Right Wing Extremism in Germany

Dominik Cziesche, Conny Neumann, Barbara Schmid, Caroline Schmidt, Markus Verbeet, and Steffen Winter, Der Spiegel (Hamburg), May 23

German young people, faced with liberal parents who are tolerant about sex, drugs and rock and roll, are increasingly rebelling by turning to right-wing extremism. Neo-nazi fashion, music and ideology have become an ever important part of German youth culture.

Where did this “German” image come from? It’s hard to say who the first person was to show up to a party in a Lonsdale shirt, curse “the Russians” or download the latest CDs by Bremen’s Germanic renegade heavy metal band Kategorie C.

But Christian, Stefan and Andy don’t really care how it all started. They see just themselves as good kids, living in decent families in a small city west of Munich. They’re in their late teens, about to graduate from high school. And they say that there are too many foreigners “in our country.” They say that “they” should leave, and that then things would be sure to get better.

They believe that if foreigners left there would be more jobs and fewer unemployed Turks getting money from the government. There would be no Albanian drug dealers on the streets and no macho Islamic guys hitting on their girlfriends. They would also no longer run the risk of being beaten up by large groups of “Russians” on a Friday night in front of their favorite bar. They say it is always “the Russians” who attack first.

!<)lonsdale.jpg! Christian, Stefan and Andy aren’t the fighting types. They repeat stupid xenophobic language, but aren’t just dim-witted thugs. They say that they would never vote for the NPD—or not yet at any rate. They say they’re afraid. Afraid of violent foreigners in their own home town. So afraid, in fact, that they wouldn’t even give us their real first names. To avoid getting bloody noses, they’ve discovered a detour through back yards when they go out on a Friday night. Ever since the neighborhood near the train station became a ghetto for immigrants, drunk young Russian-born Germans (the descendants of Germans who were deported to the Soviet Union after World War II) have been cruising the city’s downtown streets and alleys, looking for a fight. First, says Andy, they surround their victim, then start pushing him around, and finally descend on him with their fists. Since then the three teenagers, all tall and athletic, have been avoiding the gas station and the athletic club’s parking lot, places where the Russians hang out. This defensive posture is referred as Deutschtümelei, or sticking up for everything German. It’s an us-against-them attitude, us-against-the-Russians, the Turks, the Albanians. Young Germans no longer know how to differentiate between foreign thugs and peaceful foreign-born German citizens. And they are convinced that their generation should no longer be held responsible for Hitler’s crimes. Wouldn’t it be better to go to the police or speak with the parents? “They,” says Stefan, “don’t have a clue about what’s going on. And the police don’t even bother to show up anymore. They don’t care.” One of the boys says that his mother, who he characterizes as “more to the left,” became very upset when he and a group of friends tied the German flag to their tent during a summer camping trip. “Hey guys,” she said, angrily, “you must be nuts, where do you think you are?” But what the boy’s mother didn’t seem to notice was that the surrounding tents were all flying flags—Dutch, British and Hungarian—and that no one seemed to care about that. “We’re not allowed to be patriots. We’re not allowed to be proud of our country, but they are. Why? It’s really annoying,” they say. Too cool for Skool So now they wear something they call the secret insignia of the right-wing scene: New Balance shoes. The “N” on the shoes is supposed to stand for “national,” something that would never occur to mothers. They download songs by bands like Störkraft (Disturbing Force) and sport closely-cropped hair. And instead of making them outcasts in their school, their music and their haircuts are even considered hip in German schools these days. Quietly and persistently, a new youth culture has developed in both the eastern and western parts of Germany. It’s Germanic and xenophobic and potentially explosive. While the German government does its best to ban neo-Nazi demonstrations at memorials for victims of the Nazis, right-wing extremism is gaining new adherents in schools, concert venues and at youth gatherings. The “nationalist mood” has become “chronic and wide-spread” in former East Germany, says Bernd Wagner, an expert on extremism. But young people in these areas are unlikely to encounter many foreigners there. According to a current study by the Bavarian State Office for Political Education, their right-wing extremism is a protest—even a revolt—against the West’s more liberal, middle-class values. Most young right-wingers, both in the West and the East, are not willing to engage in violence, but they do prepare the ground for skinheads and thugs. The first effects of this process are already being felt. In its annual report issued last week, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution notes that neo-Nazi groups have experienced growth rates in excess of 25 percent. The number of crimes and violent acts committed by right-wing extremists is also growing, as is the frequency of skinhead concerts. Minister of the Interior Otto Schily says that the increasingly aggressive right-wing extremist movement is cause “for great concern.” If everything’s allowed what’s there to rebel against? Many parents and teachers are completely perplexed by their