Berlin's test.

Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany Is Growing More Tolerant of Extremism

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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The values of modern Germany -- and its ability to return to a global leadership role in recent years -- have been based on a blanket rejection of the country's totalitarian past, both Nazi and Communist. That rejection is now being tested as higher tolerance for both left-wing and right-wing extremes begins to emerge.

Two episodes have illustrated this in recent days. One is the acrimonious battle over the exit of one-time Stasi trainee Andrej Holm from the city government in Berlin as well as Humboldt University. The other is a decision by the German constitutional court against banning the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD).

In 1989, when Holm was 18, the German Democratic Republic was just months away from its inglorious demise. Not knowing the end was near, Holm faced the same old life choices, ones that led him to begin to follow his father's footsteps as a Stasi (East German secret police) officer. During high school, he applied to the agency and signed an obligation to cooperate. At 18, he did five months of training -- as a paper-pusher in one of the vast organization's departments, he says, service that counted toward his mandatory military service. Once finished, he would be required to train as a journalist and then go into Stasi service, perhaps under cover.

That never happened. Holm, who is also the grandson of a prominent communist and Nazi regime victim, went on to become a sociologist and a university professor. He stuck to his leftist views and evolved into one of Berlin's most prominent gentrification opponents -- a serious achievement in a quickly gentrifying city that's full of them.

Last year, leftist parties did well in the state election -- Berlin is a German federal state -- and the the Social Democratic Party (SPD) won a plurality, returning Michael Mueller to the mayor's post. On the national level, the SPD is the junior partner in the governing coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democrats. In Berlin, however, it forged a different alliance -- with Die Linke, the successor party of East Germany's ruling communists, and the Green Party. Such a coalition would have been unthinkable just a few years ago -- Die Linke was considered beyond the pale for serious politicians, despite its persistent popularity in the former East. Now, however, the party participates in three state governments including the Berlin one, and last year its member Bodo Ramelow became the party's first post-unification regional prime minister.

Protecting long-time residents in working-class areas from developers and affluent newcomers is the key issue on the party's agenda, so Die Linke tapped Holm to become state secretary for housing policy. But then, in December, a local newspaper revealed his Stasi past and it emerged that he'd lied about it on a questionnaire when Humboldt University hired him. If he hadn't, he might have been disqualified from teaching altogether.

The revelations strained the "Red-Red-Green" coalition. Such scandals are what center-left politicians are afraid of when they negotiate alliances with Die Linke. Such an alliance on a federal level may be the only way to topple Merkel after the September 24 parliamentary election, if the SPD, Die Linke and the Greens together win more than half the votes (current polls give them a combined 40 percent or so). But the SPD doesn't want the Stasi taint: It would be deadly in the Western states. So Mueller called for Holm's resignation, and the professor quit the city government so as not to hurt his party any further.

The university fired him, too -- a decision he is appealing in court. But though that's in line with previous practice of intolerance toward Stasi collaborators, a few things are different. University President Sabine Kunst says she wouldn't have fired Holm had he expressed regret about quibbling on the questionnaire. And students occupied the building where Holm, a popular lecturer, had taught, decorating it with signs that say, "Holm Must Leave? Then We Stay." They don't care about his Stasi gig: It was too long ago, in another country. So perhaps Holm's career isn't over yet despite his adolescent determination to join the East German version of the KGB. His fight for the rights of poor tenants will certainly continue and perhaps even gain momentum: The sudden notoriety has boosted Holm's popularity among his target audience.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the NPD -- the party that fiercely clashes with Die Linke supporters when both demonstrate for opposing causes on the immigration issue -- has gained a lease on life from Germany's constitutional court. German state governments had sued for the party to be banned, but the court returned a curious decision: It said that while the far-right party rejected democracy and pursued anti-democratic goals, which resembled those advocated by the Nazis, "there are no specific and weighty indications that suggest that the NPD will succeed in achieving its anti-constitutional aims."

"It appears to be entirely impossible that the NPD will succeed in achieving its aims by parliamentary or extra-parliamentary democratic means," the court said, arguing, in effect, that the party doesn't have enough of a following for a strong electoral performance or an uprising. Indeed, it's not represented in state governments, and it only won 1.3 percent of the vote in the last national election, far from enough to get into parliament.

Though a previous attempt to ban the party, in 2003, had also failed, the reasons had been different then: The court said that since the party had been infiltrated by government agents, it was unclear whether its true activists or the agents were responsible for the party's ideological face and actions. Now, the court showed a willingness to tolerate a real Nazi-like organization as long as it has no chance at seizing power.

The NPD, of course, no longer even has to try. A different, far milder but still strongly nationalist party, the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) is doing great in local elections and polls. It is now represented in 10 of Germany's 16 state parliaments and poised to get into the federal one this fall. Last week, Bjoern Hoecke, head of the AfD's Thuringia branch, criticized the Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin as a "memorial of shame" and called on Germans to stop apologizing for Nazi crimes. Though AfD co-leader Frauke Petry condemned Hoecke's remarks, it's clear that he's not the only party member with such thoughts. 

Though other parties have called on Germany's domestic intelligence to monitor AfD as an extremist organization on the strength of Hoecke's comments, that's unlikely to happen, if only because of the party's strong popular support -- 13 to 15 percent in recent polls. 

Far-right and far-left ideology caused no end of suffering in Germany in the 20th century. In the 21st, however, both are not-so-marginally acceptable. This could be a sign of normality: After all, Germany has proven that it is more immune to excesses than many other European countries, where extreme parties have come to power, narrowly failed to do so or come dangerously close. But it could also signal the end of the relatively tame German politics that have allowed Merkel to win three elections in a row. It's getting hotter here now.

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:
Mike Nizza at mnizza3@bloomberg.net