Berlin // A major demonstration by German neo-Nazis in Dresden last month and a sharp rise in racist attacks show Germany's far-right is becoming more dangerous even though its main political force, the National Democratic Party, is close to financial collapse. The NPD, a legal party despite its open espousal of Nazi ideology, has embarrassed itself with a series of financial scandals over donations and loans, and its treasurer was jailed last year for embezzling 740,000 (Dh3.49million) The party now faces a possible fine of 1.8m for irregularities in its 2007 accounts.
Its chairman, Udo Voigt, has admitted that the party is an "existential crisis" as a result of its financial problems. He is expected to be ousted at a party congress in April, and there's a bitter dispute over who is to succeed him. One contender, Andreas Molau, withdrew his candidacy after the deputy chairman, Jürgen Rieger, accused him of being "one-eighth Jew". Mr Rieger, a lawyer, is in trouble after a vintage Wehrmacht assault rifle was found in a police search of his private home last month.
But hopes that the NPD's internal problems may be weakening the far-right have proven unfounded. It managed to stage one of its biggest demonstrations since the Second World War on Feb 14 when more than 8,000 neo-Nazis gathered in Dresden to mark the 64th anniversary of the destruction of the city in an Allied bombing raid. Many of them wore black hooded jackets and they carried banners condemning the "Bombing Holocaust" as they marched silently through Dresden.
They were outnumbered by anti-Nazi demonstrators, but the fact that the NPD managed to attract more than twice as many supporters to the event as last year underlines that the far-right scene is growing, especially in the economically depressed former communist east. "Right-wing extremism is steadily expanding, you can see it in the crime statistics," said Professor Hajo Funke, an analyst of the far right at Berlin's Free University.
"The neo-Nazi scene, both inside and outside the NPD, is becoming stronger, not as a nationwide electoral force but in its influence on racist attitudes and violence. There are places I wouldn't advise anyone who looks foreign to go without protection." Far-right crimes reached a new high of 13,985 in 2008, a 28 per cent rise over 2007, according to preliminary figures from the German interior ministry that are expected to be revised upwards.
Offences such as daubing swastikas on headstones in Jewish cemeteries or smashing the windows of takeaway restaurants run by immigrants are so commonplace that they do not usually make headlines. The number of violent far-right crimes such as arson and assault rose by 14.5 per cent to 735 in 2008. The incidence of such attacks is far higher in the east than the west, and anti-Nazi campaigners have been warning for years that parts of the east are no-go areas for immigrants.
Typical cases include the beating of a 44-year-old Pakistani asylum seeker in the town of Brandenburg near Berlin in May. He was attacked from behind by men shouting "Get out of here you pig" and sustained serious head injuries, according to Opferspektive, a government-funded group that monitors such attacks. In Niedergörsdorf near Berlin in June, a one-legged man who was overheard speaking Russian in the street was punched by a neighbour who yelled: "You Russian Jew pig, Hitler would have gassed something like you!"
Prof Funke said despite its internal problems, the NPD remains well organised in the two eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg- Vorpommern, where it has seats in the regional parliaments, and that it may even win enough support to enter the parliament of another eastern state, Thuringia, in an August election. He said the government had underestimated the far-right threat for years, and that police needed to get much tougher on offenders.
"It's irrelevant that the NPD keeps embarrassing itself in the eyes of liberal voters, because they would never support the party anyway," Prof Funke said. "It continues to appeal to people who are frustrated, who are uninterested in democracy or even opposed to it, and who see foreigners as scapegoats for their problems." The financial crisis may boost the NPD, which has proved before that it can win protest votes by tapping discontent about the economy.
In 2004, it won 9.2 per cent in the last regional election in Saxony after it campaigned against jobless benefit cuts. "It's known that right-wing extremists seize on political and economic problems. They offer supposedly simple solutions to issues that people are worried about in an attempt to gain support," said Alrik Bauer, spokesman for the Saxony state intelligence service. But he said there was no sign so far that the NPD was gaining from the financial crisis ahead of a state election in Saxony in August.
The party has more than 7,000 members but many neo-Nazis are not enrolled in the party because they find it too moderate or are not interest in democracy. Authorities have increased spending on projects such as setting up youth centres to prevent young people from joining the neo-Nazis, or funding citizens' advice organisations. But the measures are having little effect. The far-right scene remains a powerful draw for young, uneducated men with poor job prospects.
"There's no force in society that is seriously challenging the scene. Not the domestic intelligence service, not the police, not the more than 3,000 'projects' funded by the various regional governments," said Bernd Wagner, a former police officer who cofounded EXIT, a group that helps people quit the neo-Nazis. "The lure of the scene is far too great," Mr Wagner said. "Who's going to keep young people out of it? Nagging teachers? The priest who's more focused on his crooked church spire? The country policeman who wants a quiet life?"
Mr Wagner said violent neo-Nazis were growing increasingly disenchanted with the NPD's lack of success in nationwide elections. The party scored just 1.8 per cent in the 2005 general election, and is usually well below one per cent. "I have the impression the militant ones have lost faith. That's why they're becoming more uninhibited in their violence. It's a very dangerous trend," Mr Wagner said.