Far right party reels at German crackdown on neo-Nazis

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Behind the armour-plated door of their headquarters in the east Berlin district of Köpenick, the far-right agitators blamed for this summer's upsurge of hate violence are bracing for war.

Behind the armour-plated door of their headquarters in the east Berlin district of Köpenick, the far-right agitators blamed for this summer's upsurge of hate violence are bracing for war.

The German government's patience has snapped. Amid talk of deploying federal troops against neo-Nazi demonstrators, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder is expected to launch a concerted effort this week to rid the country of this scourge.

The mood in Köpenick, seat of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), is grim. The NPD has been accused of fomenting violence, and is now threatened with closure. "We are victims of a media pogrom," says the NPD's national manager, Ulrich Eigenfeld. "The charges against us are trumped up. This party respects the laws laid down in the constitution."

In the hysteria provoked by a spate of atrocities, notably last month's bomb attack in Düsseldorf against a group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, legal niceties do not get a hearing.

After decades of conservative governments which played down the neo-Nazi threat and focused the state's ire on left-wing extremism, the boot is on the other foot. Chancellor Schröder is trying to relaunch the Germany brand as something synonymous with tolerance and fun, and the world-wide headlines of the rampaging extreme right do not fit the new image.

Mr Schröder used his first public appearance after his holiday ended on Friday to signal a crackdown that will have top priority in his remaining two years in office. "We cannot and must not tolerate people in our country being provoked, beaten and even murdered in the streets because of their language, their religion or the colour of their skin," he said.

The same day, the Interior Minister, Otto Schilly, said federal border guards will help local police at neo-Nazi flashpoints. And the 16 Länder are hurriedly drawing up a common action plan. Far-right demonstrations will be further curtailed, their participants subjected to house searches and possibly loss of their jobs.

Local courts and police forces which for years have been outrageously lenient towards violent neo-Nazis will be pressured to toughen their act. Last week, a Potsdam court awarded record civil damages of £150,000 and a monthly pension of £300 to the black British building worker Noel Martin, maimed by two neo-Nazis four years ago. A day after the judgment, two skinheads beat up an Angolan worker in the town of Mahlow, where Mr Martin had nearly lost his life.

The government is considering a ban on the party most closely associated with the skinhead gangs. The NPD was founded in 1964 as an ultra-nationalist party which professes to have no truck with the Third Reich. "That chapter of Germany history is closed," says Mr Eigenfeld, a mild-mannered former civil servant of 53. Certainly, there are no pictures of Hitler to be seen in the party's offices, only posters carrying slogans of the "Germans First" type.

Mr Eigenfeld shudders at the suggestion that his members are jackbooted neo-Nazis itching to invade Poland. "The young people don't even know how to march," he says. "They are undisciplined." The trouble with German youth, he adds, is that "they don't read Goethe any more".

He admits some of his 6,000 troops are hardly of the Goethe-reading kind, and concedes that some on the fringes may be prone to violence. "They are losers. They feel they are in a vacuum."

But the party has consciously cultivated skinhead groups. An NPD demo has all the pageantry of Nuremberg - black shirts, flags, torches and all - though far smaller attendance figures. .

So should they be banned? Leading Green politicians say no, even the Social Democrat Interior Minister, Mr Schilly, was backpedalling on Friday, suggesting such a step might be a "last resort".

The NPD, more terrified of losing its annual subsidy of £300,000 than the prospect of an underground existence, has cancelled demonstrations, just in case. Maybe Germany is already past the worst.