Franz Xaver Schönhuber

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Franz Xaver Schönhuber

Franz Xaver Schönhuber (born 1923) gained wide notoriety as leader of the right-wing political party, the Republicans, in what was then West Germany.

Franz Schönhuber was born on January 19, 1923, in the Bavarian town of Trostberg an der Alz. His father, a Catholic butcher, joined the Nazi Party in 1931. Young Schönhuber attended Catholic boarding school in Bavaria but finished his secondary education in Dresden and Munich, as his family moved to those cities.

In 1942, at age 19, Schönhuber volunteered for service in the elite military wing of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), the Waffen-SS. He was posted to France, Corsica, Italy, and Yugoslavia. In 1943 he was decorated with the Iron Cross, Second Class. After the war he was interned by the British military forces and served the occupation authorities as an interpreter.

Returning to Bavaria, Schönhuber worked for a time as an actor in provincial theaters. He then turned to journalism and became editor of a tabloid newspaper in Munich. He married a woman from Hungary who was of half Jewish parentage, but they were divorced after the birth of a daughter. Later he married again, a lawyer who was for a time a Social Democratic deputy in the Munich city assembly. Between 1972 and 1982 Schönhuber was employed by the Bavarian State Radio, first as a reporter and then as host of a popular television show. He was dismissed following the publication in 1981 of his autobiography, in which he defended his wartime activities.

After he lost his job in television, Schönhuber became aligned with the new party of Republicans. It was founded in late 1983 by two former deputies of the conservative Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) in the West German parliament who had resigned from that party. They disapproved of CSU leader Franz Josef Strauss' domination of the party and also of his abandonment of hard-line anticommunism and acceptance of the West German government's policy of recognizing East Germany and extending financial aid to it in hopes of ameliorating the lot of the East German population.

By 1985 Schönhuber, whose television following and fiery oratory soon established him as the most magnetic personality among the Republicans, had become chairman of the Republicans. Under his leadership the new party espoused a conservative, nationalistic program and appealed particularly to West German discontent with the presence in their society of millions of workers from Turkey and other foreign countries who competed with Germans for increasingly scarce jobs while enjoying the full benefits of West Germany's elaborate and expensive welfare state.

The Republicans also criticized the policy of conciliation toward East Germany followed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and called for a crusade against communism. Despite Schönhuber's vigorous campaigning, his party tallied a mere three percent of the vote in the Bavarian state election of 1986.

During 1987 and 1988 Schönhuber's Republicans carried their organizing efforts into the northern parts of West Germany. In January 1989, to the surprise of political observers, they won 7.5 percent of the votes in West Berlin and captured 11 of the 139 seats in the city parliament. In June 1989 they gained 7.1 percent of West German ballots for the European Parliament by securing the support of over two million voters. Schönhuber and five other Republicans were elected to seats in the Strasbourg Assembly, where they soon aligned themselves with the French National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen. The two rightist parties had much in common, drawing support from disgruntled elements of society who believed they were being treated unfairly by their governments and resented the presence of large numbers of foreigners in their countries.

The upheaval that brought down the East German regime in the fall of 1989 and set in motion the unification of the two Germanys eclipsed Schönhuber and the Republicans. In the midst of momentous events that were reshaping the German nation, their carping criticisms of the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to sound increasingly petulant and irrelevant—when they were noticed at all. In March 1990 the party was excluded, on the grounds of extremism, from participation in the first free parliamentary election in East Germany. When voters went to the polls in May 1990 in two of West Germany's federal states, Lower Saxony and Rhineland-Westphalia, the Republicans tallied only 1.5 percent and 1.8 percent of the ballots, respectively.

At the end of May 1990 Franz Schönhuber resigned as chairman of the Republicans when the party executive withdrew its confidence from him. With the party's promise of national reunification through militant anticommunism rendered outdated by events, the Republicans displayed every sign of disintegration as the 1990 election of the first all-German postwar parliament approached. Nevertheless, the 67-year-old Schönhuber, reluctant to abandon a political career that had thrust him into national prominence, engaged during the summer and autumn of 1990 in a public struggle for control of what remained of the Republicans' organization against the increasingly strident opposition of younger party members.

Schönhuber was able to revive the Republican Party. In the 1992 and 1993 elections the Republican Party, still under his leadership, was able to muster votes, in a few districts. During this time reports of Nazi terrorism spread across Germany. Nazi activities were principally directed at refugees and at Roma people. As a member of the European Parliament Schönhuber may have legitimized the Nazi movement in the eyes of his true believers. By 1994 the Neo-Nazis were making use of modern technology and establishing electronic communication networks, as well as computer bulletin boards and Internet Web pages.

Further Reading

The greatest source of additional information on Franz Schönhuber was in his own book, Ich war dabei (Munich, 1981), which may be translated as "I Was a Witness." For a dissident view of the union of the two Germanys see Two States—One Nation (1990) by the noted German writer Gunter Grass. A James Jackson article in Time (June 6, 1994), provided a summary of Neo-Nazi activities. □