On Right-Wing Extremism in the State of Brandenburg

The State of Brandenburg formerly belonged to East Germany (GDR) and is, with 29480 km2, the fifth largest state in Germany. A special characteristic of Brandenburg is that, as a territoral state, it is sparsely populated and, according to the most recent figures of the State Statistical Institute Berlin-Brandenburg, the number of people per square kilometer is only 86. This is the second lowest figure of all 16 states in Germany; for example in Bavaria, which is considered the most densely populated, you will find 177 people per square kilometer. Moreover, since unification, Brandenburg has been one of the most economically deprived states in the whole of Germany, struck with a a high unemployment rate of 14.7%, leading to a very low monthly median net earnings of private households, namely 1,539 €. Due to a depressing economic perspective, Brandenburg has seen a de-populization of young people, particularly females.

In addition to these unfavorable facts, Brandenburg is currently reported as having one of the highest levels of racially motivated crimes, as well as hostilility towards foreigners. In 2007, there were 137 cases of right-wing violence in Brandenburg—a figure that mirrors similar annual violence rates from the start of 2002. Racially motivated violence spurred by right-wing extremists did not begin then; high rates have been well documented from the beginning of reunification. No one can forget the case of Amadeu Antonio, a contract worker from Angola living in Brandenburg who was beaten into a coma by 50 neo-nazi youths carrying baseball bats and who later died as a result of the incident. Since this incident on November 25th 1990, racially motivated crime has only increased in Brandenburg.  

What is it, then, about Brandenburg that can explain these uniform levels of violence? It would only be speculation on our part if we answered definitively why right-wing extremist sentiments exist in the first place, and especially how these sentiments escalate into physical violence. We are, however, more fit to articulate reasons why Brandenburg’s citizens vote for the Deutsche Volksunion (DVU) and the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the far-right parties in the state. In the state elections in 1999 and 2004, the DVU got 5 and 7 seats respectively, out of a total 88 seats in the parliament. There exists a link, no matter how understated, between support for far right-wing parties and racially motivated crimes in the area, especially if these crimes have right-wing extremist overtones. This link thus assumes that most racially motivated crimes are perpetrated by individuals who also go out and vote for the DVU. We believe this to be generally true given the DVU’s ultranationalist and anti-foreigner platform, as well as it being the only party in the state parliament to hold these positions. However, it is also widely recognized that the DVU’s vote share comes largely from protest voters who complain about social and economic living conditions in Brandenburg.  

If far-right parties like the DVU also appeal to a working class fed up with their social and economic condition, why do we still regard these parties as antidemocratic or incompatible with democratic stability? We regard these parties as problematic due to their association with those who are considered Neo-Nazis and/or ultranationalists. It is unclear whether these parties create, or only further perpetuate, right-wing extremist sentiments amongst their members and supporters. Our problem (or complaint) is that they must have at least one of these effects. Liberal society, for historical reasons, is also afraid that if far right-wing parties gain too much momentum, they will overturn democratic values in favor of fascist ones. These parties continually reject with complete intransigence the creation of social, economic and political institutions that demand equality across races and ethnicities and effectuate the benefits of diversity, starting from permissive immigration and citizenship policies. This exacerbates our fears that far-right parties are not loyal to our conception of liberal democracy—one that champions equality and works towards converging the lifestyles of its citizens and the choices available to them—a conception we value greatly. To put it more simply, even if far right-wing parties have the trappings of democratic organizations, we see them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” 

Given that far-right parties like the DVU and the NPD draw support from protest voters who are not Neo-Nazis or ultranationalists, is there also a justified fear that these voters may become more extreme as a result of their parties’ propaganda? Economic deprivation has long been associated with support for extremist views. This form of deprivation often makes individuals more susceptible to propaganda: those seeing their material conditions worsening need to assign blame, which provides a signal to political parties as to how best to represent these people, namely by assigning blame, no matter how untrue. From here, the possibility then exists for potential far-right parties to (in)directly produce more Neo-Nazis and ultranationalists out of ordinary, albeit dissatisfied individuals. Struggles for preeminence of, say, the DVU and its supporters, may often translate into physical violence against those perceived as blameworthy and “being in the way.” It is quite clear, for all these reasons, why far-right parties are problematic for democracies and in our case, for the prosperity of Brandenburg.  
  
