Twenty Years of Failure: Why Germany Isn't Rooting Out its Neo-Nazis

A Commentary by

Far-right violence against immigrants has become endemic in parts of Germany and that won't change anytime soon. The public and the police are too often indifferent to extremism, despite the risk it poses to the country's reputation. Deep down, Germany still hasn't grasped that it needs to embrace its minorities.

Visitors at a far-right festival near Pasewalk earlier this month. The T-shirt on the right reads "White Aryan Resistance." Zoom
DPA

Visitors at a far-right festival near Pasewalk earlier this month. The T-shirt on the right reads "White Aryan Resistance."

There's a Jewish restaurant called Schalom in Chemnitz, in the eastern German state of Saxony.

Uwe Dziuballa, the man who runs it, has had hundreds of abusive calls since he opened in 2000. "They say things like 'you Jew pig,'", he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "Around April 20th (Adolf Hitler's birthday) we get people calling saying they want to reserve 88 places (a Nazi symbol for "Heil Hitler")."

Swastikas are regularly daubed at the entrance to the restaurant or carved into doors in the toilet. Once, a severed pig's head with the word "Jude" written on it was left in front. People urinate in the letter box. The outside lamps are frequently smashed.

Dziuballa has stopped reporting incidents to the police because it's not worth the trouble. They didn't even bother to investigate the pig's head, even though it offered a pretty good clue in the form of a ready-made handwriting sample, and the number of people with access to a pig and the equipment to decapitate it is presumably limited.

"If nothing happens when you report things you think should be probed, you no longer go there with every little thing," says Dziuballa, who is moving his establishment to smaller premises in the city. "I can't say I'm satisfied with the lack of results."

Dziuballa has sometimes thought about giving up, but then he rallies himself. "I'm not going to let arseholes drive me out."

The worst aspect about Dziuballa's story is that one can't help thinking: What did he expect? Surely, opening a kosher restaurant in eastern Germany is asking for trouble. The police even told him as much.

One's reaction to his business venture would probably have been the same 10 years ago, when neo-Nazi terrorists based in the eastern town of Zwickau were firing bullets into the heads of Turkish shopkeepers up and down the country, and 20 years ago, when a baying mob was hurling rocks and petrol bombs at an asylum-seekers' hostel in the city of Rostock, applauded by thousands of upstanding citizens.

Germany Losing the Battle

In short, after an estimated 180 racist killings in Germany since unification in 1990, after countless assaults, cases of intimidation, swastikas daubed on Jewish gravestones, immigrants beaten up at bus stops, stones hurled through the windows of kebab shops, the conclusion has to be that Germany is losing the battle against the violent far right.

In the more depopulated rural areas such as in the northeast of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany has given up the fight altogether.

The National Democratic Party (NPD), which glorifies the Third Reich, is represented in village and town councils, neo-Nazis man the voluntary fire departments, organize sports festivals and summer fetes and run youth clubs -- because too few others bother anymore.

They're even trying to influence the running of kindergartens -- a further dampener to hopes that the wave of extremism that engulfed the east in the 1990s might have just been a temporary phenomenon caused by the economic upheaval that followed unification.

For a few weeks last November, when police realized that the killings of nine immigrants and one policewoman between 2000 and 2007 were committed by a previously unknown trio of neo-Nazis calling themselves the National Socialist Underground, the public uproar was such that one felt the country might at last launch a major national crackdown.

Police Blindness

The case showed how blind Germany's prodigious security apparatus had been to the threat posed by a new generation of people who had radicalized themselves by playing with guns, listening to old Nazis wallow in past glories and generally whipping themselves up into a frenzy of hatred of minorities.

Even if a number of communities have taken decisive action against neo-Nazis, in far too many places, a culture of tolerating right-wing extremism, simply looking away or playing down the threat persists among the authorities. Investigators probing the string of murders against foreigners perpetrated by the NSU neglected to pursue the possibility of a far-right motive behind the killings, instead suspecting the nine immigrant victims -- a flower seller, a tailor, two grocers, a kebab shop owner, a man who was helping out in a kebab shop, a keycutter, a kiosk owner, and an Internet café manager -- of having had gambling debts or links with organized crime.

The scandal dominated headlines and TV talk shows for a few weeks, and the authorities took swift and determined action.

Suspected NSU accomplices were snatched in dawn raids and flown to Karlsruhe, the seat of the Federal Prosecutor's Office, which took charge of the investigation. Heads have rolled at the disgraced domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which committed a chain of errors that allowed the NSU to go on murdering and robbing banks undetected for over a decade.

A central register of neo-Nazis has been established along with a Joint Defense Center Against the Far Right which groups together the police and all the security services. And the sole surviving NSU member, Beate Zschäpe, together with a handful of alleged helpers, face a mammoth trial that could last over a year. Prosecutors are preparing extensive charges that could lead to her getting a life sentence.

Where is the Big Crackdown?

But all that isn't nearly enough. Nine months after the NSU murders came to light, 20 years after Rostock, anti-racism groups in the east still complain that they don't get enough funding or political support for their efforts to curb the influence of Nazis and to combat widespread indifference among the population.

Racist attitudes, they say, are widespread among ordinary people, possibly because the communist-era education system didn't instil a sense of collective responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich.

Analysts such as Professor Hajo Funke of Berlin's Free University say security services aren't being reformed rigorously enough and that the file shredding at the domestic intelligence agency reveals a culture of secrecy and self-preservation that continues to undermine its credibility -- and will therefore make a bid to outlaw the NPD even more unlikely.

At a memorial service for the NSU's victims in February, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the murders had brought shame on the nation, and she apologized to the families. "The murders were an assault on our country, they are a disgrace to our country," she said.

But what has she done in response to that disgrace?

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