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Eisenach: Katja Wolf, the NPD – and the handshake crisis

Saturday, 07.12.2019
22:25 clock

Who wants to Katja Wolf, must pass through a kind of security zone. On the second floor of the Eisenach Town Hall, several signs point to the camera, which monitors the entrance to the mayor's office.

  But Wolf does not look like a scared woman when she opens the door and extends a friendly hand. Petite is the 43-year-old, her appearance restrained, the voice rather quiet. But what the left-wing politician says she says very clearly.

  Wolf is at the center of an extraordinary legal dispute: in Thuringia, newly elected city councils are legally bound by handshake, but Mayor Wolf repeatedly refused to reach out to the Eisenach NPD deputies. The group chairman then complained, the case is now in the Federal Administrative Court, and the Prime Minister intervened.

  Why all that?

  Wolf sits down at her meeting table with a large cup of tea on which files and documents are piled up. She took her time to calmly explain how the handshake crisis came about – and why it's worth the years of litigation.

  

To person

Peter Maxwill / THE MIRROR

Katja Wolf, born in 1976, joined the PDS after the fall of the wall and studied social education in her hometown of Erfurt. In 1999, the then 22-year-old was elected to the Thuringian state parliament, since 2012 she is mayor of the 43,000-inhabitant city of Eisenach.

  
SPIEGEL: Ms. Wolf, is a handshake a political issue?

  
Wolf: In any case, he has a high symbolic power, because it meets at eye level and pay respect. And if I do not have a choice who to shake hands with, it becomes a political act, of course.

  
SPIEGEL: Since when do you think so?

  
Wolf: Before the local elections five and a half years ago, I realized that there is a personal limit for me: I do not want to touch certain people, let alone in an official context. That is why I have never shaken Mr. Wieschke's hand – and I hope that no court will force me to do so.

  

DPA
Patrick Wieschke (archive)

  
Patrick Wieschke is the man who took Wolf to court. The 38-year-old demands for himself and his NPD colleagues in the city council the handshake of the Lord Mayor. The multiple convicted neo-Nazi was long country chief of his party and member of the federal executive, his name appeared in the environment of the NSU. In the extreme right-wing scene, he is still considered extremely influential.

  
SPIEGEL: Wieschke is a political opponent who apparently can mobilize many people.

  
Wolf: He is a right-wing extremist, convicted, inter alia, of a bomb attack on a doner kebab, for assault and sedition.

  
SPIEGEL: At the local election in May, Wieschke still received 4600 votes, so many did not receive any of them except for you. Probably because of Wieschke, the NPD came to 10.2 percent.

  

Wolf: I am very sorry about that. We have a problem with a far-right milieu, but Eisenach is not a brown city: 90 percent of the people turn away from the NPD. This is an unconstitutional party – as the Federal Constitutional Court has stated. It would be devastating to establish political normality with such a party and its right-wing ideology. May I be a bit pathetic for a while?

  
SPIEGEL: If it serves the cause …

  
Wolf: My concern is no less than the defense of the Basic Law: "The dignity of man is inviolable." This contradicts the program of the NPD fundamentally. But it's not just a political decision to deny NPD politicians a handshake. But also a very personal one.

  
SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

  
Wolf: With every fiber of his being, Mr. Wieschke is a racist, anti-constitutional right-wing radical. Why should I have physical contact with someone like that? I would like to decide for myself whom to congratulate with a handshake.

  
The Thüringer Kommunalordnung stipulates that city councils are to be "committed to the conscientious fulfillment of their duties by handshake". However, Wolf refused in 2014 as well as in 2019 to shake hands with the NPD representatives. There are videos documenting this bizarre ceremony.

  
  
SPIEGEL: The NPD assumes that you would use your position for a "small-scale war" against the party.

  
Wolf: But that's not true! I respect the election result one to one, the members of the NPD faction have the same rights and obligations as all other city councils. They receive the same official information and invitations, they are in no way disadvantaged in voting, they sit in committees and supervisory boards. As a lord mayor, I attach great importance to this.

  
SPIEGEL: And yet you just said that the NPD is an unconstitutional party with which there should be no normality.

  
Wolf: The Federal Constitutional Court has not banned the NPD. And who is elected democratically belongs to it. These are the rules.