For Brandenburg, a far-right movement is already a reality. It comes in the form of the DVU – the party that has gained seats in the state parliament in the last two elections, and the NPD that acts only on a local level. Grassroots organizations can fight right-wing extremism on a local level, such as through education, but they are limited in the political arena, unlike parties that have access to the state legislature and are directly confronted by the far-right parties. Due to this reality, it becomes absolutely critical for other mainstream parties to employ strategies in tackling both right-wing extremism and the parties that harbor and echo these sentiments. 

Enemy of the State: Far-Right Parties in Brandenburg 

The Deutsche Volksunion in Brandenburg

The DVU was founded in 1987 by Dr. Gerhard Frey and has, since then, been led by him in an authoritarian and centralized manner. Frey helps to publish right-wing extremist literature and uses the party to sell all types of far-right merchandise. Since September 1999, the DVU has been part of the state legislature in Brandenburg and has managed to increase their election returns from 5.3% to 6.1% in September 2004. There is thus speculation, as to whether the DVU will make it into the legislature for the third time in upcoming elections next year in September. The presence of the DVU in parliament for almost 9 years begs the question: why is this party so successful in Brandenburg? On the other hand, it can be argued that holding seats in parliament is not necessarily a relevant indicator of success. Since their parliamentary representatives are mainly ignored by other parties and the number of active party members is rather small (a few hundred), their actual success and ability to influence public discourse might be overestimated.  

A report of the Verfassungsschutz of the State of Brandenburg (Brandenburg Office for the Protection of the Constitution) identifies three main possible sources of vote support for right-wing extremist parties, namely staunch supporters, voters who know their candidate personally and protest voters. According to the report, the DVU most likely attracts votes from the latter in Brandenburg. In their political analysis of the election results of 2004, the other mainstream parties in the legislature reached similar conclusions. The DVU attracted many protest voters whilst campaigning using slogans like “Fed up to the back teeth? Vote for DVU this time!” The DVU benefited mainly from the widespread public protest and dissatisfaction caused by the adoption of the so-called Hartz IV reform in the run-up to elections. This reform made significant cutbacks in social welfare benefits for unemployed persons. Rüdiger Scholz, spokesperson of the CDU faction in Brandenburg, explains that surveys after the elections showed that about 75% of the DVU support base voted for reasons of dissatisfaction and protest. 

Dr. Gideon Botsch, researcher at the Moses Mendelssohn Zentrum in Potsdam and co-editor of a recently published book on right-wing extremism in Brandenburg, describes the DVU as a two-issue party: they mainly focus on issues about German national identity and (anti)immigration. Like all far right-wing parties, the DVU appeals to social and economic concerns as a way to connect to voters, and from there it hopes to connect voters to its other more antidemocractic and racist attitudes. In contrast, while the Verfassungsschutz describes the party as anti-Semitic, it does not consider it racist, labeling the party's political arguments as being nationalistic in nature. The party’s aims are formulated as demands for a type of "Germans first" policy, and produce subsequent accusations towards anyone trying to prevent this from happening. For many years, the DVU had the largest number of members among all the right-wing extremist parties, but its heyday seems to be over. In its most recent assessment of right-wing extremism, the Verfassungsschutz in Brandenburg sees the DVU on the decline. Furthermore, the activities of the DVU on the state level are described as very weak, which is partly caused by the party structure that leaves little room for individual opinions and activities of members. In short, the DVU has been suffering a decline in the number of members directly working on behalf of the party in Brandenburg. 

The Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands in Brandenburg  

The NPD is very active on a local level in several communities in Brandenburg and is also considered the quintessential far-right party in all of Germany. Unlike the DVU, which tries to preserve a democratic image, the NPD openly recruits Neo-Nazi activists, sometimes even those who have a criminal background. The NPD tries to employ a threefold strategy: "the struggle for the minds, the streets, and the parliaments." Far from being inactive, the NPD increased its party members in Brandenburg from 130 in 2004 to 250 in 2007, tying them with the number of members working for the DVU. The NPD is also considered to be the biggest party among the right-wing extremists in terms of members, state- and nation-wide. 
   
In 2004 the DVU and NPD signed an agreement, Deutschlandpakt, which stipulates that the two parties will not compete with each other in the same electoral districts. As a result of this agreement, the DVU stood for elections in Brandenburg, whereas the NPD did so in Saxony—both parties won seats in their respective legislatures. Had the NPD stood for elections in Brandenburg, the DVU might have faced difficulties in getting the amount of votes necessary to exceed the 5% hurdle that bans smaller parties from getting into legislatures in Germany. But with the cooperation and support of the NPD, the DVU comfortably exceeded the hurdle with 6.1%. So far it is not clear whether the NPD will stand for communal elections next autumn because the deadline to register for the election list is not yet over. Therefore, it is very difficult to forecast whether the NPD will become even more successful at Brandenburg's community level. 

