The economic crisis has revived fears about the growth of far-right activism in Europe. Generally, these parties and groups seek to gain the support of those sectors of the population that have been affected the most by the crisis — those who have seen their employment or access to public services threatened by economic decline. These groups often blame "outsiders" — either immigrants or ethnic or religious minorities — for the deteriorating living conditions of nationals.
German statistics and anecdotal evidence show that far-right groups are more active in regions that were part of the former East Germany. Despite reunification, the eastern regions have remained less developed economically than the western regions. Unemployment rates in the east, especially among youth, are also higher.
Eastern German regions also have a smaller immigrant presence, which means the population in that area is more homogenous than in western Germany and more sensitive to cultural changes produced by immigration and globalization. The combination of lower economic activity, higher unemployment and lower tolerance for other cultures partly explains the rise of far-right groups in the east.
Germany's main far-right party is the National Democratic Party. This party has been present in German political life since the 1960s. Its political platform is based on a critique of the German political system and the defense of a biological concept of race that separates the "genuine Germans" from others. The National Democratic Party is particularly succesful among young people (especially men) with low levels of education.
The National Democratic Party's power is based at the municipal and regional levels; it has achieved modest success in local elections, especially in the east. The party currently has eight of the 132 seats in the Saxony parliament and five of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern parliament's 71 seats. The National Democrats frequently organize demonstrations and protests and often attack other political groups. Recently, the party has been embroiled in corruption scandals that have damaged its image.
The National Democratic Party often has been accused of having links to violent right-wing groups, and there have been numerous attempts to ban the party. The debate about the party's status shows the delicate balance in Germany between the legal protection of the right to political expression and the constitutional prohibition of pro-Nazi parties.
Other Activist Groups
Outside the political realm, Germany's right-wing groups are a wide variety of small, loosely interconnected organizations. They use the Internet to spread their proclamations and attract members. These groups organize joint activities, ranging from demonstrations (on specific dates such as May Day) to music concerts. Often these groups are involved in vandalism (such as attacks on Jewish cemeteries or marking walls with graffiti) and sometimes carry out physical attacks on immigrants and minorities. These right-wing groups also seek to clash with leftist groups.
Although less common, some right-wing groups are involved in more violent activities. In November 2011, the German police discovered three neo-Nazi activists in the eastern city of Zwickau who were suspected of murdering nine immigrants and a policewoman and carrying out a series of bank robberies that began in 2000. This case generated immediate controversy in Germany, because the group acted with impunity for a decade before being detected by police. Throughout 2012, the German police made numerous arrests and searches looking for other suspects linked to these crimes.
A Change of Strategy
The German government's attempts to combat right-wing extremism have led these activist groups to fragment, become smaller and use new tactics, such as relying more on the Internet to stay connected. Moreover, some of these groups have changed their image. Many of the current right-wing groups do not dress like the neo-Nazi groups of the 1990s. While some have adopted the black color, others are dressed normally in order to blend in with — and more easily infiltrate — the rest of the population. These new kinds of groups are present in sports clubs, local communities, schools and universities. Their goal is to build relationships and slowly attract people from the middle class — indicating that they are moving more toward proselytizing than protest.
Far-right groups have been trying to gain followers from the far left and have thus been focusing on people who are anti-establishment and anti-globalization. Far-right groups have also tried to incite violent actions by minorities — especially Muslims. With their recent protests against the construction of mosques in Germany, right-wing groups were seeking to radicalize Muslims and provoke them to violence. While most Germans understand the difference between the general Muslim population and the radical Salafists, the far-right groups try to establish a link between the two.
Constraints and Potential
The growth of far-right activism in Germany has specific limits. The German electoral system is designed to make it difficult for extremist parties to enter the federal parliament. Germany has an access threshold of 5 percent, which substantially limits fringe parties' ability to gain a place in the federal parliament. This is why extremist parties often enter local and regional legislatures, where the thresholds are usually lower, but fail to make it into the Bundestag. Furthermore, Germany's political tradition leads mainstream parties to refuse to cooperate with the far right. In general, far-right parties are politically isolated.
Economically, Germany is one of the few countries in the eurozone that has continued to grow despite the financial crisis. Although Germany is beginning to feel the effects of the crisis, its unemployment (5.4 percent in the third quarter of 2012) is still below the eurozone average of 11.5 percent. Moreover, the German "safety net" of social security is considered to be strong, which means that the country is prepared to deal with slight increases in unemployment. This explains why anti-establishment proclamations attract only marginal sectors of German society.
Finally, memories of Nazism are still very strong — especially among the older generations — so there is a particular sensitivity about any group or political party linked to far-right ideologies. As a result, far-right parties get an insignificant number of votes in parliamentary elections.
Demographic changes will create challenges for Germany in the coming decades as the country's population shrinks and ages. This likely will make Germany seek more immigrants to mitigate the effects of the reduction of its workforce. Foreign-born populations — especially Muslims — have higher birth rates than the Germans. As a result, the country's demographic profile will change in the coming years. This could stir up resentments among those sectors of the population that feel aggrieved by the changes and might provide fertile ground for right-wing activism. This will create a need for Germany to adapt to the new social, political and economic environment that will emerge.