John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

Some Words From Lower Saxony

John Wilkins
July 10, 1967

Fellowship Year

Luneburg Federal German Republic 

July 3, 1967


John M. Wilkins is the 1967 Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

Frau Gertraud Winkelvoss is a middle-aged housewife in Luneburg, a city of 60,000 in a heavily agricultural section of Lower Saxony.

She is energetic and hospitable. She is well informed. She has a sense of humor, though it is tempered by a well controlled intensity that seems partly to come from bitterness. She does not fit the publicized “neo-Nazi” image of a National Democratic Party leader. But NPD she is; and a leader she is.

She just returned to Luneburg from Hannover, capital of Lower Saxony, after being introduced to the state parliament (Landtag) as a new member, along with nine other members of this nationalistic party. There is only one other NPD Landtag member in the nation to be a woman, and there are no NPD members of either sex in the federal parliament (Bundestag).

She was elected June 4. Today she talked to me about the election, the problems and prospects of her party, and her belief in nationalism and the eventual reunification of greater Germany. There is a chance that this new, small but widely scorned or feared party will one day develop into a genuine opposition party in the Bundestag–or that a similar one will. Farther along, I shall give some of her views; but first, some election background.

The posters in the generally listless campaign were about as uninformative as most political posters, but three of them are worth contemplating in retrospect.

Each of the three symbolized a question in regard to the ensuing election results–and these questions were answered in the June 4 voting pretty much as had been anticipated. The pattern had been set in the four state elections that followed formation of the Christian Democratic-Social Democratic coalition at the federal level seven months ago. That is, in Bavaria, Hesse, Schleswig-Holstein and Rhineland-Palatinate there had been these developments:

The Christian Democrats (CDU) gained at the expense of the Social Democrats (SPD). The NPD, with its nationalistic but opaque rhetoric, broke through the five per cent vote requirement to get parliamentary seats for the first time. The liberal Free Democrats (FDP)–who in Bonn had been in loose coalition with the CDU before the “grand coalition” was formed–lost all along the line.

What Election?

Two days before the Lower Saxony elections I was in Hannover. This state had been SPD since formation of the Federal Republic. When a sound truck went by, I harkened to the liklihood of political sloganeering–but the announcement was of prayer meetings at various churches for peace in the Middle East.

I approached a crowd in the park across from the railway station. Men and women in their early twenties were handing out leaflets and accepting fairly frequent donations. In the center, two folksinger types sang indistinctly to their guitars. I made out the German words for “mankind” and “brotherhood,” but the plea was non-political–for support of German hospitals and orphan homes for South Vietnamese children.

I learned that political wind-up speeches had been poorly attended. Apparently the CDU was not about to ruffle the feathers of its federal partner by being aggressive in Lower Saxony.

My impression of little political conversation on the streets and in the streetcars and restaurants was verified by people whose impressions I sought. (And our impressions were to be born out two days later by the turnout: about 70 per cent of qualified voters, which for Germany is small.)

Next morning, things seemed a bit livelier. A youth handed me a leaflet that urged me to “Say YES to democracy, NO to the NPD…NO VOICE FOR THE NPD.” The leaflet came from the Youth Association of the German Trade Union Federation, whose membership is predominently social democratic. Other youths with these leaflets stood at numerous pedestrian traffic points.

This social democratic energy was being directed not against the top contender for power in Lower Saxony (the CDU) but against the lowly NPD. Certainly it was understandable that social democrats should be sensitive to the “radical right,” as the leaflets characterized the NPD, and that the Nazi backgrounds possessed by many NPD leaders should be stressed. But was it really more important that the NPD vote should be kept below five per cent, thus blocking representation in the Landtag, than that the CDU be kept from winning the election? Presumably the SPD was concerned on both points–but again it appeared that the CDU-SPD coalition on the federal level had produced a de facto truce in the state. Some of the labor youths handing out pamphlets were CDU.

Passersby either accepted the leaflets or declined them with no visible emotion.

And later that day, in Luneburg, this same lack of public reaction to politicking was fascinating to observe. I stood on a corner of Am Sande, an oblong “square” lined with medieval brick buildings and dominated by a leaning Gothic church, and watched as at regular intervals a squad of eight or 10 cars, mostly Volkswagens, drove by, decked with NPD posters. One car of this nationalistic party had a sound system that played music (non-military) and gave forth a brief political plug. People on the street scarcely looked up. If there were no smiles of support from pedestrians, there were no jeers either; I didn’t notice even a smirk. The only liveliness was a wave from a man in one of the cars who noticed I was taking its picture.

