What’s Behind the Growth of Right-Wing Hatred in Germany?

No, it wasn’t shredded wheat.  This shredding was not of breakfast food and has been much harder to digest; it was evidence on serial murder!  The related biliousness is all the more painful due to a worrisome new survey of rightist hatred in Germany.  But first some background.

For a year now the case of three mystery killers has roiled the German scene.  Their mug shots, shown over and over on TV, have made them as recognizable as family members.  The two men are dead, eliminated by rather dubious “suicides.”  The third, Beate Zschäpe, still awaits trial for her role in the killing, between 2000 and 2006, of ten men with immigrant background, nine Turkish and one Greek, of shooting down a policewoman, robbing banks, and igniting a bomb in 2004 in a Turkish neighborhood in Cologne which injured 22 people, four of them severely.

The ten murdered men, all shot in broad daylight at close range with the same silenced CZ 83 pistol, included a grocer, a locksmith, a tailor, and an internet café operator.  Since three were vendors of the popular Turkish specialty food döner kebab the gutter press invented the nasty term “döner murders” and pushed a false line that foreign mafia-type mobs were to blame, probably fighting turf wars.  The actual killer group, its size still unknown, called itself NSU for Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (National Socialist Underground), a reference to its Nazi beliefs (Hitler’s party was also misnamed “Nationalsozialist”).  Its aim, which found such support from part of the media, was to increase anti-foreigner animosity — and move towards its final take-over goals.

Even more earnest than the media-based racism was the reaction of the authorities, especially the government’s secretive political watchdog agency called Verfassungsschutz (VS – Constitutional Protector).  This VS also rejected the most obvious anti-foreigner motivation, neglected to follow up leads supplied by Swiss police as to the origin of the murder weapon, and, even more suspiciously, first denied, then distorted proof that one of its own secret agents was present at the killing in the internet shop, accepting all too quickly his alleged alibi and evidently hindering any attempt to follow up this very damning lead.  The VS has continually held back details on the crimes from an all-party investigatory committee of the Bundestag and finally admitted that much of the evidence had been irrevocably shredded.

This bloody, disturbing affair gained added importance in connection with a survey by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, an investigatory, educational foundation connected with the Social Democratic Party.  On November 14th it published polling results showing that 25% of all Germans had right-wing or anti-foreigner prejudices.  This included forms of anti-Semitism which, it found, now affected one German in eleven, with its increase in part reflecting events in Palestine, especially Gaza.  As many as 31.9% now agreed with the sentence: “The Jews use recollections of the Holocaust today to gain advantages for themselves.”

But even surpassing such views were various kinds of prejudice against Islam or Muslims, affecting almost 60% of the population.

A generally right-wing extremist view of the world, which combines such anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-foreigner prejudice with a “tolerant” assessment of the Nazi years, has grown from 8.2% to 9.0% in the last two years.

Most alarming has been the speedier growth in eastern Germany, the former GDR.  In fact, while right-wing extremist thinking in the western states of Germany actually decreased somewhat since 2006, from 9.1% to 7.6%, it doubled in the East from 6.6 to 15.8%.  This trend was visible in nearly all categories; in regard to anti-Semitism, notably, the situation has now, in recent years, become worse in eastern than in western Germany.  And views either accepting or approving Nazi ideology, formerly a problem largely concentrated in West Germany, are also now stronger in the East.

It has long been media routine, as part of a forcefully engineered campaign to disparage every aspect of GDR life, to postulate that East Germans, due to GDR schools, were more prone to accepting fascist views and prejudices.  This poll indicates the opposite; the age group most infected is that between 14 and 30; even the oldest in this sector were only eight years old when the GDR disappeared.  It had not, and could not banish all such ideas from every head, not even in forty years, but it did have a remarkable degree of success.  In recent times, however, the infection has been steadily spreading eastward.

The Ebert Foundation found that fascistic, xenophobic views are partly related to education, those having the least schooling being most affected.  And hatred of foreigners is strongest in areas where there are almost no residents with immigrant backgrounds, which means rural and small-town districts, especially in the East (just as anti-Semitism is strongest where people have never ever met any Jewish people).

But more important, if hardly surprising, it was found that, aside from senior pensioners, those most affected by fascistic ideology are the jobless.  The study’s authors blame the “worrisome trend in the East” on “the cutting off of certain regions from general social-economic development (especially in rural areas) . . . not only in the East but in the West as well. . .  Right-wing extremism is definitely not only a problem of the East.”

When all Germany was united within the Federal Republic in 1990, most East German industry was eliminated, resulting in a jobless rate which has remained almost double the West German rate ever since; it currently averages about ten percent.  Sporadic new growth was primarily in certain limited urban centers like Dresden, Jena, or Leipzig, while the former systems of child care, youth clubs, and free participation in athletic and cultural activities were critically reduced.  Especially young women moved westwards to find jobs, while many young men, frequently less mobile, remained behind in hopeless towns and districts where the Nazis, some local but many from West Germany, offered them a feeling of group belonging and a vent for frustration, most clearly marked in concerts with bands and hard-drinking audiences bawling out hateful texts against foreigners, Jews, gays, and all leftists.  Anti-fascists courageously opposed them in many areas, but not a few mayors, police chiefs, and district attorneys either tolerated them out of fear or, all too often, defiantly encouraged them.

