BERLIN (NYTIMES) - A far-right German political party is calling on students and their families to report teachers who air their political views in school, leading to charges that the party has revived the methods of the dreaded East German state police.
A website run by the Alternative for Germany party, also known as the AfD, urges students and parents to send information about teachers violating the country's neutrality code, which forbids them from promoting their political views in classrooms.
The party suggested that offences could range from "crude criticism of the AfD to incorrect and subjective learning materials", to outright calls to take part in anti-AfD protests.
Ms Katarina Barley, the country's justice minister, joined teachers' organisations on Thursday (Oct 11) in decrying the measure as an attempt by the AfD to limit democracy in the classroom and intimidate teachers, citing parallels between the party's efforts and those of the Stasi, the secret police in the former East Germany, who turned millions of citizens into informers on their neighbours, teachers, friends, co-workers and even family members.
"Anyone who incites students to spy on their teachers brings Stasi methods back to Germany," she wrote on Twitter. "Organised denunciation intends to set us against each other and drive a wedge into society."
The governments of both Nazi Germany and communist East Germany encouraged people to report on their fellow citizens who were seen as posing a threat to the ruling order, cultivating a culture of unease and suspicion that still resonates with many Germans today.
The AfD rejects the criticism and the Stasi parallel, and insists that the online site it started in September is a tool to help parents who feel their children are being manipulated by schools and teachers, some of whom they say have encouraged students to take part in anti-AfD demonstrations.
The debate comes amid a surge in popularity for the AfD, which finished third in the 2017 parliamentary elections and emerged as the leading opposition force after Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats formed a centrist ruling coalition.
Recent weeks have seen the AfD rise in the polls before important state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, both traditional strongholds of the chancellor's conservative bloc.
In Bavaria, where the far-right party is expected to make its debut in the state Legislature after voting on Sunday, teachers association president Sabine Fleischmann insisted that teachers need to be able to present opposing points of view in the classroom to teach students how democracy works.
"I see the portal as problematic above all because it intervenes in teachers' responsibilities," Ms Fleischmann told Bavarian Radio. "I have to be able to present controversial issues."
The AfD website, called "Neutral Schools Online", was launched at the end of September, at the start of the new school year, in the northern city of Hamburg. But party officials in other states across Germany have said they plan to put up similar sites in their constituencies.
The site includes information about the neutrality code, which requires teachers and school administrators to refrain from expressing political opinions that could influence their students.
While the AfD says students and their parents should first take up any violations directly with their teachers or school administrators, it points out that such a step takes "courage", adding that anyone who might "fear personal disadvantage" is encouraged to instead report the incident directly to the party.
Within the first few weeks, the party said, it had received hundreds of tips. Actual violations of the law will be reported to the authorities, it said. Hamburg school officials said it had always been possible to report such a violation directly to the school system.
Mr Udo Beckmann, head of the German Association for Education and Schooling, an educators' union, stressed that teachers in Germany are required to swear their allegiance to the state constitution.
In addition, teachers pledge to uphold guidelines that forbid political indoctrination in schools, require discussion of controversial topics to reflect differing points of view and require students to be taught to analyse political situations.
"This is an attempt to use democratic means against democracy," Mr Beckmann said of the site.
"Freedom of thought does not mean the right to say anything, and the neutrality law does not mean not being able to say anything. Teachers must be able to teach their students to think critically."