HATRED IS ALSO PART OF THE NEW GERMANY
Wednesday night is party night for the neo-Nazis of Cottbus. In the early dark on a fall evening, they gather at a cozy tavern called Wassermann’s on the outskirts of the city, 100 km south of Berlin in what used to be East Germany. It’s a mixed group: young men with shaved heads and high black boots; others sporting khaki shuts and Hitler-style haircuts; and a sprinkling of flinty young women in tight jeans and bomber jackets. They could be members of a bowling league, slapping each other on the back and hoisting enormous steins of beer. But as soon as they move into the tavern’s back room and get down to business, any such resemblance vanishes. For the next two hours,
they entertain each other with tirades against Jews, gypsies and foreigners in general—the kind of unabashed xenophobia that has plunged Germany into a new round of soul-searching.
About 75 people have gathered for the weekly meeting of Deutsche Alternative (German Alternative), one of the best-organized of the many neo-Nazi groups that are finding new support among the frustrated and disaffected people of eastern Germany. They have come for what amounts to a fascist pep rally. A tall man with a Hitler haircut and a pistol stuck in the back of his belt jumps up. He is angry, he says, because a city councillor in the northern city of Rostock had to resign after questioning the loyalty of German Jews. “If the Jews keep
insulting us, they can only expect that people will hate them,” he says as his comrades signal their agreement by pounding their beer mugs on wooden tables. An older man jumps up to complain about gypsies who come to Germany as “parasites.” And an intense young man in a well-cut leather jacket has a more general complaint that receives the loudest applause of all. “We're sick and tired,” he proclaims, “of being blamed for the German past.”
In terms of members, Deutsche Alternative is tiny—only a few hundred recruits and a monthly newspaper that features caricatures of Jews with big noses. Altogether, say German intelligence officials, the neo-Nazi movement can summon about 6,500 members in several
dozen organizations with names like the National Front, Free Workers Party and German Youth Initiative. By themselves, they represent only a tiny minority of Germany’s 78 million people. But what worries mainstream politicians is the fact that the neo-Nazis are just the core of a wider far-right movement. In all, it includes about 60,000 activists and embraces more conventional parties like the Republicans and the German People’s Union, which have won seats on city councils and state parliaments. And young people, especially in eastern Germany, where familiar social structures crumbled after the collapse of the Communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) three years ago, are quickly taking up the slogans of the extreme right. “This is the tip of a social protest movement,” declared Ernst Uhrlau, head of the Hamburg office of the German agency that monitors radical groups. “There is a whole new character to the neo-Nazi scene. They are emboldened by success.”
The results have horrified most Germans, as well as most people in the rest of the world. So far this year, officials have counted 1,800 attacks on foreigners, and 11 deaths— caused by a range of violence from individual beatings to the spectacular sieges of refugee centres that shocked public opinion. What Germans call Auslünderfeindlicheit—hatred of foreigners—is spreading. A poll last month showed that one in three young people was hostile to foreigners and 13 per cent supported neofascist positions. The neo-Nazis, after years of skulking at the margins of German political life, say that they suddenly feel part of a wider movement. “First people said we were mad, then they said we were dangerous,” says Christian Worch, leader of a far-right Hamburg group called the National List. “Now we’re trendy—and it’s a good feeling.”
Just east of Wassermann’s tavern, some of the reasons for the newfound popularity of the radical right become painfully clear. The working-class suburb of Sachsendorf, home to 30,000 people, is a sprawl of bleak concrete
apartment buildings, typical of large swathes of eastern Germany. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, unemployment was unknown, prices rarely changed and young people kept busy in clubs organized by the Free German Youth, the Communist Party’s youth wing. The atmosphere was repressive, but stable. Now, unemployment is a constant concern and few local people can afford the fancy consumer goods in the new stores opened by western German companies in Cottbus.
