Germany politicians and citizens are debating a renewed attempt to ban the country's largest right-wing extremist party, the NPD. But opponents insist that a ban does little to address the core issues of extremism.
Advising communities throughout Germany on how to deal with violence and right-wing extremism has been part of Dierk Borstel's work for 15 years. The political scientist from Dortmund researches democratic development and how to combat right-wing extremism. Yet Borstel is very critical of renewed attempts to ban the right-wing NPD party in Germany - after a similar attempt failed in 2003.
"The plans to ban the party could make the NPD seem more important than it is," Borstel warned. Banning a party, he explained, is one of the most extreme measures a democracy can take, but Germany is in no way "facing a coup" from the NPD. Instead, Borstel views the debate on banning the party as providing massive attention for an otherwise weak group.
"The NPD is currently a party in decline," the expert on extremism told DW. Borstel points to its loss of members and influence and its lack of influence anywhere in Germany - even within the right-wing scene.
"Even in its core areas like Saxony, there are entire regional groups that are leaving the party," Borstel said.
Changing minds without a ban
According to German domestic intelligence reports, the NPD had some 6,300 members in 2011. Despite the downward trend, it remains Germany's largest right-wing party.
However, the party's success with voters is very limited. In the 2009 federal elections, the NPD secured just 1.5 percent of the vote, providing it with parliament seats in only two states: Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The extremists use the parliament as a platform to voice their ideas, Borstel says. But he advocates combating their views in the same way that teachers are instructed to deal with extremist students - by defeating their arguments rather than simply silencing them.
Author Robert Ackermann agrees that the NPD is politically weak. In his book "Warum die NPD keinen Erfolg haben kann" (Why the NPD Cannot Succeed), he compares the party with other successful right-wing parties across Europe. In his assessment, the party differs in its members' ties to Germany's Nazi past as well as their pronounced anti-Semitism. He notes that the party currently lacks any charismatic political leaders.
Ackermann supports a ban of the party despite the fact that it does not represent an active threat to German democracy, he told Deutsche Welle.
"It is the mouthpiece of the same ideology that, for instance, led to the string of right-wing murders," he said, referring to last year's discovery of a string of xenophobic murders that has rocked Germany since. Apart from those killings, experts approximate that there have been an additional 180 victims of right-wing violence since 1990.
The party includes many members who are prepared to turn violent, Ackermann claims. At the same time, though, the NPD receives government support - as do all German parties who meet a certain threshold of votes - of 1.5 million euros ($1.94 million) a year, which Ackermann deems "simply absurd."
The limits of a ban
The money that the party receives as standard compensation for its election campaign is among the major points cited by those in favor of a ban.
Borstel agrees the money needs to stop flowing. But he maintains that this should be achieved by dissuading voters from supporting the party, and, thus, preventing it from reaching the threshold necessary to secure government funding.
The political scientist notes that the majority of the right-wing scene is not dependent on such funding anyway. In the state of Saxony, research suggests that selling CDs, concerts or other merchandise are playing a far bigger role than the NPD's money.
"Repression always leads to innovation," Borstel argues, adding that the right-wing scene will not disappear if there's a ban - in fact, it could simply reappear under a new name, as has happened in the past.
His opposition to outlawing the NPD puts him outside of the mainstream in Germany. According to a recent study, the majority of Germans favor legislation that would bar the right-wing NPD. Almost three in four people support a law along these lines.
But there's also a clear segment of the population that believes a ban would be of largely symbolic significance - less than one third of Germans think that a ban would be an effective way to stop right-wing ideology.
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