The Verfassungsschutz articulates the possibility that the NPD will challenge the DVU during statewide elections in 2009 and break the Deutschlandpakt. A fusion of both parties cannot be ruled out, either. Dr. Botsch guesses that half of the six members in DVU are closely tied with the NPD and are in favor of a closer connection to the NPD. Both parties jointly publish leaflets and prominent party members of the DVU are known to attend NPD events—all suggesting close cooperation between the two parties. Moreover, the NPD, which is constantly afflicted with financial difficulties, is unlike the DVU in this manner. The latter is much more resourceful due to the generous financial support of its wealthy party leader Dr. Frey, who is considered to be the richest right-wing extremist in Germany. The advantages of fusing both parties are obvious: a complete consolidation of power could occur and generate more voter support than is normally expected. There are, however, a significant number of DVU members who do not want to be associated with the NPD due to their more aggressive demeanor. It will be interesting to see how the politics between both parties play out in the future. 
Political Strategies against Far-Right Parties  

To ban or not to ban...? 

Political theorists suggest two basic political strategies that can be employed to fight right-wing extremism: banning the extremist parties from the political scene or fighting them in the political arena. Strongly influenced by the burden of the Nazi past, the Constitution of German Federal Republic (Article 20, paragraph 2) authorizes the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht) to ban all antidemocratic symbols and organizations. The National Socialist Party (NSDAP) was been banned early on (in accordance with Potsdam Agreement), and a similar fate reached two other parties that held antidemocratic ideologies during the 1950s. When the NPD was founded in 1964, many of its founders had previously been members of the “Socialist Party of the Reich” (SRP), the first political party to be banned in Germany in 1952. Since its inception, there have been unsuccessful efforts to identify the NPD as a successor to the Nazi party and, thus, to ban it. The party's success was stagnant during periods of economic boom in the 1970s and 80s, and as a result, its activities were not in the limelight. It was only after reunification and the mid-1990s that public discourse was directed against the NPD with regards to viewing them as a threat to democracy. 

One major attempt to deal with the NPD was made by the federal government led by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2003. The case, brought to the Federal Constitutional Court, was dismissed due to uncertainty surrounding government informants who infiltrated the NPD. The unresolved question remained as to whether these informants were themselves responsible for illegal activity for which the party as a whole was to be charged. In short, we can interpret attempts to ban far right parties as general political strategies in tackling the problem of extremism. But is it fruitful to continue attempts to ban the NPD? Other major parties are hesitant to support such an initiative: "A second failure would be a disaster and this why we must analyze the situation very carefully,"1 argued Otto Schily, former Federal Minister of the Interior. Today, the notion of banning is somewhat less present in public discourse. Nevertheless, some political parties, notably the Social Democrats (SPD) and The Left (Die Linke), still officially favor a ban, even though there are existing arguments that banning may be counterproductive because it would further radicalize right-wing extremism to an even greater degree. Dr. Botsch does not agree: “Would banning the NPD harm the right-wing extremist community? Definitely! It would be a very heavy blow for them. Since the NPD has radicalized itself very much in last few years, I don’t think that a ban would result in additional radicalization, and it is not so easy to replace a 40 year old organization of such a structure in a short period of time.”

Although not in favor of banning political parties in general, Dr. Botsch argues that, according to the German Constitution, any kind of National-Socialist party is forbidden and the NPD is becoming a modern equivalent of, and successor to, the Nazi party. Therefore, a new attempt at a ban might be an inevitable outcome of the NPD’s recent radicalization. But until that happens, fighting the NPD by conventional democratic means in the political arena remains a more viable option. 

How to deal with the unloved political urchin in parliament? 

Once right-wing extremists gain seats in the legislature, other parties are faced with the following dilemma: if we ignore, say, the DVU, we also defy the democratic promise to recognize democratically elected parties. On the other hand, if we involve these extreme parties in legislative work, we provide them with a public platform from which they can gain more popularity in the future. According to a study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, there are basically three ways of dealing with far-right parties in the legislature, the first being to ignore, segregate and silently condem them, the second being to act apathetically towards them, leaving room for potential cooperation, and the third is to engage in self-confident debate with their arguments in an effort to unmask their destructive agenda. 

