Drowning out the Neo-Nazi Cacophony Government Woos School Kids with Democratic Rock

One eastern German state is taking on the neo-Nazis at their own game in the fight against right-wing extremism in schools. It's distributing free rock CDs, a tactic borrowed from the far-right NPD party. But are the kids listening?

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Christopher has a problem. The stupid thing is, he says, that his head just doesn't look good shaved.

He lumbers down the stairs of his secondary school in Stendal, a town in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, taking big steps in his wide jeans, his groin thrust forward. Markus, who is two feet taller than him, shuffles along next to him. He flunked his last school year and was shaving his head until recently.

"Hey!" Christopher calls out to Markus. "Where are those f---ing CDs? I want to see them!"

Christopher has heard on the radio that a compilation CD called "Respekt!" is to be handed out at all schools in Saxony-Anhalt this week. Christopher understood from the radio broadcast that the CD "came from the government or something."

He's not too far off the mark. The CD is in fact the brainchild of Saxony-Anhalt's Culture Ministry, which has launched a theme week against right-wing extremism in cooperation with a local youth-oriented radio station, MDR Sputnik. The idea behind the project was borrowed from none other than Germany's leading far-right party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), which has repeatedly distributed CDs with right-leaning rock music at schools. And the tactic seemed to work: The NPD subsequently achieved record electoral results among young voters -- 16 percent in elections to Saxony's state parliament, for example.

Unlike the NPD's CDs, which feature right-wing bands like Nordwind, Noie Werte or Faktor Widerstand, the government's compilation includes well-known left-leaning German acts like Die Toten Hosen, Die Fantastischen Vier, Die Ärzte and Wir sind Helden, among others.

"No kidding," says Markus. "A CD? Let's go get it."

"Yeah, but look, the CD is anti-right-wing. Against, like, us! Well, whatever."

Christopher laughs. He'll pick up a CD anyway and give it to his mother. "She's a fan of Die Ärzte, I think." The music is not quite his style, he adds. He's more interested in heavier music like Landser, Stahlgewitter or Weisse Wölfe -- neo-Nazi rock bands. Landser is the first band to have been classified as a criminal organization by Germany's Federal Court of Justice. To someone like Christopher, that makes it more interesting than whatever the Culture Ministry is pushing.

Not a Real Neo-Nazi

Of course Christopher is not a real neo-Nazi. Others say he's just a hanger on: he's only 15, after all. He had a rough time in puberty and when his father died. He would like to become a baker or join the army. He has been twice convicted for grievous bodily harm, sentenced to juvenile detention and forced to take a course to help him control his aggressive impulses. Things have been better since that, he says. And he no longer punches people -- at least not as readily.

He's trying to stay away from the real neo-Nazis in Stendal, who meet every afternoon in a private allotment garden and raise the German pre-1945 Imperial War Flag, which is now banned. His uncle belonged to their clique and had a hard time getting out.

Christopher even met a few foreigners while in juvenile detention. "They were actually OK," he says. "It made me wonder if my right-wing nationalism is correct." So Christopher could have been the ideal target audience for the Culture Ministry's project -- if that project were not so far removed from the world he lives in.

Just how far removed it is, was made clear one recent morning in the magnificent historic building which houses Magdeburg's Hegel Secondary School -- a school that could hardly be more different from Christopher's. Saxony-Anhalt Governor Wolfgang Böhmer, who belongs to the center-right Christian Democratic Union, was there to discuss his ideas about open society with students of a German class.

Later, in the governor's office, a satisfied Böhmer admitted that he himself was not familiar with the music on the CDs being distributed in his initiative. But he had assigned others to "research what young people listen to." One is willing to believe that he is trying his best --- but he will never get through to Christopher and the other students in Stendal this way.

Fitting In

It is raining in Stendal. The city's lake looks gray. Behind it stand bleak communist-era apartment blocks. Christopher wants to go home, back to his computer games, in which he re-enacts World War II.

"In those days, before Hitler came to power, Germany was really small," he says before leaving. He pulls up the zipper on his jacket. The brand -- Thor Steinar -- is popular with neo-Nazis and helps them identify each other. Any adolescent wanting to be taken seriously here wears one of these jackets.

The school director, Astrid Bleissner, doesn't want Christopher and Markus to be used in the media to represent her school. She has selected 10 students between 15 and 16 years old and asked them to assemble in a classroom shortly before the end of the school day. They don't look exceptional but all prove to be alert, talkative and eloquent.

In the end, though, they botch things after all. They say they are not right-wing but rather neutral. But they all have problems with foreigners. There are far too many of them in Saxony-Anhalt, they say, even though in reality they only make up a tiny 1.9 percent of the population. The students insist the foreigners always act up, that Russians and Turks are given privileged treatment while people "with a right-wing stance" are "discriminated against" -- as illustrated, they claim, by the Culture Ministry's CD project.

Bleissner, the school director, is surprised by the discussion. "I guess you just can never know what's going on inside students' heads," she says afterwards. An old edition of Goethe's "Faust" lies on her desk, a piece of wreckage from Germany's sunken educational culture.

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