Fashion On Trial Stork With Moustache Battles Humorless Neo-Nazis

On Wednesday a court in Nuremberg considered the case of a satirical stork that looks like Hitler and the damage it was doing to a fashion label favored by neo-Nazis. The owners of the latter don't like Storch Heinar, whose jokes they say, are damaging the reputation of their brand, Thor Steinar.

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By Cathrin Schaer


Who says Germans don't have a sense of humor? Because there is no doubt that a line of clothing and accessories based out of Schwerin, in the eastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is funny. Hilarious even -- depending on your appreciation of a certain brand of anti-Nazi humor.

However, the label that they are satirizing is not amused. They say their brand's reputation is being damaged and have taken the offending clothes label to court. The case began in Nuremberg on Wednesday.

To get the joke, though, you need to know the back story. The Schwerin-based clothing line is called Storch Heinar. "Storch" is the German for stork and, in this case, the stork Heinar is an unfortunate cartoon character with a Hitler-esque moustache wearing an over-sized military helmet who has an unhappy childhood, an unacknowledged artistic talent and an oversized superiority complex. The unfortunate beast wants to be the greatest fashion designer of all time. Sound vaguely familiar?

It did to the makers of Thor Steinar, another clothing label based in Mittenwalde, 30 kilometers southeast of Berlin in the state of Brandenburg. Most Germans know Thor Steinar as one of the clothing brands of choice for style-conscious neo-Nazis. It has been described by wits as "the H&M of hate" and "the Zara of xenophobia."

'The Leader Only Has One Egg'

Founded in 2002, Thor Steinar gained an immediate following among the far-right scene partially because of its deliberate emphasis on Nordic mythology, an important element to Nazi ideas about racial purity. This is despite the fact that the company that owns Thor Steinar, Mediatex GmbH, has always denied that it was targeting neo-Nazis.

The makers of the Storch Heinar range however, have no doubt about Thor Steinar's appeal to the far right. Their own range -- which includes T-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, dresses and coffee cups -- is decorated with graphics that are clearly satirical: Jokes at the expense of various neo-Nazi icons.

For example, a picture of the stork, who is too weak to fly, laying a single egg and the slogan: "The leader has only one egg" -- a reference to the fact that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was rumored to only have one testicle after a wartime injury. There are also graphics featuring Benito Storcholini and a barbecue with a tank gun attached called a "grill-panzer." The latter came after one right wing politician in the state praised the work of Austrian poet Franz Grillparzer, whose work was never banned by the Nazis. In fact, the creators of Storch Heinar haven't missed a trick. At an earlier stage, the T-shirts all cost €18.88 (around $25), those numbers supposedly being neo-Nazi code for "Adolf Hitler -- Heil Hitler," because of the place of the first letters of each word in the alphabet.

Baby Bibs and Frisbees by the Stork

Storch Heinar has been around since the winter of 2008, and is the brainchild of a left-leaning youth group called Endstation Rechts -- which translates as "last stop for the right wing" -- set up to combat right-wing extremism in the states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony. As members of the groups discussed the opening of a "Nazi shop" selling, among other things, Thor Steinar in the middle of Rostock over a bottle or two of wine one night, they decided to respond by starting their own clothing label. And so the tale of the unhappy stork was born. "We were not drunk though," Mathias Brodkorb, a Social Democrat and member of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament, one of the people behind Storch Heinar, told the daily Die Tageszeitung.

Storch Heinar's popularity has increased over time, no doubt due partially to increased local media coverage of the brand -- the range of goods available via their website is now large enough to include baby bibs and Frisbees and the brand has around 4,000 fans on Facebook. The label has sold "more than we thought it would," Brodkorb told news weekly Focus. The profits fund the work of Endstation Rechts. Storch Heinar is only a small, and relatively uncomplicated, part of their work, Brodkorb, 33, who studied philosophy and classics, explained to Die Tageszeitung: "We are all fixated on neo-Nazis and often we overlook more subtle opportunities for people to be inhumane and right wing extremist."

'Disparaging' the neo-Nazis

Unsurprisingly, Mediatex GmbH, do not like any of this. The owners of Thor Steinar are known for their litigiousness and, as one local commentator put it: "Right wing extremism and humor go together like combat boots and Birkenstock sandals."

Brodkorb told local media that the day after Storch Heinar was founded, the company that owns Thor Steinar tried to copyright the avian name. They were rejected. Mediatex then filed a complaint against Brodkorb, saying that Storch Heinar was injuring and "disparaging Thor Steinar." The case went to court on Wednesday in Nuremberg. The small group behind Storch Heinar has been raising funds to fight the case -- they even have a new T-shirt for sale that boasts the garment's owner is part of the rescue team for the beleaguered bird.

Brodkorb was optimistic about the outcome. He doesn't believe that the general public would mistake a white stork on a red background with Thor Steinar's white cross on a gray background. Additionally two similar complaints that Mediatex had brought previously in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia have not been upheld. In one of those cases, Brodkorb says, the court decided that the clothing in question was "recognizably satirical and a statement of political opinion."

And it seemed that the judge in this case agreed. On Wednesday afternoon, Julian Barlen, another one of the people behind the stork jokes and also a member of the Social Democrats, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that the judge in the case had recommended to Mediatex that they withdraw their complaint as there were no reasonable grounds for it. However, Mediatex had decided against this and Barlen says that the case may well go further in August, to a higher court.

However for the time being, Barlen says: "Storch Heinar could not be more pleased. We are very happy. We will probably have a big party. And," he adds slyly, "there will be lots of egg liqueur."

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