I took the picture because of the NPD poster’s design. This was one of the three posters of my earlier reference:

  1. THE NPD POSTER consisted of a red field surrounding a white circle that contained the letters NPD in blue. Take away the letters and substitute a black swastika, and you have the Nazi flag which became the flag of the Third Reich. Or substitute a question mark either black or blue and you have a symbol for the nature and prospects of what is loosely called neo-Nazism. The immediate question mark in Lower Saxony was whether it would gain five per cent of the vote and thus get seats in the Landtag; the answer was “yes” as in the preceding four state elections. The party got a quarter of a million votes in Lower Saxony, seven per cent.
  2. Posters of the FDP struck at the federal coalition and thus tried to make it an issue in the state. This was an appropriate tack, because there were scarcely any purely state issues. Strengthen in of the CDU in state elections obviously springs from the prestige the party is gaining from Kiesinger’s Bonn coalition.FDP posters depicted the CDU in the black garb of a “clerical” party and the SPD in the red garb of the “left,” warning against an Austrian-type red-black coalition that might hold power indefinitely, blurring responsibility and dividing political appointments down to village level. This and other appeals of the FDP got nowhere. The party got only 6.9 per cent of the vote–down two percentage points from 10 years ago and 5,000 less than the NPD.
  3. CHANCELLOR KIESINGERIS PICTURE was featured on CDU posters, an obvious attempt to capitalize locally on his national prestige. The attempt was highly successful. The party gained four percentage points over its 1957 total, getting 41.7 per cent against the SPD’s 43.1 per cent–a great narrowing of the margin, which has resulted in a Bonn-type coalition at Hannover, though here the SPD is the dominant partner.

The only defacement of a poster I observed was a protest written on a Kiesinger poster. It said, “State election is not federal election.” Whoever wrote it, the protest symbolizes the frustration of all parties but the CDU.

“How would the people of Lower Saxony react to the federal coalition? That was the main question,” Helmut Pless, chief editor of the Luneburger Landeszeitung, told me after the election.

I gathered that he had no quarrel with the federal question emerging as a state election issue. Indeed, he pointed out that despite the primary sovereignty of the states, there are usually few state-wide issues in a state election. There are no state income taxes, for instance. State power lies in its voice at Bonn -the Bundesrat, which must approve most Bundestag legislation on internal affairs–and in control of state communal and cultural matters.

But he did seem annoyed with the results of the election:

“The CDU gained because in Kiesinger the people have a father figure like Adenauer. I’m afraid this motivation is characteristic of the German people. The reason for the coalition’s being formed was that finances were in a mess. The cause of this mess was Erhard’s policies but people don’t mind this; they still vote CDU.”

He followed with remarks of a type that is heard frequently from Germans of all political leanings when they discuss their countrymen’s political behavior. Pantomime is included, especially, of course, when they speak with someone whose German is not fluent. This consists of imitating a person eating, quaffing a beer, driving a car, and watching television. Working, making good money, enjoying oneself–“When things are good, who is interested in politics?” Though one hears the same criticism in other nations, I think it is more widespread in Germany and that it has more validity there.

And understandably so. Beneath the physical energy of many Germans who remember the war there is still a terrible tiredness. It is good to just live and work and be human. As soon as a German gives himself to political thought, he enters a frustrating trap: he feels that the main decisions are not in his hands; they are in Moscow’s, London’s, Paris’s. So why get wrought up? Why take issue with a federal coalition that appears to be making as much progress for the country as reasonably can be expected?

So there’s no responsible opposition party or coalition of any size–so what!

  • So, there’s the NPD. The NPD is very interested in politics. And it may not remain small if prosperity declines and there is no responsible, strong opposition party.
  • I queried Pless on the FDP having had difficulty in holding minimum representation, while the NPD had leaped the hurdle. He commented along these lines::
  • That the FDP had raised a phony issue by pointing with alarm at Catholic influences on the CDU. In April, the Vatican had protested to Bonn about proposals in North Rhine- Westphalia and the Rhineland-Palatinate for doing away with church schools. The Vatican note cited the 1933 Concordat with Hitler. The note produced strong resentment even among Catholic teachers in the two states (which have slight Catholic majorities)–and Pless believes that for the FDP to raise the bogy in the heavily Protestant state was a futile exercise.
  • That the FDP, which along with the SPD has favored detente with the East, had its thunder stolen by Kiesinger.
  • And that the NPD’s success does not stem primarily from “a rise in neo-Nazism.” He of course recognizes that unregenerate Nazis have found a home in the party, but he points out that other parties of even more extremist stamp have died in West Germany since the war.