Worst of all, residents say, the government has sent 300 foreign asylum seekers into their neighborhood. The Polish border is only 25 km away; would-be refugees simply wade the shallow Neisse River, say the word “asylum” to the first border guard they see, and are given a place to stay and money to live on while their claim is processed. That can take as long as a year, and meanwhile Sachsendorf is temporary home to dozens of Romanians, former Yugoslavs, Nigerians, Liberians, Pakistanis and others.
Horst Bannier, a 60-year-old man selling flowers and vegetables from his garden in Sachsendorfs market, voices a familiar litany of complaints against asylum seekers. “The government let too many of them in,” he says. “Crime has gone way up. I used to leave my money on the table while I was selling, but it’s
Vandals burn a Holocaust victims’ memorial on a former concentration camp on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Youths throw gasoline bombs and attack a home for asylum seekers from Africa, Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia.
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rive-day riot at hostels for reign workers injures 150 people. Right-wing extremists, cheered on by local residents, hurl firebombs and abuse at immigrants.
impossible now. And most of them aren’t real refugees, they’re just looking for a better life at our expense.” The government, says Bannier, “has to sort out the real refugees from all the fakes.”
A group of teenagers lounging nearby are even less sympathetic. In “GDR times” they
would most likely have been busy at Communist youth clubs, but those are all closed and they have little to do but smoke cigarettes and complain about the foreigners. “Everywhere you look you see these blacks and Turks,” says a skinny 14-year-old boy named Ronny. “I don’t like them. They steal and cheat and behave like pigs.”
For four nights in mid-September, about 200 local people, most of them in their teens and early 20s, besieged the hostel holding the asylum seekers. They jeered, threw bottles and rocks, and set fire to two of the battered cars purchased by the refugees. Police held them off with tear gas. Leaders of Deutsche Alternative say that it was a spontaneous reaction by ordinary citizens outraged at the crime and filth of the foreigners. But Ronny explains that it was not so simple. A couple of days before the riot, “right radicals, the guys with the Hitler haircuts” distributed leaflets at his school calling on people to turn up outside the refugees’ hostel on Saturday night. “They said we should attack that weekend,” he says.
At a ramshackle office in the centre of Cottbus, Jörn Meyer works with disaffected young people like Ronny, trying to persuade them not to turn to violence. Meyer says that his main concern is the presence of several hundred skinheads in the city who are not members of any organized group but who sympathize with the radical
right. “They go around shouting ‘Foreigners Out,’ but they don’t have a settled political ideology,” says the jovial, bearded 33-year-old. “The foreigners are just scapegoats. All the frustration and anger accumulated by social change is thrown at them.”
Like many people in the former East Germany, Meyer explains the explosion of anger by the disorientation felt by people whose lives have been turned upside down. “Nothing has stayed the same, even the tiniest details of life,” he says. “The clothes you wear, the kind of cigarettes you smoke, the cars on the street and the money in your pocket—it’s all new and it’s all unfamiliar. People in the GDR were used to stability, structure and organization. Everything was provided for you from above. The new society is much more demanding, and many people are profoundly uncomfortable with that.”
Young people, especially, feel the tempta-
tion of black-and-white solutions. “They’re searching for their identity, like young people everywhere,” says Meyer. “And if someone comes along with a clear program, it’s easy to go along with it.” There is no danger, he adds, that a group like Deutsche Alternative could ever take power. But by agitating among local people, it has already pushed mainstream politicians to the right. “The big parties are taking over the slogans of these right radicals to keep power,” he says. “And that makes the young people think they were right all along. What I fear is a gradual swing to the far right without people realizing it’s happening.”
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic security agency, has always monitored the neo-Nazi groups.
Under German law, it is illegal to promote the old Nazi party, to deny that Hitler’s regime systematically massacred Jews, to display Nazi symbols like the swastika, or to use the Nazis’ straight-armed salute and slogans like “Sieg Heil!” In the past, the radical right was largely a collection of eccentric political losers who maintained only a loose network of contacts. But that may be changing. Uhrlau, the Hamburg security official, said that radical rightwing groups are acquiring weapons and increasingly co-ordinating their activities.
