Berlin is getting creative in finding ways to thwart neo-Nazis from spoiling a landmark anniversary and the opening of the Holocaust memorial.
Hotly contested space
One could almost imagine the Berlin city official winking after he announced that the German capital will hold a "democracy party" at the Brandenburg Gate on May 8 -- the day marking the 60th anniversary of the capitulation of the Third Reich. It is also the day that neo-Nazis led by the National Democratic Party (NPD) have planned to hold a controversial rally at the historic gate after marching past the new Holocaust memorial.
A Berlin city spokesman said the planned party "is completely independent" of the NPD rally. But with thousands of people invited and multiple events running simultaneously, the neo-Nazis are pushed out by default.
The two-day street festival beginning May 7 will feature cultural performances, political speeches and the live broadcast of a parliamentary debate on the end of World War II from the Reichstag building nearby. A broad movement including German churches, trade unions, political parties and ordinary citizens came up with the idea and has received full backing from Berlin authorities.
"I find it politically unbearable that neo-Nazis could be able to hold their rally at this site on such a sensitive day," said Berlin's Interior Minister Eckehardt Körting. "That is why I fully support those who also want to use the right to demonstrate on that day at this location. Now we have to make a decision on which of the two rallies we want to allow. I assume that an event in which the German parliament participates is considered more important, so the neo-Nazis will have to move to another location."
Flags of the NPD
NPD has the right to march
Berlin’s city authorities now hope that the courts will follow their line of argument and move the NPD rally on the grounds of upholding public security. Just last week, parliament approved a bill intended to keep neo-Nazi demonstrations away from sites dedicated to the victims of the Nazi regime.
But while the new Holocaust memorial in central Berlin will now be specially protected, the Brandenburg Gate will not. German lawmakers couldn’t agree to include the landmark 18th-century gate built by Prussian kings in a catalogue of sensitive sites, with some arguing that Berlin’s most popular location for demonstrations should remain open to public rallies.
Still, politicians coyly maintain that the right to demonstrate must be protected as much as possible and that the NPD has as much a right to its march as other groups, even as it seeks to shut them out.
"Germany’s constitutional court has ruled that the right to demonstrate is one of the most important civil rights in Germany," Körting said. "It must be granted also to those we dislike or even detest. So you cannot simply ban the NPD, which is a registered party here, from rallying at the Brandenburg Gate. The new law only forbids demonstrations that denigrate the victims of Nazism at sites that honor them."
Berlin's new Holocaust memorial
A panic reaction
NPD spokesman Klaus Beier called the initiative "a panic reaction" and vowed to challenge its legality through the courts. "We are going to dig in our heels over the demonstration route," he told the Berliner Zeitung.
Meanwhile, organizers of the festivities hope they are more successful than they were in their last attempts to thwart the NPD. About two years ago, the government wanted to ban the NPD on grounds of unconstitutional political activities. The attempt failed miserably after it became known that the NPD leadership was undermined by undercover secret service agents.
After the futile attempt, opponents of the extreme right mainly used verbal weapons to counter them. But recently, the party has been gaining ground after winning seats in regional elections in eastern Germany last year. And after embarrassing behaviour in the Saxon regional parliament earlier this year and a 4,000-strong demonstration in Dresden in February honoring victims of Allied bombing 60 years ago, politicians began to step up their efforts.
Germany's mainstream parties now fear a high-profile march through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on May 8 could be trumpeted by the far-right as another political victory -- and tarnish the image of German democracy abroad.