  
The handshake does not belong to Wolf these immovable rules. The state government saw the 2014 similar, as well as the judiciary: The administrative court Meiningen dismissed Wieschkes complaint – because a handshake "create personal proximity, which could be difficult in fundamental differences of opinion". However, the Weimar Supreme Administrative Court ruled in 2019 that the obligation to shake hands "clearly and unambiguously" results from the law. Wolf went against this decision, now the Federal Administrative Court must decide.

  
SPIEGEL: You've been dealing with this thing for five and a half years now. Was it worth it?

  
Wolf: At that time it was not foreseeable that such a legal wave would result. But perhaps it is quite good that the question is now basically resolved, even if it takes longer. I can handle that.

  
Wolf has experience with enduring the NPD. In 2015, right-wing extremists managed to win over several representatives of other groups: 16 local politicians – just under half of the City Council – voted to recall Wolf, even though the NPD had only three seats. Meanwhile, the party even has four MPs in Eisenach – and their own property: The "Lilac People's House" is the state office and a meeting place of the right-wing scene.

  

Peter Maxwill / THE MIRROR
"Flieder Volkshaus": scene meeting and NPD office in Eisenach

  
SPIEGEL: Did you possibly unintentionally strengthen the NPD by giving it the opportunity to stage yourself as a victim of alleged discrimination?

  
Wolf: The medal has two sides. An incredible number of people came to me, even strangers, and thanked me – because they felt strengthened by me in their commitment to right-wing extremism.

  
SPIEGEL: Could not you have taught that differently? Her party colleague Birgit Keller has put on gloves a few years ago, before she signed as a district councilor in Nordhausen two NPD district members.

  
Wolf: Everyone has to make that up with themselves. It was not my way.

  
SPIEGEL: How do you feel about AfD politicians?

  
Wolf raises her eyebrows and her voice. She had probably expected this question – after all, the AfD in Thuringia, where the "wing" word leader Björn Höcke party leader, is particularly right. And according to a recent study, the party recorded in the state election, especially in NPD strongholds great success.

  
Wolf: For me there is a clear border between NPD and AfD. This is really very important to me: The Constitutional Court has ruled that the NPD is unconstitutional, not the AfD. Of course, there are overlaps in content between the two parties, and in the AfD I see anti-constitutional tendencies.

  
SPIEGEL: But?

  
Wolf: Equating with the NPD would be inappropriate. Of course that does not change the fact that I strongly criticize utterances such as those of Björn Höcke. And we also realize that the election successes of the AfD are damaging our city and the entire region.

  
SPIEGEL: To what extent?

  
Wolf: I just had a conversation with an investor who called me after the state election and said: "We consider whether we actually want to invest in Thuringia after this election result."

  

Peter Maxwill / THE MIRROR
Town Hall in the center of Eisenach: culture, history and neo-Nazis

  
Eisenach is the location of a large Opel plant and the birthplace of Johann Sebastian Bach, Luther stayed here on the Wartburg, the historic center is like an open-air museum. The university city has culture, science, history – and a problem with right-wing extremists.

  
SPIEGEL: Do not you value the AfD unintentionally by treating its representatives like politicians in the Greens or the CDU?

  
Wolf: So far, the local AfD has hardly occurred here. Once she begins to argue racistically and question that Eisenach is a cosmopolitan city, I would have to reconsider my attitude.

  
SPIEGEL: What consequences does the handshake debate have, apart from the legal dispute?

  
Wolf: It was discussed very heatedly about it, as clearly worlds collide. Time and again it was about who the NPD is, what right-wing radicals want and how a liberal society deals with constitutional enemies. Such debates are vital to our democracy.

  
SPIEGEL: You say this as if Eisenach had to fear a seizure of power by the Right.

  
Wolf: The Weimar Republic did not fail because of the far-right minority. But at the silent democratic majority. Therefore, there must not be any normality with constitutional enemies – and that is why I call for the abolition of this traditional handshake rule.

  
Wolf is not alone with that. Above all, politicians of the left have solidarized with her and advocated a reform of the municipal order – most recently Thuringia's Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow. On the other hand, there was criticism from the local CDU, for example, who described Wolf's actions as "disturbing".

  
SPIEGEL: How exhausting is that all for you personally?

  
Wolf: Of course, I also experience privation and polarization privately.

  
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SPIEGEL: Are not you afraid?

  
Wolf: One should not be impressed, for me there's no alternative. That's why the litigation also goes through the instances.

  
SPIEGEL: How far do you want to go?

  
Wolf: I'm not a principle rider. But when it comes to who I have body contact with, it becomes in principle. My body is mine!

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