Protest Vote

“The area around Luneburg is strongly agricultural–and this is the area that produced the heaviest NPD vote, 12 per cent,” Pless said.

“We have a saying,” continued Pless, “that when there is a good crop the farmers thank God, but that when there’s a bad crop they blame the government. There is also farmer opposition to Common Market agricultural agreements.” (German farm prices were 30 per cent above those of France and have had to be lowered.)

The watch towers and barbed wire and armed guards of the East German line are visible across the Elbe, about 20 miles from Luneburg. This block to former communication

patterns has stifled the life of the towns on the West side. According to Pless, farmers are moving out; the old folks remain, and the atmosphere is one of protest.

In the Federal Republic, preoccupation with the East Zone and the “lost lands” beyond the Oder-Neisso line is naturally strongest among expellees and refugees from those areas. The NPD weekly, Deutsche Nachrichten, fans nostalgia and hopes by running long, illustrated features stressing the beauty of the eastern areas and asserting Germany’s historic claims to them. Lower Saxony has a great number of these people. They comprise one third of Luneburg’s population; the city voted 10 per cent NPD, the surrounding farm area 12 per cent, and the state 7 per cent.

Pless does not view the NPD with alarm but he regards the general political situation as unhealthy. He paints a picture of an agglutinative consensus government in Bonn, another in Hannover, with most of the potential responsible opposition being temporarily muted because it is within the coalition parties themselves–while on the outside, the NPD has gained at the expense of the FDF.

A Nationalist

Frau Winkelvoss, of the NPD, seized upon this matter of “no opposition” when I interviewed her today.

“What kind of democracy is that?” she said. “One thing that was wrong under Hitler was that no opposition was allowed.”

When I suggested that the NPD might well grow into a sizable opposition if it continued to make inroads on the FDP, she murmured, “Hopefully, but the road will be a hard one. We have no representation in the Bundestag.”

It was difficult to discuss state and local affairs with her. The NPD is preoccupied with national questions; it regards state politics as a road to Bonn. The party’s intention at this time, she said, is to exert as much influence as possible in the Landtags, which themselves are represented in Bonn in the Bundesrat. On the other hand, she did say that

NPD statements on social matters are not publicized. She said she is interested in family welfare and that she intends to work in this and other state matters while she is in Hannover. But obviously “Germany” is the main thing on her mind.

She claimed that the NPD is being continuously and systematically misrepresented by the press and television. Well, certainly editorial comment has been severe or sarcastic, but NPD leaders are quoted extensively. And I must comment that I watched extensive German television coverage of the debacle at Nuremburg when the NPD was not allowed to hold its convention there. Speeches of the leaders “outside the gates” were covered lengthily, and several of the men were interviewed to the point that they kept repeating themselves. In fact, repeating oneself in emotional generalities seems to be characteristic of some of them–though I don’t say this, necessarily, of Frau Winkelvoss.

How had the NPD succeeded in overtaking the FDP in her state?

“By working harder,” she answered with a smile, reminding me of an American county chairman. “And because over the years the FDP was inconsistent, in and out of coalition. They really don’t know what they want. That’s a mistake in politics.

“But we are nationalists. We believe that it is right for a people to be itself. The German Volk is a fact, and so are other national groups. We don’t say the other people are bad. We respect their right to their own nationalism. We ourselves work for what is good for Germany and Middle Europe. A strong-weak relationship is not good: America is America, Europe is Europe. The world is not divided in two, America and Russia.”

She said her party approves the Common Market tariff drops in principle but feels too many concessions were made to the USA in the Kennedy Round. Predictably, the party is against a federation of Europe. And, she is against war: “No one can win a war. And I believe that many more women should enter politics to see that there is no more war.”

Frau Pless is from Silesia. Late in the war she fled ahead of the Russians and saw what she described as unnecessary American bombing of large East German cities with no military targets.

