Soul searching in Germany after neo-Nazi murders

Revelations that a neo-Nazi group carried out a string of murders and bombings have left Germany in shock. The country still wrestles with the legacy of the Third Reich.

On the 4th November this year, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos were found dead in a burnt out camper van. Hours later, their friend Beate Zschäpe destroyed the men’s suburban flat with a powerful bomb, before turning herself in to the police.

The saga that followed has left Germany deeply shaken. The trio, it has emerged, were members of National Socialist Underground – a neo-Nazi terrorist group. In the last decade they were responsible for two nail bombing s, 14 bank robberies, and the murder of ten immigrants and police officers.

Groups like the National Socialist Underground are feared in Germany – and not just for terrorism and murder. The memory of Nazism means Germans are acutely aware of fascism‘s bloody implications, and groups preaching race hate and extreme nationalism are widely condemned.

Germany’s Chancellor has called the latest Nazi revelations a ‘national disgrace’. And her party has reacted with new efforts to outlaw Germany’s largest far-right group, the National Democratic Party.

Renowned for sympathy with Nazism, the NDP base their campaigns on zealous nationalism and racist rhetoric. But while most Germans regard the party as an unacceptable throwback to the Third Reich, it has had enough electoral success to qualify for taxpayer support. Many worry that this popularity demonstrates a growing far-right, that must be stopped.

Seeking to heed the echoes of history and ban the NDP, however, brings a tension with another lesson from Germany’s darkest period. Under the Nazi Third Reich, political dissent was brutally repressed and opposition parties were banned. Now, German law rigorously defends freedom of speech.

While the swastika symbol of Nazism is illegal, parties that hold similar beliefs are allowed to hold demonstrations and to campaign for election. And although the NDP is reviled by the majority of people, its right to exist is enshrined in law.

Lessons from history

With freedom of speech comes a responsibility, many say, to honour the dignity and liberty of others. Abuses of this freedom (like incitement to hatred or violence) can present a dire threat to rights, and even lives. When groups invoke the hateful doctrines of the Nazis – doctrines which caused untold sufferings in Germany and the world – leaders have a responsibility to intervene.

In a free society, others argue, the views of every person must be respected. One of the reasons Nazism was so destructive was its power to silence opposing views: by banning the NDP, Germany’s government will be taking the same anti-democratic measures they are trying to prevent. If we are to combat fascism, it will be by hearing ideas and challenging them – not by abandoning the very freedom we are fighting for.

You Decide

  1. Does the threat of far-right politics justify banning a political party?
  2. Is the universal right to freedom of speech more important than protecting people from ideas that may be damaging?

Activities

  1. When far-right parties run demos in Germany they are often met with even larger demonstrations opposing them. Design a poster encouraging people to protest against fascist politics.
  2. In Britain, controversy erupted when the head of the BNP, a far-right party, was given a platform to speak on popular television showQuestion Time. Research the coverage that surrounded the event, and create a table showing the arguments for and against.

Some People Say...

“Some ideas are too dangerous to be allowed in civilised society.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are Germans particularly concerned about fascism now?
Hitler came to power in a time of immense economic uncertainty, when many Germans wanted strong leadership, and someone to blame. Some are concerned that today’s financial insecurity could lead, once again, to extreme nationalism and aggression towards immigrants.
How did the terrorists walk free for so long?
Evidence suggests the German authorities knew about the terrorists for some time. But many murders were blamed on Turkish gangs. Some question the allegiance of an intelligence officer with ‘known right-wing views’, who was present at several of the murder scenes.

Word Watch

Neo-Nazi
Neo-Nazis want to revive the Nazi ideology of Adolf Hitler. Antisemitism, racism, white-supremacism and nationalism are all defining features of neo-Nazism.
Fascism
Nazism under Hitler is the main example of fascism. But the term can be applied to many other ideologies. The word comes from the Latin fasces, a bundle of rods tied together and used as a symbol of absolute authority in Ancient Rome. Fascism implies extreme nationalism and authoritarian politics.
Third Reich
Another word for Nazi Germany, based on Hitler’s philosophy of a powerful empire.
Nail Bombing
A nail bomb is an explosive device packed with nails and other metal fragments, to maximise the possibility of wounding those in the surrounding area.

Subjects

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.