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European Schizophrenia About the Far Right

The European Union wrestles with ways to foster minority viewpoints without subsidizing tomorrow's Hitlers.

Germany's neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party, has had a bad year. Trouble with the federal government and a bad round of elections dashed its ambitions for 2009 — the party wanted to gain influence, not lose it, in a number of German states — which is good news. The bad news is that it remains a legitimate German party.

The NPD has representatives in two state legislatures, and ever since it won the first of those seats in 2004 the Berlin government has been bound by law to fund the NPD. That's right: In Germany, where public praise of Hitler is illegal, a party that dreams of establishing a Fourth Reich receives federal cash.

The NPD survives in a crevice between two of Germany's post-war traditions. One forbids open Nazism — flying a swastika, praising Hitler, singing Nazi songs, calling for a new Holocaust. The other says that the state itself can't ban a legal political party. The state actually has to support any group that jumps the low hurdle for state-level representation (5 percent). The NPD pays lip service to democratic process and poses as a patriotic, hard-right opposition party — minimum standards to stay legal — but it's not hard to puzzle out its true aim.

"The aim," a former member named Uwe Luthardt told Spiegel magazine last year, "is the restoration of the Reich, in which new storm troopers take revenge on anyone who disagrees with them."

"Does that also apply to the moderate wing?" asked the magazine.

"There is no moderate wing," said Luthardt. "The few isolated moderates there are have no say. The media training courses at party headquarters are very effective. The members know how they must sell themselves. It starts with the instruction that any meeting with outsiders must be held in innocuous offices. ... The Jena party headquarters deserves its name 'Brown House' [because of its Brownshirt or Nazi paraphernalia]. No journalist has ever been in there."

It disgusts most German politicians that the government should funnel money to the NPD. But a number of efforts to ban the party have failed, precisely because the nation's postwar constitution has such strong protections for smaller parties.

The European Union exhibits the same schizophrenia. Parties that form large enough alliances in the EU parliament can receive EU funding.

Last November the British National Party and France's National Front hung out their shingles for a third partner to attract "money for political activities." The rationale is that any bloc of legislators large enough to form a "grouping" among like-minded parties from different EU nations will become an active force in the EU parliament. These blocs can apply for 85 percent of their working costs in Brussels.

Nick Griffin, head of the BNP, said his party stood to win £360,000 — almost half a million U.S. dollars — for its two EU seats. "It is important for British taxpayers to get some money back," he said at the time.

The far-right group missed its deadline for money in 2010. But in private, Griffin has made clear that his party's spruced-up image has no more honor than the NPD's.

"The British National Party isn't about selling out its ideas, which are your ideas, too," he told a gathering of white nationalists in Texas in 2000, standing next to David Duke, "but we are determined, now, to sell them. And that means basically to use saleable words. Freedom, security, identity, democracy ... nobody can come at you and attack you on those ideas. They are saleable."

The fact that Griffin may yet sell his repackaged ideas to the EU for half a million dollars is a scandal, but it's one logical result of the social-democratic idea, which in practice maintains that anyone legally recognized by the state also deserves a little help from the state.

The American idea — tougher, more anarchic, less indulgent — lets fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan say what they like and wither, instead of watering them with public funds. (Public campaign finance in the U.S. is patchwork at best.) But it also shuts out legitimate third parties. The American system sometimes resembles a country club with high walls, a two-party cotillion with privileges for wealthy guests.

That argument, unfortunately, is the one David Duke exploits when he argues for better American campaign-finance schemes. It's also an argument he fails to make without bashing Jews. "Every American who wants an America that defends the heritage and rights of our people should ardently support public financing of elections," he has said. "It is no wonder that the most powerful Jewish extremist organizations in America oppose it."

The bright side of the story is that bigots and anti-democrats rarely stay "saleable" for long.

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