NPD rally in Würzburg in March 2004. Photo by Christian Horvat (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Last week, Germany tried again to ban the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), while the rest of the world tried to comprehend the country's endless hang-up over it. And it is endless – this week's battle in Germany's Constitutional Court is in no way a consequence of the politicians' panic over the rise of the AfD and the mass befuddlement that seems to have been caused by the arrival of refugees last year.
The legal case has been gestating since at least 2013, when the Syrian war was still something you didn't really need to care about, and has been in preparation since 2003, the last time the attempt failed.
The NPD's influence in German politics is negligible. They have no MPs in the Bundestag, one MEP, and five state parliament MPs (all in Mecklenburg Vorpommern). In other words, it seems to be about the principle of the thing. The NPD don't even have a horrifically irritating supporter who could appear on a provocative late-night chat show. In fact, you could say – and a lot of people have – that if it wasn't for the political establishment's attempts to ban them, the NPD would almost never be in the news.
If you vote NPD you are admitting to yourself (and to other people if you tell them) that you are a neo-Nazi. If you vote for the AfD or you join a Pegida march then you can pretend that you're not a neo-Nazi, even if there are actual neo-Nazis marching with you and the NPD's manifesto is in a lot of ways no different to that of the AfD. But all that obfuscation is out of the way if you vote NPD – you've made the mental jump. Tactically, you'd think Germany's mainstream parties would actually be happier if the NPD was still an option on the ballot – the more splits on the far-right, the better.
So what's in it for us if we ban the NPD? In the short term, it'd definitely be a blow to the structures of far-right extremism – no party means no youth organizations to get young people on board, and no public money to fund such organizations. As a political party rather than a political organization (which would be a lot easier to ban), the NPD is entitled to state money, and collects well over a million taxpayer euros a year – over 40 percent of its total financing. That, for a lot of people, is a moral outrage big enough to justify banning them.
But that isn't a good enough reason for the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, which needs to see evidence that the NPD is a real threat to the German constitution. This is a touchy subject in Germany, and the constitution is seen as a fragile thing. In the United States, it'd probably be no problem to have a party that actively advocates bringing down the United States and tearing up the US Constitution – it seems like you can fly Confederate flags wherever you want – but in Germany we feel, well, a bit more insecure about threats like that, because of Hitler. The Federal Republic is a much younger democracy, and we have built-in systems to defend our constitution (our intelligence agency is even called the Verfassungsschutz [Constitution-protection]).
So the arguments for banning the NPD are practical and historically understandable, and you can see why they make sense – but on a realistic level and a freedom of opinion level they don't hold water. If the NPD didn't exist no one would really notice either way. And at the price of actually banning an opposition political party – which never looks good when you go round condemning the governments of Russia or Egypt or Turkey – that doesn't seem worth it.