After Germany suffered a crushing defeat in the Second World War, politicians who had resisted the Nazis were handed the responsibility of building a new, democratic country. Their task was complicated by the fact that, although the Nazi leadership were all either dead or in jail, their totalitarian ideology lived on.
In the first national election in October 1949, two staunch Nazis managed to make it into the parliament without feeling the need to hide their extremist views.
Shortly after the election the two men – Fritz Dorls and Fritz Rößler – set up the Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP) and picked as their party emblem an imperial eagle against a red background – the only thing that was missing was a swastika.
That the men waited until after the election to set up their party was no accident. Up until the founding of West Germany on May 23rd, 1949, the occupying powers reserved the right to approve any new party. Those that appeared too far right or that represented the millions of war refugees never received a licence.
But the Lizenzzwang (licence requirement) came to an end after the first national elections, offering a glimmer of hope to died-in-the-wool Nazis that they could become a political force in the new democratic Germany.
As party figurehead, Dorls and Rößler picked a man whose reputation proceeded him. Otto Ernst Remer, appointed deputy leader, was one of Hitler’s favourite Wehrmacht generals, partly because he had saved the Führer from a putsch in 1944.
At SRP rallies he boasted about his role in putting down the attempted Stauffenberg putsch and declared that the “traitors” who had survived it would one day be put on trial by “an objective German court.”
The wording of the SRP party programme also made clear what they were all about.
The party goal was “the gathering of all true Germans through militant avowal and commitment to a national programme of overcoming the German crisis,” the programme stated.
Rallies, where crowds waved flags and sang marching songs, also looked like a throwback to the late 1920s.
Party leader Dorls described the Nazi period as the high point of German history and demanded that the new republic recognize its “national socialist inheritance.” He brushed off the Holocaust as a mistake that shouldn't detract from the fundamental goodness of the Nazi ideas.
Much like leading figures in the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) today, SRP politicians lambasted Germany’s political elite as stooges of external powers and demanded respect for the achievements of Wehrmacht soldiers in the war.
Stronghold Lower Saxony
There certainly seemed to be ripe ground in post-war Germany for these reactionary ideas to once again grow roots. The Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) was still years away – city centres lay in rubble, unemployment was high and millions of Germans were left homeless after fleeing their homes in the east at the end of the war.
The SRP's initial attempts at gaining seats in a state parliament ended in humiliation, though. They won just 0.2 percent of the vote in 1950’s election to the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament and only fared a little better when they won 1.2 percent of the vote in Schleswig-Holstein in the same year.
But their result the following year in Lower Saxony made those failures seem irrelevant. Over half of the SRP's 11,000 members lived in the rural state, which was particularly burdened by refugees and joblessness.
The party won a stunning 11 percent of the vote and strode into the state parliament with 16 seats. They followed that success with another impressive result. A half year later they gained 8 seats in the parliament of the city state of Bremen.
Those startling successes though were to be the catalyst for the party's downfall.
As the SRP grew, so to did the fear that Germany would once again fall into the grip of dictatorship.
“At home, large sections of our society are extremely disappointed and unsettled to see that a totalitarian political force is raising its head again,” Interior Minister Robert Lehr said. “And abroad we have taken heavy losses, because the faith in a continuous democratic development of the German people has suffered a heavy hit.”
In November 1951, the German government, under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, decided it was time to act and asked the Constitutional Court to declare the SRP illegal.
Adenauer’s cabinet had good reason to take action. Some, including Lehr himself, had been members of the resistance and were enraged that a party that was Nazi in all but name could still hold rallies as if the defeat of 1945 had never happened.
But there were also a more practical reason to wipe the SRP from the political map. The Allies had not yet handed complete independence to the young republic – if the government did not act, there was always the risk that the occupying powers would step in and do so themselves.
According to Spiegel, the government put forward little evidence that the SRP was in fact acting unconstitutionally. But in those febrile days that mattered little.
The Federal Constitutional court took less than a year to come to its decision.
“The SRP is in its programme and its ideology and its overall style extremely close to the Nazi party,” the court ruled.
With a strike the SRP became the first party to be banned in democratic Germany.
Dorls prophesied that the party would go into the underground and organize a resistance movement that would seize power by 1954. But his words proved to be little more than hot air.
It took over a decade before another extreme-right party emerged. The NPD, set up in 1964 are still around today, but two attempts to have them banned have failed.
Party leader Dorls fled the country and spent time in Spain and Egypt before eventually returning to Germany, where he was arrested and imprisoned.