German prosecutors launched a criminal investigation Wednesday of a far-right politician who suggested in the wake of last week’s synagogue firebombing that certain Jews are themselves to blame for a rise in anti-Jewish sentiment here.
Franz Schoenhuber--a 71-year-old former volunteer in the personal guard of Adolf Hitler in the Waffen-SS and now leader of the rightist Republikaner party--singled out one German Jewish leader as “one of those most responsible for provoking anti-Semitism.”
A recent survey found that anti-Jewish feeling has risen somewhat over the past year in Germany, although respondents still generally prefer Jews to members of other minority groups.
There have been attacks on synagogues and Jewish monuments since the reunification of the former East and West Germanys in 1990; another Jewish cemetery desecration was discovered Wednesday, in the Bavarian town of Pretzfeld.
It is a crime in Germany to incite race hatred, but the case against Schoenhuber may still never get to trial, much less result in a conviction. Some legal experts say that by inciting hatred of a single Jewish leader, Schoenhuber is merely committing an act of personal slander and not the full-blown criminal offense of fomenting hatred against a racial or social group.
In addition, attempts to put Schoenhuber on trial for any offense will be unable to go forward unless he is stripped of the immunity that he enjoys as a member of the European Parliament.
Schoenhuber is known in Germany as the first serious, effective leader for right-wing extremism in modern times. He founded the Republikaner party in 1983, two years after publishing “I Took Part,” his controversial memoirs of his service as a Waffen-SS sergeant. Under his aegis, Die Republikaner became the first modern far-right party to win seats in any German legislature.
Although Republikaner members still hold no seats in the federal Parliament, they have been represented in state and local legislatures in recent years, and the party receives official subsidies.
Federal elections are to be held here in October, and many mainstream German politicians would like to rein in Schoenhuber before his party can win any seats in the federal Parliament. Leaders of the major parties have called for Schoenhuber’s prosecution.
But some analysts fear that a high-profile race-hate trial would only attract attention and sympathy votes to Schoenhuber and his party.
In the past, Schoenhuber has tended to speak out mainly against foreigners. It has been only recently that he has changed his focus to Ignatz Bubis, president of the Bonn-based Central Council of German Jews, the largest Jewish organization in Germany.
Earlier this month, for instance, Schoenhuber tried to file a race-hate suit of his own against Bubis, complaining that the Jewish leader was smearing rightists like himself.
Bubis had earlier complained that right-wing radicals like Schoenhuber were the intellectual authors of neo-Nazi violence in Germany. “Germans have had enough of Herr Bubis’ finger-wagging,” Schoenhuber complained.
Then, after last week’s bombing of the synagogue in the northern German city of Luebeck, Bubis once again called Schoenhuber a “mental arsonist,” or one who gives ideas and ideological backing to neo-Nazis who actually carry out such attacks.
Republikaners held a rally two days later, where Schoenhuber said he had nothing to do with the firebombing and went on to say that Bubis himself was promoting anti-Semitism.
Bubis told Reuters news service that he would not dignify Schoenhuber’s claims with a response.