of the NPD and the other right-wing party, Deutsche Volksunion (German People's Union). The two organizations have agreed to join forces ahead of the 2006 national elections under a United National Front.  "Today Saxony, tomorrow Germany" is the battle cry as they vie for seats in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag.

"It is a wrong perception to create a picture of a new rising German Nazi movement,” he said, noting previous waves of success for right-wing parties in local elections, followed by failure at the national level.

"Germany, as a functioning democracy, has always managed to cope with its far right," Vorlaender said.