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JULY 20 is one of West Germany's most important national holidays. It marks the date of an attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler by a group of Army commanders in 1944. The attempt, of course, was unsuccessful and as a result hundreds of high ranking Germans were executed by a badly shaken Hitler.
Today the date is marked by celebrations to honor those men who dared to take a stand against the Nazis. The Germans look to it as a small bright light in a black past. Even that light is somewhat dim, however, for as any student of the period knows the attempt on the life of Hitler was motivated by the fact that he was losing the war, not by moral opposition.
Yet Germans like to celebrate and need heroes, perhaps more than any other people, and they cherish the chance to cheer. More than that the July 20 celebration gives them an opportunity to show the world that there were Germans who opposed Hitler and that modern Germans stand on the side of that opposition.
Despite their elaborate efforts to show opposition to and abhorrence of the Nazis, many Germans fear a return to the kind of chauvinism and unquestioning obedience which made the Nazis a power. The focus of this fear centers on the National Democratic. Party (NDP). a new party which the international press was quick to label "Neo-Nazis."
The NDP advocates such policies as breaking relations with the United States and making an independent deal with the Soviets to secure reunification. The Party style, however, scares people as much as its policies. Its large boisterous meetings, protected by club-swinging stewards, often end in violence, bringing back memories of the end of the Weimar Republic, One meeting this summer was drowned in the cry of "Sieg Heil" from NDP opponents (mostly students) and ended with a NDP speaker leaving the dais yelling "and we shall carry on till everything is kaputt!"
THE NDP draws its support from several minority groups, each with its own special complaint. Despite Germany's extraordinary boom over the last 20 years some economic areas have lagged behind. Chief among these is German agriculture.
The emphasis of the boom era has been on industrial revival and many farmers are caught in the uncomfortable position of being forced to compete with foreign goods imported under Common Market agreements. Italian, French, and Scandinavian foods have created economic pressures on farmers which they feel the government has done little to alleviate. German farmers have been traditionally conservative and have looked to conservative parties to solve their problems. Now thy have gathered behind the NPD.
This hard core of conservative rural votes is supplemented by a large group of disgruntled emigrants from East Germany who feel the government has tacitly accepted the status quo and will leave relatives and friends under communist rule forever. To these votes are added the few Germans who are still anti-Semites or nationalists.
The student problem is a special one in the NPD program. Students in German universities are more radical and more militant than in the United States. At one German university a local transit workers strike brought massive student support. The radical students organized their cars to provide transportation for anyone who might otherwise use the scab-operated city trolley lines. Thousands of students responded and for weeks they controlled the city's transportation. The strike was successful-largely due to student help.
In contrast, the German middle class, and German adults generally, are more conservative in their attitude towards students than in this country. Before the war German universities were among the most highly disciplined in the world. In those days German students did nothing but study, and it is most difficult for middle aged Germans to believe that students should do anything more than that now.
THE NPD has not taken any explicit "anti-student" stand, but the fact that radical students are their most vocal and militant opponents throws large blocks of anti-student votes their way.
But the major reason for the NPD gains lies not so much in its strength as in the weakness of the government. West Germany is ruled by the Grand Coalition, a union of the two largest parties in parliament -the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party. While the two parties still compete fiercely in elections, many Germans feel they are indistinguishable. For those with serious objections to the government there is no alternative except to vote for an extremist, non government party. The situation in the United States would be analogous if the Democrats and Republicans joined in a government and the only way to vote against it was to vote for George Wallace.
THE NATIONAL election, coming next Sunday, might bring a change in the nature of the ruling coalition. A slight shift in votes from the CDU to the SPD might replace Chancellor Keisinger with SPD leader Willy Brandt, since the two parties are now almost evenly balanced in the Bundestag.
Whatever happens to the two ruling class parties, the NPD vote is bound to increase. More pessimistic forecasters predict up to 20 per cent of the vote. A more likely estimate is between 10 and 15 per cent. Any of these would be the largest vote the NPD has garnered so far and for the first time would give them seats in the Bundestag. The German election law is complex, and it guarantees that any party with more than five per cent of the vote gets seats in the Bundestag even if it does not win an election in any single district.
An NPD vote of 15 per cent or more will shake the Germans badly. Though probably leaving the SPD-DDU votes undiminished it could eliminate the smaller parties in the parliament. It would leave the NPD the only effective opposition, with crucial swing votes if the two major parties should ever split.
A large NPD vote would thus reinforce the Coalition, at least temporarily underlining a glaring weakness in the German governmental system. Germans have no effective loyal opposition and the government they have formed, though on the surface strong, offers dissenters no alternative other than to vote for an extremist party.
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