After the elections in 2004, only four parties are represented in the Brandenburg state parliament. Those parties are: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (SPD) with 33 seats, Die Linke with 29 seats, Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands (CDU) with 20 seats, and the DVU with 7 seats. The governing coalition is formed by SPD and CDU, with Die Linke being the only significant opposition party. As the spokesperson for the CDU, Mr. Rüdiger Scholz explains that in the parliament of Brandenburg, mainstream parties apply the first strategy whilst actively segregating the DVU. In order not to pay too much attention to the DVU's motions, only one delegate of the Social Democrats (SPD) or Christian Democrats (CDU) will briefly comment on them and afterwards all parties dismiss them (even if they agree with the DVU on the motion). 
 
It is thought that “super-election year 2009,” when Brandenburg will hold its legislative elections on the same day as federal elections, may either largely increase, or, alternatively, significantly decrease the number of votes that the DVU will win at the state level. The coinciding of state and federal elections was decided by Brandenburg’s legislative steering committee. No matter whom you ask though, joint elections done in this manner are expected to increase total voter turnout in Brandenburg since it becomes increasingly costly to stay at home as you miss out on elections on both levels of government. CDU-Spokesperson in Brandenburg, Rüdiger Scholz, argues that this will inadvertently decrease the vote share for the DVU. He estimates that larger turnout means larger vote support for the CDU and other mainstream parties. As a result, that should reduce the number of seats available to the DVU, assuming that the DVU gets similar election returns compared to previous elections. An official DVU press release on the matter, however, postulates that greater turnout will result in greater DVU support (and not the same as in the previous election) which would garner more seats, further subtracting available seats from all other parties. The actual results of this election may hint at a potential political strategy in preventing the DVU from gaining a large number of seats in elections after 2009. If, for example, these dual elections result in a decrease in votes for the DVU, then the state of Brandenburg, if it aims to decrease the far-right's political power in its state, should continue to coincide its legislative elections on the same day as federal legislative elections. Unfortunately, even if this approach yields positive results, difference in election intervals (5 years on state level, and 4 years on federal level) would make it usable only once in every 20 years, when federal and state elections actually take place in the same year. 

Of course, we must wait to see if dual elections have such an effect. “In most cases, there is a connection between a high percentage of voters and a lower success of right-wing parties. However, in last few years we had some examples where right-wing parties made good results even with high number of voters,” says Dr. Botsch. He is not absolutely convinced that the strategy of the current government to combine federal and state elections in order to attract more voters, and thus decrease the percentage of support for extremist parties will work. Nevertheless, the idea is certainly worth examining, and the elections next year will provide grounds for experiments. 

Evaluating Political Strategies 

Dr. Botsch argues that, “In direct confrontation with right-wing extremism, most parties in Brandenburg are on the right track.” He further asserts that the CDU is dealing with the problem by using legal measures, for instance by promoting police repression against Neo-Nazi groups. On the other hand, Die Linke's focus is more on a societal level and they aim to improve social and economic conditions, hoping that this will cut right-wing extremism off at its roots. In response to this, though, Dr. Botsch argues that "the real problem is that there are no empirically based studies that compare the effectiveness of different strategies." He also emphasizes the connection between macroeconomic policies and voting for extremist parties. For example, in Brandenburg, the government prefers investments in fast developing parts of the state, which then function as secure lighthouses for the region. There are a lot of investments in the Potsdam area, the capital of the State of Brandenburg, but poor rural areas continue to be neglected. This makes it easier for far right-wing parties to reach the electorate in poor areas of the state through exploiting their dissatisfaction with economic and social circumstances in the area. 

At the same time, other political parties show little or no interest in reaching voters in poor and economically neglected areas. Probably the most obvious reason for this is related to a cost–benefit analysis utilized to decide where to invest campaigning resources. Due to difficult economic situations, poor electorates' political views tend to be shifted towards the right and generally unfriendly to mainstream political parties. This makes poor electorates less appealing to other mainstream parties. Secondly, poor electorates are spread out and various sections of these groups are small in number. Given parties' limited funding and staff, they deem it rational to ignore this type of citizenry, leaving this group as bait for extreme right parties who undertake the effort of approaching voters even in distant rural areas. As already mentioned in the introduction, Brandenburg is struck with a high unemployment rate of 14.7% and is relatively sparsely populated. The DVU and the NPD take advantage of the frustration of voters and the fact that other major political parties show no interest in these areas. By addressing local everyday problems, and directing the dissatisfaction of people towards the current government and the immigrant population in Germany, the NPD and the DVU have succeeded in churning out good electoral results and are becoming publicly accepted in those areas. 
  
