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'Patriotic Duty': A German State Gains Ground Against Neo-Nazi Crime

By Stefan Berg and

Far-right street violence reached a postwar high last year in Germany. But the once-notorious state of Brandenburg has reversed the trend, thanks to a number of organized citizens and focused public officials. SPIEGEL presents a portrait of a successful push against the neo-Nazi threat.

As hundreds of thousands of Germans celebrated the 60th anniversary of their country's constitution at an outdoor festival in Berlin on May 23, right-wing extremists in Luckenwalde -- about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital -- planned to demonstrate their own power. Their motto for the day? "Democrats are death for the people."

A Brandenburg neo-Nazi in court in 2008. The eastern German state has focused its efforts to reduce far-right street violence.
Getty Images

A Brandenburg neo-Nazi in court in 2008. The eastern German state has focused its efforts to reduce far-right street violence.

The town of Luckenwalde managed to resist its unwanted guests. Schoolchildren made posters. Dennis H., who had registered the neo-Nazi demonstration, found his photograph, address and full name published on the Internet. Police and the public prosecutor stepped in before the march, confiscating computers and documents and investigating on grounds of "slandering the government."

A counter-demonstration also mustered far more participants than the neo-Nazis could. A "democracy festival" in the city center drew the most attention, and in the evening hundreds of citizens took up brooms and gathered for a big "clean-up," sending the message that Luckenwalde wouldn't tolerate any "brown dirt," a reference to Nazi brownshirts.

Luckenwalde's story bucks an apparent trend. Only a few days before, a visibly contrite Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble of the Christian Democratic Union announced the results of a report by his Federal Criminal Police Office, Germany's equivalent of the FBI, which has documented an all-time high level of postwar right-wing crimes. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has recorded an increase in so-called "right-wing anarchists" who instigate targeted riots and take on the police and unionists. The BfV has also seen an increase in neo-Nazi marches. The picture painted by the BfV's report would give anyone the impression that right-wing extremism is a fate Germans will have to get used to -- or perhaps one to which they've long since resigned themselves.

Spreading good news, perhaps, isn't an interior minister's job. But it wouldn't have been impossible. Among Schäuble's statistics, one number went almost unnoticed. It suggests that right-wing violence may not be unavoidable, even in the eastern states, where right-wing crime rates have been particularly high. The eastern state of Brandenburg has seen a noticeable drop in its toll of far-right violent crimes (see graph). There's no question that the state still sees far too many -- but an organization called "Victims' Perspective" as well as the state prosecutor's office confirm the trend is real.

For years a stream of shocking news came out of Brandenburg, which surrounds the city of Berlin. Students were attacked at campsites, people were chased to their deaths. Small cities like Bernau or Schwedt gained a reputation as "brown towns," and tourist guides declared whole sections of the state "no-go areas" for foreigners. Right-wing extremists established their own youth culture in schools through neo-Nazi music. Brandenburg was seen as a stronghold not just for neo-Nazis, but also for far-right apologists. Manfred Stolpe, Brandenburg's governor from 1990 to 2002 and a Social Democrat (SPD), made excuses for young, violent criminals for far too long -- calling them victims of confusion following German reunification.

The first step for Brandenburg was admitting it had a problem. When Matthias Platzeck, another Social Democrat, assumed Stolpe's post, he spoke in plain language. "Brutal attacks, open ostracism of people from other countries, of people who look different or think differently -- all that couldn't and can't be categorized under the rubric of 'isolated cases'," the new governor declared.

Far-right crimes in Germany in 2008
DER SPIEGEL

Far-right crimes in Germany in 2008

In a sort of pincer strategy -- with citizen involvement on one side, and pressure from the government on the other -- Brandenburg resisted the neo-Nazis. The state's interior minister, Jörg Schönbohm of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), also gave clear signals, issuing a decree that pledged every police officer to a harder fight against neo-Nazism.

Officers were ordered to record even the most trivial-seeming acts, every appearance of a swastika, every drunken Nazi salute. This made it possible to take "perpetrator-oriented measures," whether at gas stations or train stations. Little by little, pressure was increased.

