'This is What Hell Looks Like': Nazis Left to Thrive in Parts of Eastern Germany
Germany pledged to crack down on right-wing extremists following the exposure of a far-right terrorist cell last year. But in rural parts of the eastern state of Saxony, neo-Nazis remain well established in local councils and continue to intimidate people at will, unhindered by the police.
The German federal state of Saxony in May 2012: Two men in the city of Bautzen assault a Colombian exchange student, calling him names and kicking him. In Hoyerswerda , right-wing extremists lay siege to the office of a member of the Bundestag, Germany 's parliament, smashing windows and attacking an employee. In Limbach-Oberfrohna, neo-Nazis attack a center for alternative education. In Geithain, an explosive device detonates in front of Pizzeria Bollywood, a restaurant owned by a Pakistani.
"This is what hell looks like," says Kerstin Krumbholz, 50, sitting in her living room in Geithain, a small town in the eastern German state of Saxony. Spread out on the table in front of her are newspaper articles about neo-Nazis, flyers and posters that record the right-wing terror plaguing everyday life here. "People in the cities have no idea what's going on out here in the country," Krumbholz says.
Before, Kerstin Krumbholz didn't know much more about right-wing extremism than what she heard on the news, for example if a home for asylum-seekers was burned down somewhere, or when the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) took seats in a state parliament.
But those things had little to do with her own life -- until a neo-Nazi injured her son so badly that he nearly died. A right-wing extremist attacked Florian, then 15 years old and a member of the punk scene, at a gas station in May 2010, fracturing his skull. Florian now lives with a titanium plate in his head, and he's moved away from Geithain.
His mother wasn't a political person before Florian's attack, but now she studies far-right Internet forums and blogs, attends demonstrations and founded a group called the Initiative for an Open-Minded Geithain. Krumbholz has made battling neo-Nazis her life's work -- but it's a losing battle here in rural Saxony.
'What's Happening in Saxony is a Scandal'
Seven months have passed since it emerged that German authorities had for years been unaware of the existence of a far-right terrorist cell calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) that murdered 10 people, most of them Turkish immigrants, in a nationwide killing spree that went on from 2000 until 2007. When this group, based in Zwickau, Saxony, first came to light, politicians declared their intention to tackle and root out the far-right problem, but nothing has come of those declarations. "What's happening in Saxony is a scandal," says Hajo Funke, a political scientist in Berlin. There is no other German state where neo-Nazis have such a high profile, he says, adding that the regional government was refusing to take action against it.
The members of the Initiative for an Open-Minded Geithain have gathered today at the town hall. Krumbholz has invited Mohammad Sayal to the meeting, the owner of Pizzeria Bollywood, the local restaurant attacked the previous weekend. Sayal describes the harassment he's experienced from neo-Nazis in the five months since he opened his restaurant. The very first night, they smashed his windows. In May, a group of 10 of them showed up in front of his restaurant, wearing masks and wielding knives. They kicked at the door, threw a stone through the window and shouted, "You shit foreigner, we'll get you. If you don't get out of here, we'll kill you." A week later, an explosive device wrecked his restaurant.
The murders committed by the NSU went unsolved for so long partly because both authorities and the general public assumed the murderers came from the same segment of society as their victims. In Geithain, too, many people claim it wasn't right-wing radicals who attacked Sayal's restaurant, but fellow Pakistanis, reacting to disagreements over money, or family feuds.
Neo-Nazi in the Town Council
In communist East Germany, Geithain was the administrative center of the surrounding rural district. This was once a coal-mining region, but today only around 6,000 residents live in Geithain. The town square has been nicely renovated since unification, but the streets are empty. Young people looking for work move to Leipzig, or straight to the west of Germany. The established political parties have scaled down their presence here, while the right-wing extremists have expanded their influence, especially since neo-Nazi Manuel Tripp, a member of the NPD, joined the town council in 2009.
Tripp, 23, studied in Leipzig and nurtures the image of a man who looks after his constituents. The people of Geithain can reach him at any time through his homepage. He tweets about city council meetings and publishes the "Geithain Mouthpiece," a local paper with articles on the shortage of doctors in eastern Germany, or about the annual hunting festival. He works to support the zoo, and together with others from his party organizes soccer tournaments and camps where kids can hike around the countryside in military uniforms.
His true motivations emerge when he makes statements that violate the German constitution, for example: "National socialism can't be elected or begged for. It can only be achieved through the path of revolution." Tripp is a leading figure in the "Free Network" (FN), a network of militant far-right "Kameradschaften" groups throughout Germany.
The FN emerged from the "Thuringian Homeland Protection League," a group of neo-Nazis that also included the three NSU terrorists. The FN's Saxony branch is led by Maik Scheffler, who is also deputy party leader for the NPD party in the state. Scheffler has a criminal record for grievous bodily harm and illegal possession of a weapon.
Together with Tripp, Scheffler has managed in the space of just a few years to establish firmly rooted neo-Nazi structures in the rural region between the eastern cities of Chemnitz and Leipzig. At the same time, the Kameradschaften are expanding their influence. "FN cadres have repeatedly been behind acts of terror in Saxony," says Kerstin Köditz, a member of the Left Party who analyzes far-right trends.
The state of Bavaria is seeking to impose a ban on the "FN South" branch, yet here in Saxony -- the same state where the NSU's trio of murderers were able to stay under the radar for over 10 years -- the government is dragging its feet. Saxony's Interior Minister Markus Ulbig from the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) considers the FN nothing more than an "Internet portal," a kind of Facebook for Nazis. And state governor Stanislaw Tillich, also of the CDU, has stated that Saxony does not have a significant problem with right-wing extremism.
