Germany's Federal Constitutional Court is considering whether a political party is racist and should be banned.

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Trump's Nationalist Talk Wouldn't Fly in Germany

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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In the U.S., a politician who calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants and has a problem with Muslims can be the most probable candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. In Germany, the country that once took these impulses to the worst extreme, a party that espouses them faces a ban.

The National Democratic Party (NPD) has long been toxic in German politics. It's a successor to the neo-Nazi Deutsche Reichspartei, which also spawned one of only two parties banned in Germany since World War II -- the Sozialistische Reichspartei. The pedigree inspires few Germans. The NPD has only 5,200 members, and it has never done well in national elections, winning just 1.3 percent of the vote in 2013 -- not enough to get into parliament. It's represented in the legislature of Mecklenburg Western Pomerania, a former East German state (nationalism and white supremacism are especially strong in the eastern lands), and it has one seat in the European parliament. 

Despite these modest achievements, the party is highly visible. It holds lots of rallies and pickets. Recently, it played a major role in helping Russia's propaganda machine play up the case of a 13-year-old Russian-speaking German girl allegedly raped by Middle Eastern immigrants. When some Russian-speaking immigrants, alarmed by the persistent rumors, took to the street, NPD activists were immediately there to beef up their ranks. It later transpired that there had been no rape.

With its heavy-handed xenophobia, the party is something of a caricature of the far right. A recent series of NPD posters invited ridicule because the message -- "Deport Consistently" or "Deport Now" -- merged absurdly with the party's slogan, "Our People First," so that it looked as though the party were calling for the consistent, immediate deportation of Germans before anybody else.

In 2003, the German parliament already voted to ask the Constitutional Court to ban the NPD, but the court refused to do it because most of the evidence against the party came from its members revealed to be so called "V-leute," undercover intelligence operatives and agents. The presiding judge said this made their testimony untrustworthy. For almost a decade, a ban was off the agenda: Chancellor Angela Merkel's governments, although always stating their distaste for the NPD, maintained the party was too small and electorally unsuccessful to be a serious threat to the constitution. Then, in 2011, police discovered that a group called the Nationalist Socialist Underground had been killing immigrants and robbing banks, and the threat of right-wing terrorism came into focus again. Then-NPD leader Holger Apfel denied that the terrorist cell had anything to do with his party, but photographs soon surfaced showing them at an NPD rally. 

The connection was no closer than that between Donald Trump and David Duke, but for German politicians, even such a tenuous tie is a big enough reason to worry. Last year, there were at least 146 clear arson cases in refugee hostels, and at least 41  have occurred since January 1. Though the NPD has framed the accusations against it in terms of freedom of speech, the legislators representing German federal states accuse the party of inciting very real violence.

In December 2013, the upper house of the German parliament, representing the federal states, decided to take the case against NPD to the Constitutional Court again. The German intelligence services say they have deactivated their agents within the party, and this week presiding judge Andreas Vosskuhle made it clear the lawsuit wouldn't be dismissed on the same grounds as in 2003. 

The hearing ended on Thursday, but the decision won't come for another month. The judges appear to agree that the party's program is noxious and incites hatred, but they have to decide whether the NPD, with its tiny numbers, really represents a threat to German democracy. Apfel, who is no longer a party member, described the NPD as a "bugbear" that presents no danger to anyone.

The problem with a ban, of course, is that it won't eliminate the extreme right. In fact, it could only drive it underground. Besides, the German establishment has a much stronger xenophobic force to contend with -- the anti-immigrant, anti-European Union party called Alternative fuer Deutschland, which failed to get into parliament in 2013 but polls about 10 percent now, as many Germans believe the country has taken in too many refugees. The AfD has distanced itself from the NPD and makes a point of not accepting members who have been associated with it. Though the AfD is a bigger political threat, it is not in danger of being banned: It has managed to avoid links to violence, and the rhetoric of its leaders is considered to be on the legal side of the thin line that separates political incorrectness from hate speech. 

On the other hand, it's important for centrist politicians to clearly show AfD where that line lies. By hitting out at the NPD, they're pushing the stronger anti-immigrant party toward the mainstream and away from the radical fringe.

At this point, it's hard to tell the xenophobic utterances of NPD and AfD leaders from each other -- and from Trump's.

Udo Pastoers, a member of the Mecklenburg West Pomerania legislature, was quoted in court as having said of immigrants, "When one spits on police, that is clearly degenerate." That could have been Trump talking at a campaign rally. In the U.S., no one gives such talk a thought; in Germany, it can be seen as an expression of racial hatred. 

Earlier this week, black attendees were roughed up and pushed out of Trump rallies. In Germany, this would have been a huge issue -- the kind of violence that NPD's critics say the party fosters. Were Trump running for office in Germany, he wouldn't just be attacked by establishment politicians. He could also face legal trouble if his "movement" were seen as unconstitutional.

Of course, as conservative candidates keep pointing out, the U.S. is not Germany or any other European country. Free speech protections are stronger in the U.S., and right-wing ideology is more socially acceptable. Yet Germany isn't just a wealthy, almost-socialist country with good roads and a balanced budget; it's also a country that remembers well what a charismatic nationalist politician can do if given free rein. 

The U.S. hasn't had this experience, and perhaps it should look toward Berlin for guidance now. The American tradition does not allow the law to safeguard against extreme nationalism. But the American tradition itself should be doing so: Voters ought to be turned off by un-American rhetoric.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net