A far cry that sounds just like Hitler: Germany's right-wing Republicans are poised to gain seats in the Bundestag. Adrian Bridge in Berlin meets their leader, soft-spoken Franz Schonhuber

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The Independent Online
WHEN Franz Schonhuber heard in December that the far-right Republican party he leads was to be put under observation on suspicion of being anti-democratic, his reaction was provocative: 'Greetings from Hitler]'

At a time when hundreds of thousands of Germans were taking to the streets in candle-lit protests against the xenophobic violence that claimed 17 lives last year, and amid much soul-searching over a possible revival of the Nazi past, it was not exactly a diplomatic response nor, it seemed, one calculated to win Mr Schonhuber new friends. 'These are the methods of the police state,' the 70-year-old former Waffen SS member fumed, 'but such attacks only ever strengthen me.'

He may well have had a point. Despite the efforts to convince the world that Germany is indeed a foreigner-friendly country that has no truck with the perceived brown- shirt tendencies of Mr Schonhuber and his friends, 8.3 per cent of voters in local elections in the western Land (state) of Hesse earlier this month stuck up two fingers and brought them down to mark a cross for the Republican party.

It was a dramatic improvement on the 0.7 per cent registered by the party at the local elections in Hesse in 1989. In Frankfurt, Germany's financial capital and a city with one of the highest foreigner quotas (26 per cent) in the country, the Republicans managed to notch up 9.5 per cent. In some of Hesse's other towns and depressed inner- city areas, their calls for more 'law and order' and the immediate expulsion of 'foreign criminals' saw them climb as high as 15 per cent.

'These are not simply protest voters,' a buoyant Mr Schonhuber proclaimed in his office at the European parliament in Strasbourg, shortly after the result was declared. 'These are people who have listened to what we are saying, and who like it. This was not a vote against the mainstream parties, but a vote for the Republicans, a confirmation of the trend that is going to take us into the Bundestag (national parliament) next year.'

As he speaks, his voice is calm and measured - a far cry from the rantings of Hitler, with whom he is most frequently compared in the German media. He comes across as a softly spoken, totally respectable man in a suit. In the beer halls and at Republican rallies, however, another side emerges. Fired with emotion and a rasping tongue, he can rapidly whip up the crowd.

The prospect, that for the first time since the war a party of the far right will cross the 5 per cent barrier required to enter the national parliament, looks increasingly likely. An opinion poll in Der Spiegel news magazine last week showed that support for the Republicans nationwide is running at 6 per cent (up from 4 per cent before the Hesse vote) and some 80 per cent of Germans believe it is 'probable', even 'certain', that the Republicans will gain seats in the Bundestag next year.

The very thought terrifies Germany's political establishment, which was quick to rubbish Mr Schonhuber's claims. The Republican leader, they pointed out, had made such forecasts before, particularly after the party's stunning showing in the elections for the European parliament in 1989, in which it won 2 million votes, giving it the right to send six MEPs to Strasbourg, one of whom is Mr Schonhuber himself.

One year later, in Germany's national elections, the party flopped badly, not least because one of its key demands, the reunification of Germany, had already been achieved. Reports of its death, however, proved to be somewhat premature. Mr Schonhuber is not alone in thinking that in the Bundestag elections in 1994 - if the economy is not in better shape, if unemployment and crime are still rising, if the question of what to do with the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers in the country has not been solved - he may just do it.

Franz Schonhuber was born in the Bavarian village of Trostberg, close to the Austrian border, in January 1923. His father was a butcher and, like most Germans in the Twenties, struggled to make ends meet in the wake of hyperinflation and a recession that claimed 6 million unemployed. As a boy, Franz joined the Hitler Youth where, he freely admits, he sang along to songs such as 'The Jews go here, the Jews go there, the Jews go everywhere. They go through the Red Sea, the waves close in, and at last the world has peace again'. All Germans over 60 today would have joined in such songs at the time, he says. Asked what he was thinking about, he replies: 'Probably nothing.'

At 19, having completed his Abitur (the German equivalent of A-levels) at a school in Munich, Mr Schonhuber applied to the Waffen SS, the elite troops of the Nazi war machine, motivated out of pure 'fascination', he says. 'I was young, I was a good sportsman, I was relatively courageous and I felt I had to go to defend my country. That is all there was to it. A young British man would have felt exactly the same way.'