The judicial system cooperated. Public Prosecutor Erardo Rautenberg pushed for faster trials. "For me personally," Rautenberg has said, "fighting right-wing extremism through prosecution isn't just carrying out normal professional duties, but actually a patriotic duty." And the senior investigator, who had previously prosecuted left-wing terrorists at the federal level, didn't shy away from classifying right-wing extremist groups as terrorist organizations. In 2004 he charged the "Freikorps Havelland" with being a terrorist group. The gang had resolved to expel foreigners from Havelland, a region just west of Berlin. They set ten Vietnamese and Turkish snack stands on fire.

At first Rautenberg's approach was dismissed as "excessive," since the perpetrators in question were so young. But the Federal Court of Justice affirmed his ruling against five founding members of the group, as well as the "terrorist" classification. This tough approach was not without personal risk -- a CD by one neo-Nazi band included a death threat against the senior investigator. The cover of another CD showed a picture of the senior prosecutor for the city of Neuruppin.

Handcuffs and Socks

Andreas Müller has also become a nemesis for neo-Nazis. Müller is the local juvenile court judge in the city of Bernau, once a right-wing stronghold unsafe for people of different races, people on the left of the political spectrum, or gay people. A youth group from western Berlin was attacked here in 1998 simply because one boy in the group looked Turkish. Müller said he "simply can't stand it when people of other backgrounds or other opinions have to be afraid … The government has the power. There shouldn't be any power on the streets." The judge means what he says. He's convicted over 100 neo-Nazis.

When it wants to, the government can take effective action. Müller had young skinheads brought into the courtroom in handcuffs. He saw to it that charges moved quickly through the system quickly, rather than weeks after the crime. And he knew which symbols he had to fight. "I collected combat boots in the courtroom. They're weapons," he says. A functionary from the National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany's largest far-right party, had to give testimony at his trial in socks. The zero-tolerance program has met with success. In 2007 and 2008, Bernau police didn't record a single right-wing violent crime.

That hard line has established itself elsewhere. Two men were recently convicted of murder after brutally abusing an unemployed man for hours until he died, in the town of Templin, last year. This case shows it's too early to give an all-clear signal for Brandenburg. The lead judge on the case emphasized in his opinion that the defendants' "neo-Nazi worldview" played a role in their choice of victim, and he said they had played "masters of life and death." Sven P., 19, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the maximum penalty for young offenders. A co-defendant, 22-year-old Christian W., was sentenced to nine years and three months for aiding and abetting a murder.

'Recapturing' a City

As symbolic as such sentences are, Public Prosecutor Rautenberg believes, "the use of public space is just as important." For years right-wing extremists from all over Germany co-opted the town of Halbe, 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of Berlin, for their "Heroes' Commemoration" day. The Halbe Forest Cemetery includes Germany's largest military graveyard, with more than 22,000 graves of fallen soldiers from World War II. Each year, on Germany's national day of mourning, neo-Nazis marched through Halbe. The town's 2,200 residents closed their doors and windows and waited for the whole thing to be over.

Anne Böttcher, a social worker, was tired of looking on. Working with just a few others at first, she wondered "how we could recapture the city." Their "Action Alliance against Heroes' Commemoration and Nazi Marches in Halbe" found allies. Brandenburg's state government sent one of its so-called mobile consulting teams, which support local initiatives in conflicts with extremist groups. Activists went door to door in Halbe, "to give people courage," Böttcher says.

In November 2005, for the first time, several thousand people blocked the march to the soldiers' cemetery. State politicians reacted by passing a "gravesite assembling law" that banned neo-Nazis from the area surrounding the forest cemetery. Eventually the neo-Nazis gave up, and now there are no more "Heroes' Commemoration" marches in Halbe.

This example has caught on. When right-wing extremists tried to move their marches to Seelow, 100 kilometers away, an ordinance quickly made the cemetery there off-limits as well.

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© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2009
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