The spread of neo-Nazi influence in Germany came to light fully last year with the shocking discovery of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell responsible for the worst right-wing violence since World War II.
At least nine people of migrant origin were murdered, in addition to bomb attacks and bank robberies.
In response, Germany last month established the first centralized neo-Nazi database, similar to those that existed for decades for Islamic and leftist extremists.
Germans have been stunned that despite six decades of required anti-Nazi teaching in schools, right-wing extremism is still attracting recruits. Human rights groups say right-wing attacks have killed a total of more than 180 people in the past two decades.
Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich has warned that xenophobia is growing and that neo-Nazis are “knowingly infiltrating civil society to achieve their goals.”
Schoneweide, a suburb of East Berlin, is considered an ultra-right-wing stronghold.
A visit here on a rainy Saturday afternoon is like a trip back in time, to the bleak period of communist East Germany. The atmosphere is dreary, shops are closed, and the few people out on streets have glum expressions.
The Executioner — a bar frequented by known neo-Nazis — opens only in the evening. Its windowpanes are thick and impossible to see through.
A young man, walking his dog, looks at the shuttered door fearfully.
“I’d never go in there … or over there,” he says, pointing further down the street before moving away quickly.
A block down, we find a shop named for a violent explosive, Hexogen. It sells batons, knives and clothes with neo-Nazi codes such as 88, for “Heil Hitler” — the letter “h” being eighth in the alphabet.
Controlling The Streets
Daniel Koehler, a researcher at Exit, an association that helps former right-wing extremists return to mainstream society, says the neo-Nazi goal is to create “national liberated areas.”
“As a movement they try to concentrate, try to set up a social infrastructure,” he says. “We even have parts of Berlin where they control whole streets. They have their own bars, their own supermarkets, their own bookstores. So this is a strategic concept.”
The ultra-right has been particularly successful in the former East Germany, where 22 years after German unification, unemployment is almost twice as high as in the West.
The National Democratic Party, or NPD, which glorifies the Third Reich, has won seats in two regional parliaments and numerous municipalities. They organize sports events, music concerts, summer festivals and run youth clubs.
But the right-wing movement, Koehler says, is fluid and dynamic and present all over Germany. The NPD is the focal point, and like other parties with local deputies, it receives government funding.
“The NPD provides an umbrella, they provide space to meet, talk, to interact, to network,” says Koehler.
A 35-year-old man who calls himself Andreas used to be a neo-Nazi leader and recruiter. After a period of self-doubt and at great personal risk, he contacted the Exit association. He says it took three years of therapy for him to free himself from the extremist mindset.
“When you’re a member, you’re trapped by its ideology,” Andreas says. “The deeper you go, the higher the wall encloses you. Ideology takes first place, then comes the community, and at the end perhaps yourself.”
Setbacks For Police
After last year’s discovery of the neo-Nazi terrorist cell, several officials, including the head of the domestic intelligence agency, had to step down.
And just last week, two paid police informers were arrested on charges of having supplied the terror cell with weapons and explosives.
The revelations caused huge embarrassment among the police and the media, which had long dismissed the murders as intra-immigrant vendetta killings.
The police operation was code-named Operation Bosphorus — after the strait that slices through Turkey and marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. Commentator Stephan Kuzmany says that name alone speaks volumes
“The majority of people tend to think they are just not part of Germany, but some element that doesn’t really belong here,” he says. “The thought that they are committing those crimes between each other is a much easier thought than the thought that Germans who hate foreigners would do that.”
At a café in Kreuzberg, perhaps Berlin’s most multicultural district, a large crowd has turned up for a panel discussion on the ultra-right-wing movement.
One speaker notes that there have been 180 racially motivated murders in Germany since re-unification. Another participant points to intelligence statistics saying there are now 20,000 to 30,000 hardcore ultra-right militants ready to use violence at any moment.
A third panelist stressed that numerous recent polls show that one-third of Germans say the country would be better off without foreigners. Twenty percent of Germany’s 80 million people have foreign roots.
For this reason, Mely Kiyak, a journalist of migrant origin, says she’s not worried only about the ultra-right.
“The problem are the people in Germany themselves, the Germans think we have too many foreigners in this country,” Kiyak says.
After years of ignoring the problem, German authorities now seem determined to tackle right-wing extremism. Law enforcement agencies have collected 1,000 pages worth of evidence showing that the NPD is anti-Semitic, racist and anti-democratic.
But authorities are moving cautiously.
A first attempt in 2003 to get the NPD banned failed when the Constitutional Court ruled that the party had been so deeply infiltrated by police it was hard to determine who was in charge.