BONN, MAY 25 -- The Republicans, the extremist West German party whose sudden success last year pushed mainstream politicians a couple of notches to the right, appear to be in a state of collapse -- victims of both German unification and their own incompetence.
Today, party chairman Franz Schoenhuber, a 67-year-old former Nazi Waffen-SS sergeant and TV talk show host, quit. The move came hours after his followers decided to throw him out of the party.
The far-right party, an avowedly nationalist group that aims to expel all foreigners from the country, had already taken three hard blows in recent weeks.
First, the new East German government banned the party. Then the party's deputy chief, Johanna Grund, won huge headlines across the country for all the wrong reasons -- it turned out she was a he. The woman who went on TV to preach the Republican message was revealed to be a former sportswriter named Hans.
The most crushing blow came two weeks ago, when voters in two of the country's largest states gave the Republicans less than 2 percent in local elections. The showing was a moment of truth for a party that had won more than 7 percent in a nationwide election last June.
"We have to have a change," said Reinhard Rade, the party secretary in Bavaria. "We have no clear profile anymore. We only had Mr. Schoenhuber. People don't see any use for the Reps," the party nickname.
The Republicans' anti-foreigner message -- aimed primarily at Turks and Gypsies and declared potentially neo-Nazi by West Germany's domestic intelligence office -- appeared to have considerable appeal last winter. As tens of thousands of East Germans, Poles and other immigrants poured into the country each week, popular resentment soared.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other prominent politicians, fearful that the Republicans would pass the 5 percent threshold necessary to win seats in parliament, tried to protect their right flank.
For weeks, Kohl withstood heavy domestic and international pressure and refused to guarantee that a united Germany would respect the East German-Polish border, thereby rekindling hopes among right-wingers that Germany might one day regain the land it lost after its defeat in World War II. The Republicans refer to East Germany as Middle Germany, reserving the term "East" for parts of Poland.
Even the left-of-center Social Democrats played to the right, picking up one of the Republicans' themes by criticizing the government for spending too much money on easing the adjustment for people arriving from the East.
Whether it was the other parties' shift to the right or the national euphoria over unification that did it, the Republicans have been unable to capitalize on the impending marriage of the two Germanys.
"The collapse of the Republicans is a victory for our democracy," said Otto Lambsdorff, chairman of Kohl's coalition partner Free Democrats. Kohl's Christian Democrats welcomed the news about Schoenhuber as proof that a party that offers "nothing but protest" will not win wide support.
Rade said the four-year-old party -- which still has about 25,000 members, 11 seats in the West Berlin legislature and six representatives in the European parliament -- had to get rid of Schoenhuber to cleanse itself of its extremist, neo-Nazi reputation and appeal to mainstream voters.
"We are now the party against crime, against immigration, for sending the foreign workers out," Rade said. "They must be stopped."
Schoenhuber was frequently accused of being antisemitic as well as anti-foreigner. He would smile and deny the charge, reminding questioners that his ex-wife was Jewish.
But the party magazine, Credo, ran advertisements for videos of Third Reich newsreel footage showing heroic depictions of Adolf Hitler, and party members were encouraged to read Schoenhuber's self-congratulatory wartime diary, "I Was There."
Rade said the remaining Republican leaders plan a comeback as "a right-wing, nationalist group like the National Front in France. The time is right in Europe for nationalism."
But political analysts here say the Republicans had their chance and were rejected. Schoenhuber focused his appeal on Germans' resentment against foreigners who competed with them for jobs and housing.
To some extent, even though unemployment and the housing crunch have been aggravated by the influx of East Germans and other immigrants, West Germans seem preoccupied by the politics of unification.
Much resentment remains, however. Opinion polls show that most West Germans oppose the speed of unification and fear that they will have to pay heavily to revive the East German economy.
But the major West German parties were not about to leave such a groundswell of emotion to a fringe group. So, said a speechwriter for the Social Democrats, "the major parties stole parts of the Republicans' message, toned it down for mass consumption, and got rid of this crazy group."