children’s xenophobic tendencies. These are fathers and mothers who came of age in the 1960s, who provided their children with a liberal upbringing, and whose greatest fear was that their kids might be taking drugs. They have been completely taken by surprise by the right-wing sentiments of German young people. Take, for example, a mother from Bremen who moved to the country with her husband and three children a few years ago. “Everything is wonderful here,” she thought at the time. Two-and-a-half years later, when the woman threw her son out of the house, his parting words were “Heil Hitler!” The boy had become increasingly drawn in by the local right-wing scene. The parents saw all the physical signs, but none of it meant much to them. How could they have known that sweaters by Lonsdale or Pitbull are especially popular among right-wing extremists? “After all, they’re expensive clothes, so all I thought was that they must be good, brand-name quality.” There was one incident that worried them a bit, but for the wrong reasons. One of their son’s new friends showed up wearing a jacket labeled “Bierpatrioten” (Beer Patriots), the name of a right-wing band. But the mother took it as a sign that perhaps her son was drinking too much. It eventually became more apparent to the woman and her husband that their son had drifted off to the right. He listened to CDs with titles like “Revenge for Rudolf Heß” and was visited by the police, who claimed that he and two of his friends had beaten up a Pole. Finally, the mother had seen enough. She threw the boy out of the house. Right-wing extremists tend to do most of their recruiting in rural areas. Augsburg street worker Heiko Helbig dubs the phenomenon “village fascism.” One of the reasons that rural areas have become such fertile ground for right-wingers is the lack of activities for young people. Those who aren’t members of athletic leagues have become easy prey for neo-Nazi recruiters. During youth meetings, Helbig sometimes discovers seemingly harmless boys carrying pamphlets of songs that were popular in the Nazi army, or Wehrmacht. Other street workers say that the extreme right-wing NPD party sponsors trips to demonstrations in Dresden for high-school students—bus ride, lunch and beer free of charge. “The Right,” says Nürnberg youth advisor Detlef Menske, “seems to have discovered the key.” In fact, Nazi culture has become so omnipresent in the daily lives of some young people that they use Adolf Hitler’s voice as their cell phone ring tone and Nazi symbols as their screen savers. One of the most damaging aspects of neo-Nazi activity in the countryside is the silence of the parent generation. Local officials and the police still refer to neo-Nazi efforts as a fringe activity, and they refuse to acknowledge the potential for conflict with violent foreign gangs in Germany’s smaller cities. The press in the Bavarian town of Aichach had reported on a presumably foreign gang of thugs who had been attacking German youth, seemingly at random. The police downplayed the report, saying they were dealing with an “isolated group.” Perhaps they were right, but young people in the town have reported multiple attacks, a circumstance that no one seems to be taking seriously in Aichach—no one but right-wing extremists. It’s a similar situation in the small city of Cloppenburg in northern Germany. 25% of Cloppenburg’s residents are now immigrants, and young Russian-born Germans have begun terrorizing the city. The local park is now considered dangerous at night, with passersby reporting knife attacks. Only after local CDU (Christian Democratic Union) politician Hans-Jürgen Grimme was robbed did the local population finally embark on an open discussion of the problems of integration. The Russians are coming Many, mostly small communities now face ongoing conflicts as a result of failed efforts to integrate foreign-born Germans and other foreigners. Between 1993 and 2004 alone, Germany experienced an influx of close to 1.6 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union. There were plenty of programs oriented toward language instruction and integration, but hardly anyone had anticipated the resistance among many young immigrants to learning German and assimilating. Indeed, some preferred to barricade themselves into their own miniature societies, complete with their own laws. It was a situation that supporters of nationalist ideologies have since manipulated for their own propaganda purposes. As explosive as the situation is, German politicians, already feel overwhelmed. It is a sensitive issue which political leaders too often ignore or play down, especially since they are understandably doing their best not to encourage xenophobia. To make matters more complicated, crimes committed by foreign-born Germans are not even listed separately in the official crime statistics, because the perpetrators already have German passports. Hans-Peter Kemper, the German government’s official in charge of immigration issues, believes that the integration of a total of more than two million foreign-born immigrants of German heritage has been generally successful. He feels that the reports of young criminals from these groups are exaggerated and not supported by statistics. After all, he says, 95 percent of Russian-born Germans in the state of North Rhine Westphalia have never so much as been noticed by the police. But, he adds, “it is undeniable that there is a small minority of young men among these immigrant groups who are prepared to commit violent acts and are strongly drawn to alcohol and drugs.” The collective silence concerning both the violent immigrant gangs, as well as German