BERLIN // Germany has launched a new push to outlaw the far-right National Democratic Party following a public uproar over the chance discovery last month that neo-Nazi terrorists murdered at least nine immigrants and one policewoman since 2000.
But legal experts are warning that outlawing the NPD, described by authorities as racist, revisionist, hostile to the constitution and sympathetic to National Socialism, will be a long-winded and difficult process, and may fail.
"We want to ban the NPD. But if we start the proceedings we must be sure we will succeed," Hans-Peter Friedrich, the national interior minister, said last week. "If we don't win it will be a triumph for the NPD."
Mr Friedrich and the interior ministers from the 16 states agreed last Friday to start assessing the legal requirements for a ban and to decide next year whether to proceed.
Police had consistently ruled out racist motives behind the shooting of eight Turkish shop owners and one Greek man in cities across Germany between 2000 and 2006. But the killings were found last month to have been the work of a neo-Nazi trio, allegedly helped by at least one former member of the NPD.
It was a major embarrassment for the authorities, and has exposed them to accusations that they were blind to the threat posed by right-wing extremists.
Two of the killers, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, committed suicide after a botched bank robbery on November 4. Scores of clues including some of the murder weapons and a grotesque cartoon-style DVD claiming responsibility for all the killings were found in an apartment they had used in the eastern city of Zwickau. The third member, Beate Zschäpe, is in custody. The trio called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU).
The case has sparked urgent calls for a crackdown on Germany's neo-Nazi scene, which is especially virulent in economically depressed parts of the former communist east, where racist attacks on immigrants are commonplace. The NPD swiftly distanced itself from the NSU, stressing that it rejected violence and calling the terrorists "crazy criminals".
But experts on the far right say the party has neo-Nazis among its members and has links with extremist groups.
Bernd Wagner, the founder of an organisation that helps neo-Nazis to quit the scene and one of Germany's leading analysts of right-wing extremism, said it was time the NPD was outlawed.
"The NPD sees itself as part of the so-called National Resistance against universal human rights and democracy. It wants an ethnically-based Reich, and it acts as twin brother to the militant National Socialists," Mr Wagner, a former police officer, told The National in an interview.
"Its leadership is largely made up of Nazis. The NPD is dangerous in that it offers legitimacy and protection to the grandchildren of the original Nazi party, to the successors of the Nazi criminals and war criminals. It gives them a modern political cloak. They are all trying to create a modern neo-Nazi parallel society in Germany, and they are wooing young people."
NPD members have been prosecuted for illegal weapons ownership and racial incitement.
Udo Pastörs, deputy chairman of the NPD, received a 10-month suspended sentence in 2010 for a speech in which he described Germany as a "Jew Republic" and labelled Turkish immigrant men as "sperm cannons".
It is ironic that the far right is being protected by the democratic constitution it so bitterly opposes. Germany has high hurdles to banning parties as a consequence of the Nazi era when political groups were shut down at will.
A previous bid to ban the NPD failed in 2003 when the Federal Constitutional Court threw out the case. The intelligence services, the court argued, had a large number of informants in the party's leadership, which meant that government agents were helping to shape the NPD's policies. That made it impossible to consider the case.
The court's decision gave the NPD a major psychological boost and it went on to win parliamentary seats in two of Germany's regional states. Its nationwide support remains small, though, and it has scant prospects of vaulting the five per cent hurdle needed to win seats in the national parliament.
Politicians want to avoid another failed ban, but they are reluctant to sever ties with informants they say are giving them crucial insights into the extremist scene.
However, the value of informants has come into question following their failure to reveal the existence of the NSU. A report in Spiegel, a news magazine, on Monday said there were more than 130 informants in the ranks of the NPD, which had 6,600 members last year.