Another expert on the extreme right, Berlin criminologist Bemd Wagner, said that the movement is even more tightly knit. Wagner told Maclean’s that top neo-Nazi leaders regularly gather to discuss their plans. At one important meeting involving about 100 people held in the central German town of Niederaula in April, 1991, they discussed a nine-point plan for the future that foreshadowed the recent attacks on asylum-seekers. “Point 8 was that the problem of foreigners would have to be solved by violence,” said Wagner. “But they don’t need a central co-ordinating body. They are so like-minded that things work automatically.”
Wagner studied extreme-right groups in East Berlin for several years for the old East German criminal police. Now a researcher at Berlin’s Technical University, he warns that the radical-right groups are well organized at the local level. They form disciplined groups of 25 to 100 members, small enough to uncover government informers and be able to act quickly in organizing demonstrations and rallies. In parts of eastern Germany, in fact, they are better organized than the police—who are still poorly paid, ill-equipped and demoralized after
the collapse of the GDR.
“The police have concentrated their resources in the big cities,” he says.
“Many smaller towns have no police at all, so there is a kind of vacuum of power.”
The far-right leaders who have tried to fill that vacuum vary from tough skinheads with a few dozen followers to sophisticated young political operators who hand out business cards complete with fax and mobile-phone numbers.
Until last year, most of them looked for inspiration to a West German neo-Nazi in his mid-30s, Michael Kühnen. But Kühnen died of AIDS in April, 1991, and the revelation that he was almost certainly homosexual plunged the movement into crisis. Hitler’s regime persecuted homosexuals along with Jews, gypsies and others, and many neo-Nazis could not accept the fact that their former idol fell short of the Aryan ideal.
Frank Hübner, leader of Deutsche Alternative in Cottbus, was one of those young men clearly inspired by Kühnen. A short, intense 27-year-old, he is considered one of eastern Germany’s most dangerous right-wing radicals. Once a militant skinhead who was imprisoned by the East German government in 1986
Niedermeyer: a mixture of xenophobia, white pride, and nostalgia for a mythical past when Germany was orderly and strong.
as a danger to the state, he was bought out of jail by the West German government under a program enabling Bonn to free dissidents. Hübner linked up with Kühnen in 1989, and now presides over his party’s weekly beer-hall sessions. He says that his aim is to win a seat on Cottbus city council, and eventually a place in the federal parliament in Bonn.
Another key leader is Worch, the 36-year-old head of the National List. Worch typifies the newbreed neo-Nazi, operating through the car phone in his Opel sedan and the fax machine in his Hamburg apartment. The son of a doctor, he inherited family money and has been a full-time political activist since he was 21. He has served a total of four years in jail for breaking Germany’s anti-Nazi laws, most recently for putting up posters denouncing “Jewish Bolshevik subhumans.” Still, Worch is well-spoken and sets out his views calmly and rationally. Hitler, he says, was a great man. But Worch’s personal hero is Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, “because he was a kind of artist. He made politics like other people make art.” Worch acknowledges that his group is tiny: only about 30 full members and a few hundred
sympathizers. “We’re the spearhead of the radical right, the young warriors,” he says. Worch denies that he was anywhere near the riots against asylum seekers in Rostock in late August. That, he says, was a spontaneous demonstration by local people angered by the invasion of their neighborhood by foreigners. But he makes no attempt to hide his satisfaction that events seem to be moving his way. His program includes freeing Germany of foreigners by offering them money to go home or by deporting them if necessary. And like other radical rightists, Worch wants to recover eastern territory that Germany lost after the Second World War. “We would buy back our land from Poland,” he says. “The mark is a stronger weapon than any tank.”
