A large-scale anti-fascist action in Dresden last weekend ended with brutal violence. February 13th has for years been a day of solemn ceremonies in this city on the Elbe, the capital of Saxony. It marks the date in 1945 when British and American planes destroyed the heart of Dresden, a treasure chest of baroque architecture created largely by Italian architects, engineers, and workers imported by August the Strong in the 1700s when he became a Catholic so as to gain the throne in neighboring Poland. The number of air-raid victims, always hotly debated, is now estimated to have been at least 25,000 people, killed by bombs or the firestorm raging through the streets. Historians still argue about Dresden’s military importance. Some say it was already clear it would be a key center of the Soviet Occupation Zone and the bombing, like the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, was a first blow in the Cold War, a show of strength and veiled threat to the Soviets. The controversies still continue.
In recent years, new sources of conflict have arisen. Saxony is a traditionally important East German industrial area whose textile, machine tool, and electronics industry were decimated by German unification. Many towns and cities were left high and dry. Young people with skills and ambition, especially women, went west in the search for jobs. Others who remained, often young men with little training, few opportunities, and less hope, were often recruited by demagogic neo-Nazi organizers who swiftly moved into eastern Germany after the Wall fell. Whole towns have become “liberated areas” for rightists, “No-Go Zones” where leftists and foreigners, especially people of color, are insulted, attacked, and occasionally murdered. The local authorities — out of opportunism, fear, or sympathy — often tolerate the Nazis.
A few larger cities like Dresden and Leipzig were rescued by major western car or electronics companies happy to take advantage of a skilled labor pool, wages averaging about 70 percent of West German levels, and a widespread fear of organized struggle. But with the current economic crisis, even these oases of job opportunities are threatening to dry up.
Meanwhile the neo-Nazi movement has become two-pronged in nature. Gangs of young thugs do the bloody work, striking at “Zecken” (ticks, their word for leftists), Turks, Arabs, Africans, Poles, or Vietnamese while slicker men in ties and suits join hometown clubs and organizations, run local fairs with games and goodies for the kids, and win seats in city and county councils — and nine seats in the state legislature of Saxony. Today Nazis are adopting popular, socially-conscious slogans, critical of the government on economic issues and often stolen from the Left, though always “anti-foreigner” in nature, demanding “Jobs for Germans.” In the past they avoided anti-Semitic slogans or banners (while shouting bloodily vicious songs at semi-secret discos and “concerts”). Now, however, due to growing horror at atrocities in Gaza and Palestine (despite the official German alliance with the Israeli government), the Nazis are trying to misuse these sentiments to spread anti-Semitism.
One propaganda ploy of the Nazi “legislators” has been to label the destruction of Dresden a “Bombing Holocaust,” thus playing down the horror of the real Holocaust (which most Nazis refuse even to recognize) while appealing to still strong emotions of the Dresdeners, many of whom lost parents or grandparents in the air raid and sometimes overlook the difference between the 25,000 deaths in Dresden and the six million in the death camps or turn a blind eye to the original cause of the death and destruction in both cases. So every year the Nazis hold a “memorial march” in Dresden to mark February 13th. They tried to join official or church ceremonies until growing protests compelled a sharp division. This year they planned their biggest effort thus far.
Nearly every weekend the Nazis use the Internet to organize marches of their thugs in towns and cities all over Germany, east and west. There is almost always a counter-demonstration, also aided by the Internet, and almost always out-numbering the Nazis. Sometimes church, political, and union leaders join to oppose the marches, but where city governments are dominated by those who fear, tolerate, or even favor the Nazis the protests may involve only The Left, the Greens, and groups of young antifascists, who often try to block the Nazis by crossing their line of march or sitting down in the street. In some cases “anarchist” or so-called “autonomous” groups, possibly including provocateurs, may throw bottles or stones at the Nazis but, peaceful or not, the police habitually protect the Nazis but harass or arrest antifascists. Since the pro-Nazi National Democratic Party is legal they can get permits for demonstrations if they keep to bans on swastikas, Hitler salutes, and the like.
For the Dresden event, their biggest of the season, 6,000 Nazis were mustered from all over Germany, from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, even Sweden. Most were truly frightening bullish types who, one could well imagine, only temporarily laid aside baseball bats, bicycle chains, and swastika-embossed knives to get through possible controls by the 4,300 policemen and women assigned to Dresden last Saturday. They marched from the Main Station into the center of town — aided by the cops who prevented any anti-fascist plans to block their path – and called their demonstration a good start into the election campaigns later this year, both in Saxony and in all Germany.
As in most cases, the anti-fascists, numbering about 12,500, were in a clear majority, but were divided. The largest group paraded to another central square with flags, balloons, and banners under the Spanish Civil War slogan “No pasarán” and was led by Gregor Gysi from The Left, Claudia Roth from the Greens, Franz Müntefering from the SPD and several union leaders. Carefully separated from this group was a much smaller, silent march led by the Minister President of Saxony and the mayor of Dresden, both members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union.
Many on the left call for a ban on the proto-Nazi NPD party, which takes advantage of its legal status to hold such demonstrations but also to gain large sums of money granted legal parties in Germany. A previous attempt to ban the party failed when it was found that many of its illegal anti-Semitic, anti-foreigner, and anti-democratic statements and proclamations had been written, at least in part, by government-paid spies within its ranks. These informers accomplish nothing and should be withdrawn so the party can be outlawed, many on the Left insist. Their frequent slogan is “Fascism is not a way of thinking but a criminal action.” The Left also claims that despite occasional calls by the ruling parties to “stand up and be counted” against the Nazis, they are rarely so visibly involved as in the Dresden media event and often assist the Nazis by equating the Hitler dictatorship with the German Democratic Republic in East Germany as two almost equally nasty regimes, thus playing down the Nazis’ criminal brutality and mass murder.
The three marches remained peaceful by and large — but had a brutal aftermath. When two busloads of antifascists stopped at a highway restaurant on their way home they were attacked by over 40 Nazis in a bus which followed theirs. Several of the union members, peace activists and Left party members were beaten. Two, not so quick to make it back to their bus, were hurt more seriously, one with a broken kneecap, the other with a serious skull fracture. The police were blamed for not taking precautions to prevent such incidents after the Dresden demonstrations had ended. According to antifascist spokespersons, the attack was one more proof that the visible, legal activities of the NPD were camouflage for brutal bands of goons and thugs roaming the streets in all parts of Germany.
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).