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

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."

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

Foto: DPA

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?

Where Is Merkel?

There is no national push to root out the far right. No nationwide information campaign to wean youths off the pied pipers. No sign of any zero tolerance policy among police forces. No flood of new funding for pro-democracy groups to provide counselling for victims or set up youth clubs where people play pool rather than sing the Horst-Wessel song.

In many cases, damage to property still isn't being registered as hate crimes. Why? Because the officers can't be bothered to do the paperwork. Or because they don't want to contribute to negative statistics that already show the five eastern states have the highest per-capita incidence of far-right offenses in Germany, according to the 2011 report of the domestic intelligence agency. That's even though the proportion of immigrants in those states is less than 6 percent, according to the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. In all the other 11 states, the share of immigrants is higher, in most cases much higher.

Part of the problem is that towns refuse to acknowledge the presence of Nazis because they don't want to deter visitors. But some communities are taking action. Two weeks ago, in a rare show of public determination to confront neo-Nazis in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, some 2,000 people demonstrated  against an NPD festival being held in a village near the town of Pasewalk.

The protest was staged by an alliance of parties, churches and local cultural groups. Couldn't Merkel or one of her cabinet ministers have helicoptered in to show leadership and crucial support, to tell the people: You're not alone, this government is backing you up all the way?

Maybe that would be too much to expect. After all, since she became chancellor in 2005, the far-right problem has not been at the top of her priority list.

Last year, when the NPD won 6 percent of the vote in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, enough to remain represented in the state parliament for a second five-year term, her response was so tepid that it appeared to trivialize the problem. She declared that the NPD's decline in support from 7.3 percent at the last election in 2006 was a "slight ray of hope." Analysts disagree with that interpretation. They have been warning for years that the far-right scene is getting more violent and dangerous. And they say a terrorist group like the NSU could be formed again. Neo-Nazi groups bent on violence against foreigners are "ticking time bombs," says Funke.

Germany's Problem With Immigrants

Eastern Germany has a population of some 15 million people and makes up around a third of the country's land mass. While prosperous cities like Dresden and Leipzig are becoming more cosmopolitan, the far right has tainted the reputation of the entire region to the extent that it is viewed as a no-go area by many people who aren't white.

If Scotland, Wales or a part of England had that reputation, Britain would launch a massive nationwide effort to counter it.

Why isn't that happening here? Surely, the country that perpetrated the Holocaust should show zero tolerance for shaven-headed youths doing the Hitler salute. There may be talk of "zero tolerance" here, even by the chancellor, but there isn't enough action.

One reason could be that Germany just isn't comfortable with immigration, even half a century after the first Turks started moving here as "guest workers" to help the nation perform its post-war economic miracle.

Even though the country now has an immigrant population of some 15 million, almost a fifth of the population, it still isn't ready to accept the fact that those immigrants are going to change it.

A decade ago, politicians from Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party voiced that stance by saying immigrants should respect the German "Leitkultur", or dominant culture, and insisting that Germany is not a country of immigration.

Germans Must Accept That Immigrants Will Change Their Country

A few years ago, Merkel, pandering to the right wing of her party, effectively repeated that position, saying multiculturalism had "utterly failed." She didn't explain what she meant, but the phrase was clearly aimed at people who don't really like immigrants, and think the ones who live here should be fully assimilated.

The hostile, offensive comments about Muslims by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin in his bestselling book "Germany Abolishes Itself" are unlikely to have made the millions of Turkish Germans feel any more welcome.

And a few months ago, Joachim Gauck, the freedom activist who became German president in March, distanced himself from his predecessor's statement that Islam belongs to Germany. "I would simply have said the Muslims that live here belong to Germany," he mused in an interview with Die Zeit newspaper in May. Before he became the German head of state, Gauck said Sarrazin had been "courageous."

With 4 million Muslims living in Germany, it's high time for the country to accept that they and their religion belong to Germany -- and will shape its face and its future.

But if the nation's leaders are still unable to make unequivocal statements to that effect, it's not hard to understand why they are failing to combat xenophobia with the necessary vigor.

To his credit, Gauck held a strong speech in Rostock, his native city, on Sunday to mark the 20th anniversary of the riots. He admitted that xenophobia, though present across germany, was encountered more frequently in the east, whose people had long been accustomed to thinking "in black and white" after decades deprived of democracy and self-determination.

"To all right-wing extremists and nationalists, all those who despise and fight our democracy we say: We don't fear you -- wherever you appear, we will stand in your way: in every village, in every state, in the whole country."

Twenty years on, that's still wishful thinking.

Germany urgently needs to make progress here. Not just because it needs immigrants so that it can remain an economic powerhouse, or because its reputation as a civilized nation could suffer. But because it's simply not acceptable that Uwe Dziuballa, the Jewish restaurant owner, should spend his mornings wiping swastikas off his doorstep.

David Crossland is an editor at SPIEGEL ONLINE International