Not all those who spout right-radical slogans are as smooth as Worch. At six-foot-four, with close-cropped hair, heavy black boots and a Rudolf Hess T-shirt, 25-year-old Ingo Hasselbach looks like a nightmare vision of a neo-Nazi skinhead. He decorates his sparse apartment in the East Berlin suburb of Lichtenberg with photographs of Hitler and Goebbels, and carries a heavy metal truncheon for “self-protection.” Hasselbach’s political outlook is the usual extremeright brew: a mixture of xenophobia, white pride and nostalgia for a mythical National Socialist past when Germany was orderly and strong.
But over half a dozen beers at his local pub, Hasselbach also offers some insights into why his movement is growing. He comes from a privileged family in the old East Germany: his father was a senior official in the state television system and his mother was a journalist. The old Communist system, he says, prepared fertile ground for his movement. “The GDR was a type of socialism, with discipline and order,” says Hasselbach. “What we want is also a kind of socialism. The basic ideas are in many ways the same.”
Hasselbach’s young companion, Thorsten Niedermeyer, sports a “White Power” tattoo on his left arm and offers another insight into the attraction of the radical right for people like him. “It’s not just politics,” he says. “The main thing is being together as comrades. We help each other in everything—if you’ve got a problem with your job, at school or with your girlfriend, your comrades are there for you.” In fact, say social workers who work with farright members, the discipline and companionship of the neo-Nazi groups is one of their main attractions for eastern German youths who miss the familiar structures of socialism.
In eastern Berlin, Hasselbach and other local leaders find fertile recruiting ground among militant skinheads. There are about 6,500 of them across Germany, according to security officials. Some are non-political and a few are even leftwing, but most are attracted to the hard-edged slogans of the extreme right. Their uniform of
shaved head, black boots with metal-reinforced toes, tight jeans and bomber jackets gives them a ready-made identity. And so does Germany’s fast-growing skinhead rock scene, where bands with names like Störkraft (Force of Disruption), Kraftschlag (Power Strike), and Radikahl (a pun on “radical” and “bald”) pound out songs to a beat that mixes heavy metal and punk.
At concerts, fans give the Nazi salute and shout “Sieg Heil!” to lyrics such as these from Störkraft: “Our heads are shaved, our fists hard as steel/Our hearts beat true for the fatherland/We are the force, the force to clean up Germany.” In another song, called The Mercenary, they describe the ideal skinhead: “He is a mercenary and a fascist/A murderer and a sadist/He loves war, he loves violence/
Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the number of refugees fleeing to Germany has increased dramatically.
And if you’re his enemy, I’ll lay you out cold.” The skinhead bands do not violate the country’s anti-Nazi laws, but the agency responsible for reviewing materials dangerous to children is considering barring sales of Störkraft’s records to minors, and forbidding them from being advertised or displayed in public. That would not likely accomplish much: most skinhead recordings are sold under the counter or through fan magazines.
Government social agencies are trying to woo skinheads away from violence. In the eastern Berlin suburb of Lichtenberg, three social workers operate a program called Project Roots that tries to convince skinheads to channel their restlessness elsewhere. They have arranged soccer games between rightwing youths and teams of young Turks and Vietnamese. They even planned to take a group of skinheads on a trip through the deserts of Morocco, but that was cancelled after a tabloid newspaper reported that public money would be spent giving “neo-Nazis” an exotic holiday. And the project has had other setbacks, as well. In September, left-wing radicals firebombed its clubhouse, claiming that it was a hangout for Nazis.
More ominously, the work of groups like Project Roots is undermined by the general rightward shift in society. Every time local citizens attack a refugee hostel, or a leading politician sounds a warning about the influx of foreigners, the young right-wingers feel vindicated. “We can keep telling them that attacking foreigners will bring you trouble,” says Hubert Scherer, head of the agency that runs Project Roots. “But they don’t get trouble, they get applause.” If that reaction continues, Germany’s extreme right will keep growing— both in numbers and in confidence. And that may, in the long run, prove more threatening to an already unsettled continent.
ANDREW PHILLIPS in Berlin