Unless other mainstream political parties decide to make an intentional effort to approach voters in rural and distant areas, we can only expect an increase in the popularity of extremist parties in those regions. Since that effort is cost-inefficient, and there are no initiatives amongst other major parties to address far right-wing support at its sources, the future of the situation does not seem so bright. 

The rising popularity of right-wing extremist parties in eastern Germany, stemming from a number of root causes, such as dissatisfaction with the economic siutation as well as the performance of the other established parties, is surely alarming. Slightly comforting is the fact that the majority of support comes from protest voters rather than ideologically devoted Neo-Nazis. When will we know if right-wing extremism becomes a pandemic? Botsch offers a response, saying that "I think we’ll know it if real right-wing mobilization infiltrates academia and the students and intellectuals become infected." Academic communities are traditionally progressive areas of society, yet they are still relatively passive towards the NPD and the DVU. There are even some unexpected exceptions like the recent success of the NPD in the student parliament at the University of Applied Sciences in Magdeburg (Sachsen-Anhalt); this probably represents an important and alarming indicator of rising extremism in the region. 

It is apparent that the political strategies used by the mainstream parties focus on mitigating far-right party power, either through outright banning, decreasing future vote share in elections, or ignoring these parties during legislative sessions. The inference here is that there is not much to be done to prevent people from voting for far-right parties in the first place—to deal with extremist sentiments and support at the source. Of course it is difficult to pinpoint where the source lies, but given that the DVU gets most of its support from protest voters, it seems obvious that if other mainstream parties just campaigned more strategically in poorer areas, this could significantly take away from the DVU's vote base. The potential benefit from taking away the DVU's vote base is immense – without votes, the far right party may never even reach the steps of the parliament, undercutting its political agenda from the start. 

References

Online sources/web sites: 

Nelles, Roland, and Steingart."The Threat of the NPD: Rise of German Right-Wing Party Evokes Ghost of Past , Spiegel January 31, 2005, http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,339604,00.html .  
  
“Jews urge lawmakers to ban NPD”. Israel Jewish Scene, Ynetnews  
http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3532736,00.html . 
  
Winkler, Mathis. “Attack Turns Spotlight on Right-Wing Extremism in Germany”,Deutsche Welle, April 19, 2006, Deutsche Welle, 
http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,1973949,00.html . 
  
RAXEN Bulletin (4). European forum for migration studies, Otto-Friedrich-University Bamberg, http://www.efms.uni-bamberg.de/pdf/Bulletin%204_2007.pdf . 
  
RAXEN Bulletin (1). European forum for migration studies, Otto-Friedrich-University Bamberg, http://www.efms.uni-bamberg.de/pdf/Bulletin%201_2005.pdf . 
  
“German government moves to ban neo-Nazi party: What are consequences of banning NPD”.World Wide Socilaist Web Site.  
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2000/nov2000/npd-n11.shtml .  
  
“Is Brandenburg all bad?”. MUT gegen rechte Gewalt. 
http://www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de/eng/news/news-in-english/brandenburg 
  
“Who was Amadeu Antonio.” Amadeu-Antonio-Stiftung. 
https://www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de/eng/about-us/who-was-amadeu-antonio/ 
  
“Statistics of Right-Wing Violence in Brandenburg.” Opferperspektive. 
http://www.opferperspektive.de/English/Monitoring 

Reports: 

Ministerium des Innern des Landes Brandenburg, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz. Verfassungsschutzbericht Land Brandenburg, 2007. 
  
Ministerium des Innern des Landes Brandenburg, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz. Verfassungsschutzbericht Land Brandenburg, 2005. 
  
Ministerium des Innern des Landes Brandenburg, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz. Verfassungsschutzbericht Land Brandenburg, 2004. 
  
Ministerium des Innern des Landes Brandenburg, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz. Verfassungsschutzbericht Land Brandenburg, 2006  

Interviews: 

Dr. Gideon Botsch, research assistant Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies, Potsdam, Germany. June 30, 2008. 
  
Rüdiger Scholz, Spokesperson CDU faction Brandenburg, Potsdam, Germany. June 26, 2008. 
  
Reinhard Frank, Spokesperson Die Linke Brandenburg, Potsdam, Germany. June 26, 2008. 
  
Matthias Osterburg, treasurer Die Linke Brandenburg, Potsdam, Germany. June 26, 2008. 

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