By Stefan Berg, Markus Deggerich and Sven Röbel
The arsonists came on the night before Adolf Hitler's birthday. After attempting to burn down an Asian fast-food stand on a square in front of the train station in Blankenfelde, a town in the eastern German state of Brandenburg, they turned their attention to the adjacent doner kebab stand owned by Haci D., 39. The fire quickly burned through the wooden side wall and engulfed the entire stand. By daybreak on April 20, Haci D. had lost his livelihood.
Neo-Nazis have long been a problem in Germany. But there are now signs that the especially violent among them are becoming better organized.
These "construction risks" now affect the very foundation of a society in which right-wing extremist violence has become normal. "Right-wing extremism is part of everyday life and only attracts attention when the crimes are especially horrific," says Wolfgang Thierse, the Social Democrat vice-president of the lower house of the German parliament, the Bundestag.
The statistics are alarming. In 2007, the number of reported arson attacks committed by right-wing extremists climbed to 24 from 18 in the previous year. The targets are foreigners, including immigrants' mosques, cars and cafés.
"These are crimes that pose a threat to public safety and that could lead to people getting killed," warns Heinz Fromm, president of Germany's domestic intelligence service. The upward trend seems to be continuing this year. The numbers in March were higher than they had been in years. Throughout Germany, the police documented a total of 1,311 right-wing extremist and racist crimes, an increase of 458 over the year-earlier month. The incidents included 72 acts of violence, the government said in response to an inquiry from the Left Party vice president of the Bundestag, Petra Pau.
New Trend of "Anarchist Nationalists"
Intelligence agents have identified a new, right-wing extremist phenomenon: so-called anarchist nationalists who are "significantly more likely to commit acts of violence against political rivals and the police." After the May riots in Hamburg, the police are keenly aware of the threat posed by this new group of extremist thugs. In Hamburg, they joined in the fray wearing the same black outfits and showing a similar level of aggression as leftist anarchists. It took a massive police effort to prevent the situation from spinning out of control. What happened in Hamburg, says Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a Christian Democrat, attests to a "new quality."
Last year the highest number of arson attacks by neo-Nazis were committed in the eastern state of Brandenburg, especially in the vicinity of the city of Cottbus, where four foreign-owned businesses were attacked in October of 2007 alone. Investigators speculate that an organized structure was behind the apparently concerted series of attacks.
But while the risk of such attacks is growing, the public is paying less attention to them. "Right-wing extremists haven't become more harmless," says Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation Against Right-Wing Extremism, "it's just that our perception or the problem has changed." Kahane has noticed a growing "culture of becoming accustomed and of fatigue" which is enabling right-wing extremists to become openly aggressive.
Frankfurt an der Oder, an eastern city on the German-Polish border, is a place where right-wing violence has developed into an everyday phenomenon. Paradoxically, the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) failed to capture a single seat in recent municipal elections. Nevertheless, the city administration and police are aware of a the local far-right scene's potential for violence. The "Sportlerklause," a local sports bar catering to neo-Nazi thugs, was shut down. The city is home to precisely the kind of environment that worries the authorities: a dangerous hooligan scene surrounding the local football club, FFC Viktoria.
Police estimate that the group counts 40 to 50 violence-prone right-wing extremists, and they have struck repeatedly. In the past, the NPD recruited its bodyguards from among these football fans -- now, however, the group seems to be organizing on its own. There are even photos showing the radical football fans giving the Hitler salute with SS skull-and-crossbones patches on their clothing.
Assaults and Intimidation
A few days ago, masked men attacked yet again, assaulting students in front of a club in Frankfurt an der Oder. The doormen at the club alerted the police and managed to prevent the incident from escalating beyond kicks and blows. Seven suspects were arrested, all of them part of the far-right community. But because no one displayed the Hitler salute or shouted slogans like "Leftists Out!" during the nighttime incident, it is unlikely to be documented as a far-right attack.
Christof Winter, a 25-year-old student, has documented countless incidents in Frankfurt, including attacks in broad daylight and fights in discotheques, as well as the omnipresent slogans and symbols in graffiti painted onto buildings. Winter knows many of the right-wing extremists by name. He prefers to ride his bicycle through the city instead of taking the streetcar. He also avoids discotheques. The neo-Nazis know him, just as they keep an eye on Katja Herrlich, 34, an attorney who has collaborated with Winter in his research. Herrlich says that she has felt threatened many times. She is already accustomed to local neo-Nazis addressing her by her first name on the street, saying innocuous-sounding things like, "Hey there, Katja." The message they seek to convey, she says, is that they know where to find her.
Uwe Adler, 36, of a citizens' alliance against right-wing extremism in Weimar in the eastern state of Thuringia, reports similar experiences. He belongs to the city's committee on youth affairs and once noticed two neo-Nazis known to local authorities sitting in the back of the room during a public meeting. They appeared to be taking copious notes on a discussion of problems among Weimar youth. "Right-wing extremists have embarked on a process of normalization in the country's cities and towns," says Adler. Some groups have even sponsored waste pickup campaigns in local forests, under the guise of "protecting the environment to protect the homeland."
The far-right is trying to reinvent itself as champion of ordinary citizens. "Social awareness can only be national awareness" is the new slogan devised by right-wing anti-capitalists. By laying claim to social issues, the neo-Nazis are trying to make violence against "freeloaders" and dissenters socially acceptable. "Wherever the state and civil society are retreating, right-wing extremists are filling the void," says Anetta Kahane of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation.
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