The Roots of Right Extremism Trial by Fire for an Aspiring Neo-Nazi
At the beginning of this year, a wannabe neo-Nazi burned down the "House of Democracy" in the small town of Zossen just south of Berlin. The case lays bare the deep roots of extremism in eastern Germany.
On the morning of Jan. 22, Daniel S. went into his father's shed and poured gasoline from a 20-liter (5-gallon) canister into a 1.5-liter soft drink bottle. He took along an igniter and left the farm. Daniel, 16, had big plans for the day.
It was bitterly cold and there was snow on the ground in Zossen, a small town just south of Berlin. Daniel was wearing a heavy jacket and gloves when he climbed over a fence on Kirchstrasse at around 10 p.m. A modest hut built during East German days stood on the property.
Daniel pushed open a window and jumped in. It was dark inside the building, but he could make out books, musical instruments and computers. He placed the coal igniter onto a shelf, poured gasoline from the bottle onto the igniter and lit it with his lighter, and then quickly jumped back outside through the window.
The white, flat-roofed building was ablaze within minutes. The fire department was unable to put out the fire, and the building burned down completely. The damage was estimated at 100,000 ($127,000).
But the political fallout was far greater than the property damage.
Up in Flames
Dedicated citizens had only opened the building, known as the "House of Democracy," in September. Until the night of the fire, the building had housed an exhibition on Jewish life in the town of Zossen. On that night, a sliver of hope also went up in flames.
The eastern German state of Brandenburg has taken many steps to fight the activities of right-wing extremists. Prosecutors have increased the pressure on skinheads, and extreme right-wing organizations and concerts have been banned. The state has spent a lot of money to strengthen civil society, and its efforts seemed to have paid off, as the number of extreme right-wing crimes decreased. And now the House of Democracy had been reduced to ruins.
The State Office of Criminal Investigation quickly took over the investigation. A warrant for the arrest of Daniel S. was issued a week later. According to the public prosecutor's office, the teenager had made an "extensive" confession. The defendant had apparently wanted to help right-wing extremists in Zossen "achieve victory."
But the police officers were not satisfied. Although they believed Daniel S. was the main culprit, they began searching for people who could have incited him to commit arson. They discovered a group of young neo-Nazis for whom the 16-year-old was apparently a compliant tool. The investigation has led directly into a neo-Nazi swamp, an environment in which the boundaries between neglect, brutalization and right-wing extremism are fluid. "There is a receptive audience," says Michael Scharf, the Brandenburg head of state security, "which is easily controlled by right-wing extremists, poorly socialized and has an affinity for violence."
No Trace of Empathy
As it turns out, the Zossen arson incident will tell more than the story of an unstable 16-year-old. The underlying problems relate to the appeal of right-wing groups, their arts of seduction and their lack of scruples in turning followers into criminals.
The sign on a gray, two-story house in the village of Mellensee, six kilometers from Zossen, reads "Trautes Heim" ("Home, Sweet Home"). Daniel's father Uwe is sitting at the kitchen table wearing a gray tracksuit. He takes a long drag on his cigarette. His son's file is lying on the table; it includes a photo depicting a friendly-looking boy with an awkward smile. The photo is in a clear plastic sleeve, and the arrest warrant, printed on red paper, is right behind it.
Uwe S., 44, the father of six children, works as a boiler man. His wife is pregnant again, and he is home on paternity leave. Daniel is troubled, the father says, pointing out that his son has "adjustment problems" and doesn't know what he is doing. According to Uwe S., Daniel had no friends and was often bullied. The boy eventually started getting into trouble, which included stealing things. According to his father, Daniel broke into a supermarket, but it had already been cleared out. He stole an empty cash register -- evidence, for the father, of how troubled his son is. He refers to him as if he were a neighbor's child gone bad. There is no trace of empathy in his voice.
The court has recognized that there were parenting problems in the family. Daniel was sent to the Lübben State Hospital for psychotherapy in the summer of 2005. He has been in psychiatric treatment since April 2007. He completed the 8th and 9th grades in a special learning workshop, and in 10th grade he spent only two weeks in school.
Finding the Right-Wing Scene
For the police, Daniel is already a hardened criminal, with a history of theft, burglary and assault. The assault incident couldn't have been that serious, says the father, because the victim was released from the hospital after only one day. In November 2008, the municipal court in Zossen convicted Daniel of theft and resisting arrest. He is currently the subject of 10 preliminary investigations.
"I never had friends," Daniel once said about himself. But he tried to make connections and sought recognition, which he found in the right-wing scene. His father is convinced that his son's new friends, the ones he had been spending time with, are to blame for his son having become an arsonist. He is referring to Daniel Teich, a neo-Nazi, and his friends. Uwe S. closes the file and says: "Now why is he still at large?"
Teich, 24, lives a short distance away from the family's apartment, on the inhospitable grounds of a former Soviet army barracks. A sticker from the neo-Nazi NPD party on the mailbox reads: "Rudolf Hess: Captured, murdered, forgotten" -- a reference to Hitler's one-time deputy.
In February, the Zossen District Court convicted Teich of "denigration of the state and its symbols." He was tried together with five other right-wing extremists, members of a group called Freie Kräfte Teltow-Fläming, or FKTF (Teltow-Fläming Independent Forces). Teich had called for a march under the motto "60 years of lies are enough," and had distributed a flyer that depicted a tombstone with the inscription: "1949-2009 Here in this grave rests a pathetically cowardly nation." Teich usually wears dark clothing and sunglasses, and a black cap with a sticker on it that reads "National Socialist." He has a tattoo of barbed wire on his wrist.
- Part 1: Trial by Fire for an Aspiring Neo-Nazi
- Part 2: Trial by Fire