Neo-Nazis in Germany, or Déjà Vu?

An argument at a summer fair in the small town of Muegeln, between Leipzig and Dresden, ended with a mob of fifty drunken young men wielding knives and other weapons and shouting “Foreigners Get Out!” chasing eight men from India — longtime residents in Muegeln — across the town square.  The Indians, some badly wounded, found refuge in a snack bar belonging to one of them.  The police showed up just before the mob broke down the door.

Singh Gorvinda is one of those who was injured in the incident. The attackers yelled “Foreigners Out!” as they chased down their victims. (“Manhunt In Mügeln,” Spiegel Online 21 August 2007)

A few days later, north of Berlin, a similar mob attacked the Pakistani owner of a little snack bar.  He too was barely saved by the slow-moving police.

In June, in Thuringia, the mob victims were not people of color but a traveling theater group — with a show opposing race hatred.  Several actors were injured, one of them severely.

Those are a few recent cases.  Many incidents go unreported.  When they are serious enough to get into the media the politicians respond quickly.  On the national level, whenever Germany’s international reputation might be damaged and investments or the tourist industry affected, there is loud outrage, which fades within a few days or weeks.  On the provincial level there are loud expressions of surprised alarm that such things could happen here, on our turf.  On the local level there is mostly denial and a variety of excuses.  The mayor of Muegeln quickly asserted that those in the mob were certainly out-of-towners; he knew of no organized rightwing extremists, while in an interview with a rightwing extremist magazine he stressed that he was “proud to be a German!” and that the whole incident was “overly dramatized”.

Certain aspects of such events recur over and over.  The police arrive late, usually after victims have been beaten though, mostly, before anyone is killed.  They take down the names of one or two of the mob before letting them slip away with the others, but detain the victims for lengthy interrogation, sometimes for hours, often before providing for medical care.

Punishment of the mob members, if any, rarely exceeds a year or two on parole.

West German and foreign media invariably stress that far more attacks occur in eastern Germany, no doubt due to nasty traditions of the GDR — the East German state which ruled here until 1990.  Of course, few mob members were old enough to attend even first or second grade in the GDR, so the former school system can hardly be blamed.  And many such attacks also occur in western Germany.

Nonetheless, they are more frequent in the eastern provinces.  The main reason is clear: in East Germany, where almost the entire industrial base was scuttled during the first years after unification (or annexation, as many call it), the unemployment rate has steadily remained about double the West German rate.  In many towns and smaller cities with one or two factories, their closure condemned the inhabitants to joblessness and hopelessness.  Older workers try to struggle through to an earlier (and reduced) pension.  The brighter boys and most girls hunt for jobs in West Germany, Austria, or Switzerland.  The boys with lower school grades and often without the apprenticeship so necessary in Germany, scrape through on a slim dole, hang around the bars, and are an easy prey for the well-heeled neo-Nazi organizers who have swarmed into eastern Germany ever since the Wall went down.

Three main racist groups can be distinguished, although their members often switch from one to another.  Organized bands of Nazi thugs, who often collect Nazi flags, relics, and weapons of all kinds and were till recently conspicuous with shaven heads, heavy boots, and semi-uniform clothing, hunt down, beat, and occasionally kill people of color, usually small businessmen, but also tourists, the homeless, the handicapped, and young people who don’t match their standards: punks, those with dyed hair or anti-Nazi slogans on their clothing.

A second, much larger group does not belong to any organization but supports neo-Nazis and their loud opposition to a worsening social system they blame either on the Jews or, lacking many of these around, the more common Turks, Vietnamese, Africans, or Poles.

The third group includes the clever ones, who use the first two groups and the apathy or disappointment of the general public to gain political positions.  They may write the blood-curdling texts to popular music styles, calling for cutting Jewish throats and new Auschwitz killings, which are growled out at drunken concerts and distributed on free CDs at schools around the country or at county fair-type get-togethers.  More and more, they dress normally and are careful in what they say publicly, often addressing the social needs faced by so many people, even opposing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but never forgetting their stress on jobs “for Germans.”  Their main party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), and its sister parties, are achieving new victories in provincial elections, as in Saxony where Muegeln is located.  Electoral victories bring them the large sums of money granted by the government to all parties winning electoral seats.

The politicians debate endlessly on whether to ban the NPD.  An attempt to do so four years ago failed when the Supreme Court found that many of the nastiest statements and leaflets were written and distributed in part by spies sent into neo-Nazi groups by the German equivalent of the FBI, who had achieved leading positions.  The Christian Democrats warned of another similar failure, but opposed the withdrawal of these dubious spies.

In many towns and villages, especially in eastern Germany, local governments and judges either sympathize with or fear the Nazis, who call these areas “liberated zones.”  A few show more courage, together with church and union groups.  But when young antifascists actively defy the many NPD marches every weekend in city after city all over Germany, they often find themselves being apprehended and arrested, while the Nazis get police protection.

The NPD is hoping to achieve the five percent level in 2009 which would give it seats in the national Bundestag.  Even if the economy improves the Nazis can increase in strength.  If the economy gets worse an increase is almost inevitable.  Many a worried German is looking at the history books about the years preceding Hitler’s rise to power.

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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