German media reported that the neo-Nazi extremist Horst Mahler had applied for political asylum in Hungary where Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who praises the authoritarian models of Russia and China, is cracking down on political opponents, the judiciary, refugees, the press, and universities.
In 2009, a German court sentenced Mr Mahler to 10 years in prison, for racial offences and Holocaust denial. Due to ill-health, he left prison in 2015, but rather than face news charges accumulated in prison, he went on the run.
Mahler’s switch in political extremes makes him an unusual and notorious figure in Germany. Yet, a consistent for Mr Mahler was his antisemitism. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2007, he said that others in the terrorist group he helped found, the Red Army Faction (RAF), agreed with his view that Jewish people were ‘the devil’. He went on to clarify that this form of antisemitism was cloaked in opposition to American imperialism. Mahler’s father adored Hitler, having killed himself in 1949 when Horst was thirteen.
The political scientist, Jan Rathje, who specialises in tracking far-right movements, told Deutsche Welle: “Already in the RAF there were anti-Semitic connotations,” and Mr Mahler had simply followed this consistent path towards the far-right.
In the political unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr Mahler gave legal counsel to prominent leftists including Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin, who would later join him in the creation of the RAF. Horst involved himself in several bank robberies and a plot to break Baader out of prison.
In 1973, he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison but gained early release in 1980 after making several public statements condemning terrorism and the RAF. Years earlier, authorities noted a change in Horst’s ideology, declaring in 1977 “that he was being internally freed from the dogmatic revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism.” During the 1990s, Horst grew more prominent in the extreme-right scene, later joining the extreme far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) in 2000.
Mr Mahler used his legal background to defend the NPD in a constitutional battle with the German government who wanted the party banned. This collapsed in 2003, as it emerged that key witnesses were government-paid informants. In that same year, a court in Mainz fined Mr Mahler several thousand euros for justifying the 9/11 terror attacks. He would also leave the NPD citing the party’s desire to enter parliament, a position that was antithetical to his Reichsbürger stance, a loose movement that refuses to recognise the Federal Republic.
A fusion of antisemitism, xenophobia, and anti-American conspiracies helped the NPD almost double its membership to 6,500 between 1996 and 2000, their message resonated with unemployed youth in eastern Germany. Experts pointed to the potent danger of Mahler’s fusion of antisemitism and anti-imperialist nationalism.
East Germany is still a fertile political ground for the NPD, with 264 of its 338 local council seats found in the region. The party did not make any progress in regional assemblies, as it did not reach the election threshold last September.
A study by the Göttingen Institute for Democracy Studies found that old cultural attitudes carried over from the communist-era explain the virulent levels of xenophobia in east Germany. In short, the report documents how a ‘selective cultural memory’ fuses and a failure to reconcile Nazi-era antisemitism helps fuel the scapegoating of foreigners for social and economic woes. This ‘closed’ and ethnically homogenised society increases their vulnerability to the narratives of populists and the far-right. The study was commissioned following a rise in extreme right-wing violence in 2015.
In January 2017, Germany’s constitutional court rejected another bid to have the NPD banned, citing its lack of threat to German democracy. A move that drew broad criticism.
In 2005, Horst was dismissed from the legal team of notorious Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, for having a racist conviction. Two years later, Zundel was found guilty of 14 counts of incitement to racial hatred and given a five-year prison sentence, the largest prison term available under German law for Holocaust denial.