“So why must Germans carry a special guilt load for things done in the war?” she said. “Why do people call a party Nazi when it is really only nationalistic? Yes, there are former Nazis in the party, but this has to be the case with the other parties as well. (She didn’t mention Kiesinger). Isn’t De Gaulle nationalistic? Aren’t Russia and America nationalistic? …Why must Germany suffer to remain divided this long after the war? Russia and America want to keep it so, and Bonn doesn’t stand up to either!

She denounced German aid to Israel; aid to emerging nations; purchases of American arms; American investment in Germany–“Why should Germany continue to be an American colony?”

Yes! We Know

It was a bit frustrating to hear her words, because in many ways she was advocating what is taking place. West Germany is freeing herself of American domination. The coalition government is working hard to dissolve some of the barriers to the East. Europe is becoming a third force. Her frustration bears some similarity to that of the SPD, which sees Kiesinger getting credit for the fruit of past SPD initiatives. The difference is in tone– in degree of perspective, of patience, of dedicated, realistic work one has done, in the responsibility one bears.

Much NPD expression articulates what many non-NPD Germans actually feel, though they mute it for various reasons: realistic appraisal of the balance of power in the world; a feeling of guilt and special responsibility to be flexible and reasonable, in view of the Nazi period.

Her remarks pointed up a German handicap: it is hard for them to express nationalistic sentiments without raising charges of being “Nazi.”

As we talked, I tended to forget that I was interviewing a leader of a political party, even a small party. I was hearing from one layer of the German psyche. This layer writhes at the thought of the old Germany being fragmented into a makepiece fulcrum on which rests the world balance of power.

One can understand her feelings. But one can also understand the feelings of Friedrich Meinecke, a liberal German historian, who, in 1946, eight years before his death at the age of 92, wrote, in “The German Catastrophe”:

“…We can win back power only as a member of a future federation, voluntarily concluded, of the central and west European states. Such a United Nations of Europe will naturally accept the hegemony of the victor powers.

“The time has not come to consider more closely the problems that will come out of such a federation. But a look at our small Germanic neighboring peoples can teach us some lessons. Sweden and Holland were once great European powers and Switzerland at the beginning of the sixteenth century carried on a policy something like that of a great power…

“We have therefore come into the position of these great peoples, of being like burnt-out craters of great power politics, and yet of feeling within ourselves the appeal to remain brave and capable of self-defense. These three peoples have also given evidence of an inner vitality in their whole cultural life. They do not suffer more, or more severely, than we under the problems of the modern age, when the spontaneous spiritual creative power of the individual has to struggle against the flattening effects of technology. All three in recent generations have given us the most beautiful and peculiarly irreplaceable fruits of their poetry, science and art …. No one of these three nations has forgotten the days in which it fought its battles. Each honors and loves its former heroes, even when today there is no place for heroism of the same kind. Such an existence as these three peoples live today is more for them than an old-age allotment apportioned to aged peasant parents. All the moral forces and energies of man find room for expression. Let us resolve to follow their example…”

The Federal Republic has developed much greater power than Meinecke projected, though this has been done partially in his spirit. But some aspects of what the NPD expresses are also in the picture. The task of German foreign policy is to find the right blend, to reach toward the East, but within a framework that is European as well as German.

Who will supply the blend? It is very tempting for Germans to rely on the coalition, but they will have to give it up some day.

In the Lower Saxony election results it should be noted that 85 per cent of the votes went to the two major parties, more than ever before. The NPD gained–but the CDU gained more, obviously in part from the FDP.

This trend of the public toward a two-party orientation can probably be regarded as very healthy. And the accomplishments of the coalition are admirable. But in the two developments there is an antithesis.

It is in the bad-guy area, the problem of coping with strong dissent, that German society is unsure of itself. It is disturbing that the NPD has not been able to get permission from any large German city to hold a convention. They are a legal party, and despite implications of some of their beliefs, they have no reputation for rough stuff–even though many of them undoubtedly played extremely rough 33 years ago.

The longer the Germans cling to the coalition, and the larger the coalition parties’ share of the vote becomes, the more will the opposition come into disrepute. Carried on too long, the situation would eventually bring the coalition into disrepute…the republic into disrepute…

“Germany Divided Into Three PARTS? NEVER!” says sign it at entrance to Luneburg city park.

Received in New York July 10, 1967