The government of the eastern German state of Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania took the unusual step last month of ordering anyone setting up a children's day-care center to pledge their support for Germany's democratic constitution. The move followed a number of cases in which neo-Nazis had tried to take over the running of a kindergarten, influence teaching in nurseries or get recruited as teachers.
"I am concerned that right-wing extremists could become managers of kindergartens," said Manuela Schleswig, the state's social affairs minister. Effective August 1, all managers setting up new nurseries or taking over existing ones in the state have been required to declare that they and their staff subscribe to the principles of democracy.
The announcement conjured up dark visions of neo-Nazi pied pipers teaching toddlers the Hitler salute. While such fears are exaggerated, and incidents have been isolated, anti-Nazi campaigners say they have indeed detected a new and disturbing phenomenon: the attempted indoctrination of young children by teachers and parents in the former communist east, which continues to grapple with a strong neo-Nazi presence even after more than a decade of government policies to counter the problem.
Schleswig's decree followed a widely reported case in February when the village of Bartow in the northeast of the state almost permitted a father of seven to take over a kindergarten which had been on the verge of closing due to a lack of funds. The man had agreed to run it free of charge. When the mayor checked out his credentials, he found out that he was a member of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which glorifies the Third Reich. He politely declined the offer.
Racist Books in Nurseries
Anti-racism activists say there has been a growing incidence of far-right members either training to be kindergarten carers or attempting to influence nurseries -- for example parents bringing in racist books or demanding that photos of immigrant children be removed from the walls.
Concern is also growing that in some thinly populated regions there may be enough neo-Nazi parents to secure a majority on parent boards.
"Within the far-right scene there appears to be a more or less clear strategy to encourage young women to train for teaching and social work jobs because that offers an opportunity to spread nationalist ideology," Heike Radvan, an educational scientist at the Berlin-based Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racism group, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
"This is an observation we have made over the long term, and the trend seems to be increasing."
An editorial in Deutsche Stimme (the German Voice), the newspaper of the NPD, published in April encouraged members to go into teaching to promote "nationalist education" for young Germans.
NPD spokesman Klaus Beier said on Tuesday that the party wasn't actively lobbying its members to become kindergarten and nursery teachers. "But of course it is quite natural and normal that NPD members and sympathizers should want to get involved in these areas. Kindergartens and schools should be politically neutral but unfortunately they are being instrumentalized by left-wingers," Beier told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The party's regional organisation in Mecklenburg said in a statement in July that efforts underway to counter far-right influence in kindergartens amounted to "politically correct brainwashing" of children. "The parents will find ways to prevent this kind of re-education," the statement said.
Analysts doubt whether the neo-Nazi scene is pursuing a deliberate long-term indoctrination strategy. They say the debate about extremists in kindergartens is detracting from the far bigger problem of toddlers being influenced by their own far-right parents.
A New Generation
The youths who made international headlines by assaulting immigrants and asylum-seekers in the 1990s have had children, and are demanding a say in their education.
The prospect of a second generation of eastern neo-Nazis has dashed any lingering hopes that the upsurge in far-right support following German unification in 1990 might have been a temporary phenomenon caused by the collapse of the eastern economy and the resulting social upheaval and mass unemployment.
"A generation socialized in the far-right scene in the 1990s has now had children and we have to deal with the phenomenon of children of right-wing extremists in nurseries and schools," Friedemann Bringt, who advises local authorities in the eastern state of Saxony on how to cope with far-right intimidation, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
"Right-wing extremism has become embedded in eastern Germany since the 1990s and has a stable voter base."
It is a depressing trend for anti-racism campaigners and government officials who have run programs to combat racism and neo-Nazism in the region since the 1990s.
Analysts said far-right views remain endemic in the east because decades of authoritarian rule until the fall of the Berlin Wall had made the region fertile ground for right-wing ideology. The problem was compounded by East Germany's education system, which failed to instill a sense of national responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis.
"Far-right thinking is commonplace in many regions of eastern Germany and many people don't view it as extremist," Bernd Wagner, a prominent analyst of the far-right who co-founded EXIT, a group that helps neo-Nazis quit the scene, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
"Many people -- normal citizens, not just youths -- view racial ideologies as common sense," Wagner said. "The view that races are embroiled in a battle for survival is widespread. It's social Darwinism. People view strangers as a potential threat that must be driven away."
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