Nazi youth, is especially beneficial to right-wing extremists. The neo-Nazis have long since changed their tactics when it comes to young people, no longer relying solely on tired slogans to get their message across. Now they organize camping trips, soccer tournaments, hikes and concerts, as well as running youth clubs. Groups like the “Pomeranian Homeland Association” have set up information booths in front of schools. And last year the NPD and its sister organization for young people, the Young National Democrats (JN), used CDs and flyers to get their message across in the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. While in the eastern German Baltic seaport town of Stralsund, a group named after the city has long been distributing its youth paper, “Avanti,” which even lampoons the sex life of Anne Frank (“Looking under the sheets”). Just how successful the new cult is among young people recently became evident in a secondary school in the area round Jerichower in the eastern state of Sachsen-Anhalt: students had attached a swastika and a sign that read “nigger hate” to a black doll, then proceeded to stomp and spit on the doll, hang it from a shoelace, and finally put out cigarettes on it. According to the local branch of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the incident shows “that right-wing extremist ideology has already taken hold in many students.” But most young people still become part of the scene through music. Right-wing extremist concerts, romanticized by an aura of illegality, are gaining in popularity, and right-wing rock is booming. Bands like Oidoxie are drawing young people to their concerts in droves. The band burns its songs on home PCs and sells them for the symbolic price of 88 cents (“88” represents the eighth letter in the alphabet, twice, or HH, for Heil Hitler). Torsten Lemmer, from Dusseldorf, the former head of publishing house Rock Nord, says that kids are most strongly drawn by anything illegal. In the past it was drugs, but now, says Lemmer, “it’s banned CDs.” The NPD has replaced LSD as the drug of choice. Youth psychologist Wolfgang Bergmann, however, believes that this has little to do with ideology. Along with street workers, he says that right-wing extremism tends to be, at least for some people, a stage of puberty: the coolest, most effective and possibly even the only way to shock liberal parents who these days are not even fazed by Ecstasy or poor grades. The Image or the Ideology? Perhaps this is precisely the reason why the right-wing dress-code is more important than inner conviction for many young people. Brands like Masterrace, Pit Bull Germany and Thor Steinar are especially popular among right-wing youth, whose dress code also includes Doc Marten boots, Fred Perry shirts and Lonsdale jackets. Shocked by this aggressive look, schools, like one high-school in the Swabian town of Weinstadt, have banned certain brand names. But the neo-Nazis are creative, replacing whatever becomes prohibited. “88,” for example, is replaced by the following phrase: “Not guilty as accused”—the slogan used by the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. How many teachers these days know what that means? Geert Mackenroth (CDU), the justice minister in the state of Saxony, intends to try and win young people back. He recently met with 10th graders at the Friedrich Schiller High School in Pirna to discuss how their city was “liberated” by German youth gangs. Teenagers, some hardly more than children, attacked the Turkish-owned “Antalya Grill” restaurant fifteen times. The Turks finally gave up and moved to Berlin, where they are currently on trial for allegedly using baseball bats and carving knives to defend themselves against the onslaught of extreme right-wing young people. None of the students from the Schiller High School were involved in the attacks on the Turks. If he wants to get to the root of the problem, Mackenroth would be better-advised to pay a visit to the city’s vocational school, where the educational heads were recently forced to ban bovver boots because of the risk of injury. Students at the school occasionally give their address as “Auschwitz Way” on reports. The federal government, whose chancellor has called for a “revolution of decent citizens,” plans to spend 180 million euros by 2006 for programs to combat right-wing extremist ideology. The main focus will be educational programs in schools. The result of many students’ lack of knowledge about Nazism can be devastating. According to youth expert Brigitte Kather, even upper-middle class students are becoming increasingly uninhibited when spreading anti-Semitic clichés. She has heard one student come out with “It’s obvious that he’s rich. After all, he’s a Jew” when referring to a businessman. And a high-school student in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood defined “Jews as people who receive money because their parents were murdered.” In the meantime even the police and officials from the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution have started trying to reach teenagers with educational campaigns. “We must address the social realities,” warns one of the government agents, “or someone else will.” The group that Stefan, Andy and Christian belong to near Munich is unlikely to be impressed by such efforts. They have decided to take their fight against violent young foreigners to the streets. When the local street worker suggested that the opposing gangs meet at the youth center to discuss their differences, the three boys shrugged their shoulders: “That’s a joke. She really doesn’t get it.”

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