Resisting the NPD Sleepy German Town Awakens to Fight Far Right
High school teacher Michael Helmbrecht says his hometown of Gräfenberg is being terrorized by neo-Nazis who have staged over a dozen rallies there this year to demand access to a war memorial bearing the inscription "Eternal Honor and Gratitude to Our Warriors."
"Once a month, we're in a state of siege with police controls everywhere," Helmbrecht told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "People are being put off coming here."
The town, 20 kilometers north of Nuremberg in the Bavarian region of Franconia, has set up a "Citizens' Forum" that has mobilized the local population of 4,100 to take part in counter-demonstrations, which have included blaring out samba music and running loud buzz saws to drown out the far-right protestors.
The National Democratic Party (NPD) demonstrators all come from out of town, many of them from the cities of Nuremberg and Fürth, says the mayor's office. They usually number between 50 and 250, and each demonstration is accompanied by hundreds of police. When they arrive, the shutters go down, the shops shut and the picturesque town -- which boasts attractive historic buildings, elaborately painted facades and three breweries -- comes to a standstill.
"You can't go out for a loaf of bread without getting checked by the police," said Helmbrecht, the spokesman of the Citizens' Forum. "Local businesses say they're suffering severe damage as a result. This town is being terrorized by the NPD."
The NPD demonstrations start at the station and march through town to the foot of the hill-top war memorial, a proud rotunda erected in 1924 topped with the German iron cross and surrounded by pillars inscribed with the names of the men from this small town who fell in the two world wars. The party isn't just staging demonstrations. Its members have tried to distribute CDs with far-right music outside the local school.
Legal Ruse to Keep Nazis Out
The dispute started in 1999, when around 100 members of the "Franconian Action Front", a far-right organization that has since been banned for supporting Nazi ideology, gathered at the memorial to mark Remembrance Day on Nov. 11, the date when the veterans and civilians who died in the two world wars and other wars are commemorated.
Gräfenberg's Mayor Werner Wolf was determined to prevent a repeat of the ceremony the following year, but Germany has liberal laws on the right to assemble and he had to find a legal ruse to keep the Nazis out.
He leased the memorial site to a registered society of which he was chairman. In legal terms, that move turned the memorial into private ground and enabled the town council to forbid demonstrations there.
The memorial was fenced off. But the annual demonstrations persisted, with the NPD launching a campaign "Memorials are for Everyone" and protesting at the fence each year.
When the party announced in November 2006 that it would start staging protests in Gräfenberg each month to demand its right to free access, the townspeople decided to act.
"It became clear we had to mobilize some proper resistance, so we set up the forum," said Helmbrecht. "The memorial itself is just an excuse for the NPD to increease its visibility. The reason behind it is that they are trying to establish roots here ahead of next year's local and state elections in Bavaria. They have become far more active over the last year in neighboring districts. They're trying to mobilize support."
'Racist, Anti-Semitic, Revisionist'
The anti-immigrant NPD is a legitimate political party and receives public funding even though its views are unmistakeably derived from Nazi ideology. Germany's domestic intelligence agency describes it as "racist, anti-Semitic, revisionist."
The NPD managed to get elected into the parliaments of the eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2004 and 2006, respectively, and is also trying to establish a foothold in western states ahead of its big goal -- clearing the 5 percent hurdle needed to get into Germany's federal parliament in the 2009 general election.
"There are towns elsewhere in the district that have their own far-right scene. The absurd thing is that there are no young people here who are part of the scene. The demonstrators all come from out of town," deputy mayor Sigrid Meier told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The spokesman for the NPD's Bavarian organization, Roland Wuttke, denied that the party was terrorizing the town. "We are demonstrating against the barricading of the heroes' memorial which we regard as unacceptable," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We're not terrorizing anyone. Our demonstrations are peaceful. Any disruption of life in the town is being caused by our opponents."
'Undemocratic, Perfidious, Unlawful'
On its Web site the party accuses the town council of "undemocratic behavior" in resorting to a trick to keep the "National Resistance" away from the memorial. It says Gräfenberg's Citizens' Forum is waging "perfidious, unlawful blocking tactics."