It would be wrong to generalize and over-simplify.  There are many contradictions.  The pro-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) was able to win state legislature seats only in Saxony and in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, both in eastern Germany, but the electoral trend has luckily been downward.  In the former state, the NPD got 5.6% of the vote in 2009 (down from 9.2% in 2004); in the latter, Germany’s poorest, it got 6.0% in 2011 (down from 7.3% in 2006).  There are constant confrontations with vigorous anti-fascists.

This brings us back to national politics.  In this past year the evidence mounted of mysterious connections between the NSU killers and politicians, especially but not exclusively in the East German state of Thuringia, where the three killers come from.  There were cover-ups, advance tip-offs of police raids, and well-paid secret agents of the authorities who helped build the neo-Nazi underground — but somehow could not help in finding the killers.

After the monstrous bombing in Cologne in 2006 the local police found evidence pointing directly to a right-wing terrorist attack and reported it that way to the federal Ministry of the Interior, Germany’s top authority for police affairs.  But the minister, the Social Democrat Otto Schily, once a left-wing radical but by then a main supporter of authoritarian positions, did not even interrupt his vacation, while his Ministry insisted that the word “terrorist” be removed from all correspondence regarding the tragedy.  It was to be treated only as a conflict “between immigrants.”  The officials involved have all displayed a remarkably weak memory about the case, which somehow fits well with the “accidental” paper shredding.

Berlin’s city-state government has also become involved.  One of its own secret agents, employed from 2000 to 2011 though he had himself been convicted of inciting racial hatred, had evidently known the killer trio personally for years, may even have provided them with material for bombs, and had been friendly with the woman, Zschäpe.  It seems that he had actually reported on his acquaintanceship with the wanted criminals to his Berlin bosses, who somehow did not react.  For months these facts, if that is what they are, were not passed on to the investigating committee.  Some may have been lost forever to the shredding machine.  Much is uncertain, but the Christian Democrat Frank Henkel, deputy mayor and responsible for law enforcement, has not been his usual jolly self recently during unfriendly questioning about his dubious conduct from Berlin’s three opposition parties, the Greens, the Pirates, and the Left.  His cabinet seat in the city is still wobbly.

Will the jigsaw pieces of the Nazi underground murders and bombing ever be fitted together, despite the retention of secrets and the shredding of documents?  In any case, the existence of a right-wing danger can no longer be ignored, while unpleasant recollections sometimes surface about the early decades of the VS, which was created and for years staffed largely by Nazi killers.  Despite all the befuddling, the big question remains: to what extent do the bungling, buck passing, and shredding represent not so much “normal” attempts to cover up poor administration and faulty judgment but rather, on quite high levels, the toleration of extremist pro-fascists because of their potential political usefulness?

The present Interior Minister on the federal level, Hans-Peter Friedrich, has now found a solution which might have been expected from a man who himself comes from the right edge of the spectrum.  Aside from firing a few more conspicuous sacrificial lambs (if one can refer to such types as lambs) and setting up a new central register, connecting all the agencies, he plans to establish a new bureau devoted to sniffing out all presumed terrorists,” Islamic,” right-wing, and also left-wing.  And the Merkel cabinet, which knows that active resistance to the Nazis has come mostly from the left, wants to continue demands that anti-fascist groups sign an “extremism clause” rejecting all “unconstitutional” connections with the right or the left.  As expected, compliance with such “loyalty oaths” is often refused, which leads, as intended, to cutting off left-wing anti-fascists from any official support, legal or financial.

How familiar is this old pattern!  Pro-Nazis — who even without a definite agenda like the NSU have been attacking and sometimes killing people for years, mostly people of color, but occasionally leftists and who have set the homes of immigrants on fire and threateningly put both names and addresses of leftist opponents on Internet — are equated with activists on the left who try to block the path of fascist marches and rallies, whereby occasional hotheads (or provocateurs) sometimes throw a bottle or a stone at them.  This old equation, so basic to the ideology of politicians in many countries, is now being demonstrated most dramatically in Greece, where the immense popularity of the left-wing Syriza is being met by fostering — also, again, by the police — of the Golden Dawn fascists.

The study by the Fritz Ebert Stiftung takes a stand against this pattern:

There is a direct connection between social gaps, social-structural disintegration, and inhumane thinking.  This makes it especially important, on both the European and the national level, to deal with social-economic questions, in other words with questions of the distribution of wealth.  Turning social conflicts into ethnic issues only plays into the hands of the right-wing populists and increases the spread of right-wing extremist attitudes. . . .

Generating general suspicion against social projects by insisting on an “extremism clause” while equating the inhumane ideology of the right-wing extremism with any kind of left-wing extremism whatsoever is inacceptable and counter-productive.  The very genuine threat of the right-wing extremists must by no means be minimized by equating it with a fictitious threat from left-wing extremism.

It may be hoped that if the Social Democratic Party attains a share in Germany’s next government in 2013, and especially if the economic situation becomes more earnest, thus strengthening the fascists, this cogent warning from its own foundation will not itself land in a shredder!

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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