German far Right party builds support
By Harry de Quetteville in Stralsund
Last Updated: 2:04am BST 05/09/2007
In the municipal park of the pretty German port of Stralsund this weekend, 27-year-old Doreen Geisler watched her three children play at a town fair.
Among the attractions were free hot dogs and face painting, egg-and-spoon races and a bouncy castle. Amid all the tents and games and shrieking of delighted toddlers however, dozens of red and white flags fluttered in the wind, emblazoned with the letters: NPD. It was their party. Here in the Baltic home state of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany's far Right National Democratic Party – often associated with skinheads and steel-toed boots – is pursuing a softer, path to power.
“There are not many fun opportunities for children here,” said Mrs Geisler, cradling her one year baby, Robin. “It doesn't matter that this is run by the NPD. What matters is that the children have fun.”
The NPD is flourishing in former East Germany and in this region, where unemployment hovers at about 20 per cent, old industry has yet to find a successor, and young women are leaving in droves.
In state elections last September, it won more than seven per cent of the vote to put six members in the regional parliament.
At the fair on Sunday, Michael Andrejewski -one of the NPD members elected last autumn – explained the party's agenda.
“We want Germany to be inhabited first of all by the German people,” he said. “We want Germany to be mono-cultural, not multi-cultural. We want to stop immigration and reduce the number of foreigners.”
He also outlined the NPD's suspicion of “the power of big banks and big business”.
In the past, such aims have frequently seen the NPD accused of racism and anti-Semitism.
An EU study shows that hate crimes by the far Right in Germany rose by 15 per cent last year in Germany to 17,597 incidents.
But while far Right sympathisers deal out the beatings, the NPD is building its base with a subtler programme of social outreach that critics describe as insidious and highly successful.
“The NPD is trying to create this image that it is doing something for people who feel they have been isolated from government,” said Gnter Hoffmann, an expert in extremism at the Berlin Centre for Democratic Culture.
“It is the same strategy as Hamas among Palestinians.”
The NPD's social outreach programme is not limited to children's fairs. Since the elections last year, it has set up so-called “Brgerbro” – NPD-run walk-in offices which act as community centres. There, locals can gather for a game of cards or table football.
“The Brgerbro are a central part of life, not just political but social,” said NPD chief in Stralsund, Stefan Kster.
Among the services the NPD provides there are consultation sessions with lawyers to help people understand and claim their full entitlement from Germany's fiendishly complex benefit system.
Mr Hoffmann said the NPD was already reaping dividends from its change in tactics. “In some towns the NPD is now getting 15-20 per cent support,” he said. “Two years ago voting for the NPD was socially disgusting. Now it's seen as OK. That's a big success for the NPD. Its social outreach is working.”
But he warned: “While the NPD has changed its face, there is still a clear link to militant neo-Nazis”.
At the fair in Stralsund, one respectable middle-aged woman pushed children on plastic cars around the fair. As she did so, a black sun insignia stood out on her ring — a mystic sign notably used by the top ranks of the Nazi SS.