When Mr Schonhuber enlisted in the Waffen SS in the middle of 1942, the war had not yet turned against Hitler, and the boundaries of the Third Reich stretched from the English Channel in the west to within striking distance of Leningrad and Stalingrad in the east. In his book, Ich war dabei (I Was There), widely attacked in 1981 as an apology for and glorification of the Nazi era, Mr Schonhuber indicates that he was motivated by more than patriotism. 'We felt we were the spearhead of a new martial order,' he writes. 'We were revolutionaries in uniform.' And he describes his SS comrades as 'decent, loyal and brave' men, most of whom were not involved in atrocities, but were misused.

In his three years of service, Mr Schonhuber was active in France (where, according to his memoirs, he enjoyed various amorous liaisons), in Corsica (where he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class, for bravery in battles against Italians, French and Americans), and, in the war's final month, on the eastern front (where he took part in the futile defence of Berlin). At no time, he insists, did he take part in crimes of genocide against Jews, gypsies, Slavs or any other peoples unfortunate enough to come under the Nazi yoke. After fleeing west to escape from the Russians when all was clearly lost, he was captured by the British in Schleswig- Holstein and spent the following one-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war.

Like many Germans returning from the war, Franz Schonhuber felt bitter and, he says, even disgusted at the acts that had been committed in his country's name.

Over the next few years, he tried his hand at a variety of jobs, including interpreting for the Americans (in addition to French, he also speaks English and Russian) and acting (he admits he was never much good). In the early Fifties, remembering his passion for sport as a teenager, he hit on the idea of becoming a sports journalist and secured a job with the Deutsche Woche, a newspaper subsidised by the East German Communist Party.

It was the start of a meteoric career which, over 30 years, saw him rise to become a leading figure in the Bavarian broadcasting corporation: he ended up hosting an immensely popular show, Now It is My Turn to Talk, in which ordinary people were given the chance to question leading politicians.

In these times, Mr Schonhuber did not talk, at least not in public, about the war. But it rankled with him. He felt disgusted not only about Hitler ('He led this country into the biggest catastrophe of its history'), but even more so about the way his countrymen either completely glossed over the period or saw it only as a source of eternal shame. 'I had seen fellow Germans crying 'Heil Hitler]' and being wildly enthusiastic for the Third Reich, but when I returned from prison I saw them crying 'Down with Hitler]' and 'Hitler was a criminal.' '

This disgust led to his book, I Was There, which immediately became a bestseller, but also led to Mr Schonhuber's prompt dismissal from television. Two years later, in 1983, he helped to form the Republican party, and emerged as its sole leader in 1984. 'Unlike millions of Germans who are much too cowardly to do it, I have owned up to my past,' Mr Schonhuber says today. 'My conscience is clear, and at last I can sleep better.'

In interviews with the press or rare appearances on German television, Mr Schonhuber comes across as a moderate man, insisting on his party's democratic credentials. All it is fighting for, he emphasises, is the right for Germans once again to feel pride in their country, for the restoration of 'law and order' (the party supports life sentences for drug-dealers) and for an end to abuse of the liberal asylum system (a demand that has been taken up with a vengeance by the governing parties).

Much more sinister, however, is the party's call, if not for the immediate return of lands ceded by Germany to Poland and the Soviet Union after the war, at least that plebiscites be held in the affected territories.

Mr Schonhuber totally rejects charges of being a neo-Nazi, an anti-Semite or simply xenophobic. His first wife, from whom he has a daughter, came from a Jewish family in Hungary, he points out. At the same time, however, he frequently accuses the government of cravenly kow-towing to the Jewish lobby. He owns a villa in Turkey, which he and his second wife and their two children frequently visit. The Turkish way of life is great, he insists - as long as it is in Turkey.

Many of his party's 23,000 members are 'workers, policemen, judges and lawyers - nothing to do with the idiots on the extreme right'. But party literature frequently refers to foreign 'lice' infiltrating the country.

In his dealings with officialdom and the media, he often appears reasonable, even plausible. Yet at his rallies he can strike chords that set alarm bells ringing throughout Germany. For instance, when he says: 'Germany must come first; we are not the welfare office of the Mediterranean; the Deutschmark must never be sacrificed on the altar of European union; we must never allow the green flag of Islam to fly here.'

Franz Schonhuber himself is not a new Adolf Hitler. But the great fear remains that, if the particular genie that he represents were ever to be let out of the bottle, there is no telling where it would lead.

(Photograph omitted)