Far-Right German Party Tries to Remake Its Image With its anti-foreigner line, Germany's National Democratic Party has drawn criticism. Now, the party is trying to change its image, portraying its members as victims of intolerance.
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Far-Right German Party Tries to Remake Its Image

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Far-Right German Party Tries to Remake Its Image

Far-Right German Party Tries to Remake Its Image

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And let's move next to Germany where a party opposed to foreigners wants to remake its image. Because of its Nazi history, Germany tried to ban the right-wing National Democratic Party, or NPD. The party has links to violent groups, but it's attempting a makeover, even portraying its members as victims of intolerance.

We have more this morning from NPR's Emily Harris reports.

EMILY HARRIS: The way Stella Palau sees it, she got unfairly kicked out of a parent/child co-op because of her political beliefs. She's a leading member of the NPDs executive committee, but for about a year no one at the co-op knew that.

Ms. STELLA PALAU (Member, National Democratic Party): (Through translator) The first thing was a phone call from one of the mothers who said they were really disappointed and didn't want to see me there anymore. I understood because they have a completely wrong image of us.

(Soundbite of child)

HARRIS: Palau chats with her daughter and cuddles her 18-month-old son on a park bench at a playground. She told her nearly four-year-old girl the children's center has closed. Palau says she didn't try to talk politics with the other moms at the co-op, but stuck to topics like children's health and nutrition.

Ms. SUSANNE MOSCH (Director, Parent/Child Co-op): (Through translator) She sat here with us, sang songs with us, just like the other mothers. We talked a lot. She was a completely normal mother.

HARRIS: Susanne Mosch runs the co-op. She had never met a member of the NPD until Palau brought her daughter in. And Mosch was shocked to learn that Palau was a proponent of what Mosch considers dangerous and extreme views. Now Mosch feels abused.

Ms. MOSCH: (Through translator) Of course, no one is here to express their political beliefs, but she intentionally kept back a lot of things.

HARRIS: The NPD is controversial in Germany because it takes a hard anti-foreigner line and says it wants to preserve German culture. Ties to groups who work to overthrow the government or violent groups who beat up foreigners are difficult to prove. But even some active party members admit recruiting from extreme organizations. They are also aware that that's a problem for their image.

Academics and officials who study the far-right say the NPD is now trying new tactics, organizing volunteer fire brigades in small towns, or putting on children's festivals - anything to be seen as more mainstream. They're up against people like Alexander Froelich.

Mr. ALEXANDER FROELICH (Journalist): The NPD, it's just a party, but it represents a scene in Germany - a radical, violent scene.

HARRIS: Froelich is a journalist who specializes in tracking the far-right. He informed the co-op's staff that Palau is a leading member of the NPD after seeing her picture in the paper at a co-op event. Even though Palau has no record of criminal activity and belongs to a legal political party, Froelich believes he was right to warn the public.

Mr. FROELICH: The press in Germany always judges about people. It's normal. I think that's why the press is there. I'm just based on the Grundgesetz, you know, on the constitution. For me the NPD is an enemy. They don't want this constitution.

HARRIS: Palau says she's being tarred with too wide a brush.

Ms. PALAU: (Through translator) My personal opinion is not being heard; it's generalized. In Germany, everything we call right-wing, or nationalist, is bad. And there is no gradation, no differentiation.

HARRIS: She won't say she's been discriminated against. But the perception that certain views are stifled because of Germany's World War II guilt is powerful among far-right sympathizers. Using the anonymity of online chat rooms, they say the Web is the only space they can voice their opinions without alienating neighbors or losing customers.

NPD official Patrick Wieschke says this sense of victimhood helps unite the party.

Mr. PATRICK WIESCHKE (National Democratic Party): (Through translator) The pressure of persecution against the NPD really strengthens the cohesion of the party members. Because of the fight against us, there's more camaraderie in our group than in other parties.

HARRIS: Germany has long banned certain slogans and symbols associated with Hitler. At the same time, far-right groups have the constitutional right to gather and demonstrate. They are almost always protected by police.

(Soundbite of rally)

HARRIS: As they were last month at the European nationalist festival in the eastern German town of Jena. Among thousands of counter-demonstrators was mayoral chief of staff Matthias Bettenhaeuser. He says people should confront the NPD on the streets and at the ballot box, not try to restrict their speech.

Mr. MATTHIAS BETTENHAUSER (Mayoral Chief of Staff): If it's a strong democracy, they should be able to live with these opinions, like we have in France, for instance, or in the U.S.A. But in Germany, I think the German democracy is strong enough to do this, but the laws are as they are at the moment.

HARRIS: Other opponents of the NPD aren't ready to go that far. They say the country where Adolf Hitler took power legally nearly 75 years ago still needs certain restrictions.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Berlin.

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