'Piss Off, You Wog'
While Kerstin Krumbholz and the other members of her anti-Nazi initiative are discussing right-wing extremist violence at Geithain's town hall, a different sort of gathering is taking place in front of the Total gas station at the edge of town. Here, young men are hanging around revving their car engines, listening to loud neo-Nazi rock and drinking beer. As the evening progresses, more come to join them, some greeting the group with a Nazi salute. If a gas station patron looks at them a moment too long, they holler, "Shit Jewish pig, I'll bump you off!"
At Geithain's secondary school, the right-wing extremists are seen as the cool ones, the rebels. Kids who reject the neo-Nazis are greeted in the schoolyard with "Heil Hitler" or "Piss off, you wog." Some of the girls use sunscreen to draw swastikas on their skin when they go on class trips.
Anyone who opposes this ideology is intimidated and persecuted. After German investigative journalist Günter Wallraff gave a reading in Geithain this April, neo-Nazis scrawled "Send Wallraff to Africa!" on the street in front of the town hall, and issued threats to Geithain's mayor and to a Left Party politician. A local priest addressed the right-wing extremists in an open letter, and the next morning found the walls of his church covered in graffiti.
The neo-Nazis publish their adversaries' names, addresses and pictures online. The local "Anti-Antifa" -- a name for right-wing extremist groups that oppose the "Antifa," or antifascist, movement -- posted that left-wingers people in Geithain's should expect "disciplinary measures, house calls and car damage." The neo-Nazis also announced the attack on Florian Krumbholz online, using a video as a call for violence against him: "Leftists have names, leftists have addresses. Let's march and show our strength." A few weeks before the attack, on Good Friday 2010, neo-Nazis spray-painted the Krumbholzes' garage with the slogans "Death to the Red Front" and "We'll get you, Florian."
The attack at the gas station lasted just a few seconds. Surveillance footage shows the assailant kicking Florian in the chest, then driving his fist into Florian's forehead. The attacker, Albert R., received just a suspended sentence at his initial trial, despite having a considerable criminal record. The case went to appellate court, where he received a tougher sentence.
Citizens Feel Abandoned by the Police
Meanwhile, Albert R. is already facing charges for another crime: He and two friends stand accused of attacking a group of young men and spraying tear gas in their faces. R. assaulted one of the victims with a beer bottle.
Many people here feel abandoned by the authorities. In recent years, police stations have been closed and police districts merged, and Saxony's Interior Ministry plans further cuts. Case files from Saxony's state criminal police office reveal an attitude of resignation and indifference among officers.
One such file describes an attack by violent right-wing extremists on a commercial building in Colditz, a neighboring town to Geithain, four years ago. Emergency call transcripts show the police in West Saxony began receiving calls from concerned citizens in the late afternoon. By the evening, more than a dozen calls had come in.
7:49 p.m., a female caller: "Something's about to happen at Sophienplatz in Colditz." "What's happening?"
"There are all these masked men down here."
"They're kicking everything here to pieces down here."
7:51 p.m., a male caller: "There are more than 50 people here at Sophienplatz in Colditz, wearing masks."
"And why are you calling?"
"Because these guys down there are kicking at a building, hitting things, throwing explosives."
8:04 p.m., a female caller: "They've destroyed everything at Sophienplatz. And they wanted to set something on fire up here at the youth club, too, at least that's what I heard."
"Well, if you've observed damages, you can come by the police station at any time to file a report."
8:43 p.m., a female caller: "I called before, and I need the police here. We already asked you to send someone."
"Yes, but there's no one available."
"Please, please, send someone."
8:44 p.m., a male caller: "They've bashed in the windows four times already."
"And what do you expect me to do? Should I go and stand in front of the windows, or what were you expecting?"
Only a few people dare to confront the neo-Nazis in Colditz. Uwe L., for example, an electronics salesman, made an attempt by founding the "Alliance against the Far-Right" and organizing concerts. But neo-Nazis attacked his store repeatedly, smashed the windows, defaced the walls, damaged his car and threatened his son. L. gave up. "I wouldn't have survived it, financially or psychologically," he says.
'The Neo-Nazis Control Everything by Now'
The NPD holds seats on the Colditz city council as well. Right-wing extremists are involved in an association that supports the secondary school. They also help run the soccer club and a canoe club. The local youth club is run by the mayor's son, together with a well-known neo-Nazi. Parents show up to preschool festivals wearing T-shirts that bear slogans such as "Scenic Train Journey to Auschwitz." Frank Hammer, who works for the Saxony branch of an organization called "Mobile Counseling against Right-Wing Extremism," says, "Things are calm in this region. But only because the neo-Nazis control everything by now."
When Geithain celebrated its 825th anniversary last June, Mayor Romy Bauer (CDU) gave the neo-Nazis a permit to run a stand at the festival. Tripp and his colleagues handed out slices of cake, set up a wheel of fortune and marched at the front of the parade. If she had refused their application, Bauer says, violence might have broken out at the festival. The mayor also declined to participate in an anti-far-right demonstration organized by the Initiative for an Open-Minded Geithain.
After the initiative's meeting ends, Krumbholz stands on the street in front of the town hall and lights a cigarette with trembling hands. Memories of the attack on her son still haunt her. Yet to this day, none of her neighbors has brought up the topic with her. There has been not a word of sympathy, not a word of regret. Everyone in Geithain, Krumbholz says, acts as if the attack never happened.
Krumbholz brushes away tears and wonders aloud, "Do people have to die for something to change around here?"
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