Anti-NPD campaigner Helmbrecht is proud of those tactics that place Gräfenberg in stark contrast with some local communities in eastern Germany, where a mixture of apathy and tacit acceptance by the local population has allowed neo-Nazis to thrive.
The town of Mügeln in Saxony, for example, made nationwide headlines in August when eight Indian men were beaten and chased by a crowd of Germans shouting "Foreigners out!" Attacks on foreigners are more likely to happen in eastern states than in the west, official statistics show. And police in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt are being investigated by a parliamentary committee for allegedly not being tough enough on far-right crime.
On German Unity Day, the Oct. 3 anniversary of reunification in 1990, some 2,000 local people gathered in the market square in Gräfenberg to confront a demonstration by 150 NPD members who held an overnight torch-lit "vigil." Some 1,000 police were on hand.
The NPD also descended on Gräfenberg on Aug. 18 to mark the anniversary of the death of Hilter's deputy Rudolf Hess.
Helmbrecht said, that since the Citizen's Forum was set up with a "hard core" of 40 and a wider membership of 150, it has managed to mobilize the citizens of Gräfenberg. "Some 80 percent of anti-NPD demonstrators now come from Gräfenberg. We've got normal citizens taking part. For many it has been their first demonstration ever."
Colorful Stunts to 'Sweep Out' NPD
"People are sick and tired of them. No one's saying 'Oh just let them get on with it.' All this has had a positive side effect. People are discussing human rights and democracy in the pubs; there's a process of politicization," said the high school teacher.
The forum has come up with a variety of stunts to counter the NPD. During one far-right rally in the carnival season last February, it got 400 people to turn up with brooms and brushes to "sweep" the far right out of town. "Of course it was just a symbolic act, but the way they were standing there, it looked like a peasants' revolt," said Helmbrecht.
Other tactics have included a local firm counting NPD demonstrators and donating €5 per head to an organization that helps people quit the far-right scene. Sausages were sold under the motto "In Franconia, only the sausages are brown," in reference to the so-called "Brownshirts" of Hitler's Nazi party.
"We've also been projecting messages on facades behind NPD speakers as well as photos from Auschwitz," said Helmbrecht. "When they come here and go on about the memory of their grandfathers, we project a photo of granddad shooting a Jewish prisoner in the head."
Another stunt has been to declare a "Traditional Day of Woodcutting" to coincide with one NPD demonstration. A screaming buzz saw was switched on in a shed next to the memorial site to interrupt proceedings.
Peaceful so Far
So far, the demonstrations have remained peaceful, in contrast with clashes that often mark far-right rallies elsewhere in the country. That's because neither side has an interest in the dispute turning violent.
The Gräfenberg Forum has managed to limit the involvement of militant "anti-fascists," while the NPD is intent on maintaining a democratic veneer ahead of Bavarian elections next year and doesn't want to give the authorities an excuse to ban its demonstrations on public safety grounds.
"It's a mark of the success of our work that people dare to join our counter-demonstrations," said Helmbrecht. "We try to encourage them to bring their children so that they can learn how this obscene ideology is unacceptable."
"You can mobilize people if you find the right format for counter-demonstrations," he added. "People have said we're just organizing folk festivals and my response is, yes, that's exactly what we're doing."
It has turned into a battle of wills between the people of Gräfenberg and the NPD. Whenever the party files for permission to demonstrate, the forum hires speakers, music bands and food vendors and negotiates with the police. So far, neither side is showing any sign of backing down.
"Our demand is clear: the monument must be made accessible to everyone," says Wuttke of the NPD. The party will continue to stage demonstrations until it is permitted to conduct "proper commemoration" at the site, he insists.
Matthias Fischer, the regional chairman of the NPD in Franconia who has been organizing the demonstrations in Gräfenberg, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "We're not going to stop. We've got a number of other possibilities to make our presence felt in the town." He declined to elaborate.
The NPD has applied for permission to stage another demonstration sometime in the next two weeks to mark this year's Remembrance Day.
And the Citizen's Forum is already planning its response. "We're not yet saying what we've got planned but it will be worth coming to see," said Helmbrecht.