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Facing possible ban, German far-right changes tack

A tombstone was cleaned at a Jewish cemetery near Rostock, Germany, after it was defaced.

BERND WUESTNECK/AFP/Getty Images

A tombstone was cleaned at a Jewish cemetery near Rostock, Germany, after it was defaced.

VIERECK, Germany — At a rally of Germany’s biggest far-right party, skinheads raised fists to nationalist chants and wore T-shirts that skirt the limits of German law: ‘‘Enforce National Socialism’’ read one; another proclaimed the wearer to be ‘‘100 percent un-kosher.’’ Some covered illegal neo-Nazi tattoos with tape because police were on the prowl.

But the party’s leader says he is taking his National Democratic Party mainstream.

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‘‘My aim is to make the NPD a party firmly based in the present and looking toward the future,’’ Holger Apfel said. Breaking a far-right taboo, he said Nazi Germany’s record during World War II included ‘‘crimes.’’

Apfel has tactical reasons for toning down his message: Authorities are considering a ban on the party. Yet the attempt to appeal to the center prompted anger in the small but entrenched ultra-right movement, where many refuse to acknowledge that Germany under Nazism — or National Socialism — was responsible for the slaughter of 6 million Jews.

Despite talk of change, it did not take long for Apfel to show flashes of hardcore xenophobia.

‘‘We . . . have to ensure that Germany again becomes the country of the Germans,’’ he said. ‘‘We see the growing danger that the biological basis of our people will wither away because there’s an increasing mixing.’’

He frowned when asked about the success of Marcel Nguyen, a half-Vietnamese gymnast who won two Olympic silver medals for Germany.

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‘‘I can freely say it’s not something that causes me euphoria,’’ Apfel said, before hastily adding: ‘‘But you won’t see us calling for the deportation of half-breed children.’’

Signs ordered reporters at the National Democratic Party’s summer festival in Viereck to not take pictures of stalls selling extremist books, CDs, and pamphlets. A large poster at the entrance to the booths compared the rising number of foreigners to the shrinking number of ethnic Germans.

The government’s decision to weigh a party ban follows the revelation in November that a small neo-Nazi cell carried out seven years of killing that left nine immigrants and a policewoman dead.Authorities have not been able to prove that the cell operated with direct support from the National Democratic Party. But key party officials have been linked to the group’s three core members, who evaded police for over a decade despite being on the run for other crimes.

Angela Merkel considers the National Democratic Party ‘‘anti-democratic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and therefore also a threat to the constitution,’’ the German chancellor’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters. But a previous attempt to outlaw the party was rebuffed by the country’s top court in 2003 and officials are treading carefully before deciding whether to launch a new bid to have the party banned.

Apfel’s appeal to mainstream voters runs parallel to the emergence of several ultranationalist fringe groups. One calls itself ‘‘The Immortals.’’ It has staged marches in small towns, protesting what it regards as an excessive influx of foreigners threatening the racial purity of the German nation. Chilling videos show dozens of people in white masks carrying burning torches.

There are no reliable estimates for the number of members these new fringe groups have. Authorities estimate that they number in the several thousands, with many more who sympathize with the cause but are not actively involved.

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