Last week I was heading up from Berlin for a long weekend on Germany's beautiful Baltic Sea coast. Only a short journey by train and I would trade the hectic capital for white sandy beaches, green meadows and quiet countryside. The weather forecast predicted occasional showers, but I was determined not to let that spoil a pleasant relaxing weekend with friends. What I didn't plan for, however, was a two-hour trip involving shouting down the sort of xenophobic troglodytes that have unfortunately made lots of headlines in Germany recently.
Sadly, I now add to the pile of reports about racially motivated attacks, right-wing extremists and bigots on the march with my own short account of my train ride with the Nazis. Perhaps it will offer some insights into the challenge Germany is facing at the moment.
To get to the Baltic Sea from Berlin you have to travel through the eastern German state of Brandenburg. It's a place with beautiful rolling green farmland and pretty lakes, but also gray and grim towns that were among the losers of German reunification. The ex-spokesman for former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder recently caused a stir when he warned non-white soccer fans coming to Germany for the World Cup next month against visiting parts of Brandenburg because of well-documented xenophobia and right-wing extremist activity there.
None of this current debate crossed my mind as I boarded a slow regional train at Berlin's Alexanderplatz. The double-decker carriage was crowded since last Thursday was a holiday, but after finding a seat I settled in for the journey. It was only after we were out beyond the city limits and deep into Brandenburg that I realized something was amiss. Nearby, just down the stairs a group of men was drinking beer and listening to loud music. Since the holiday Herrentag -- Father's Day or Men's Day -- is traditionally celebrated by groups of men getting drunk and heading out into the countryside, I simply tried to ignore them by reading a book. Other travelers -- including a heavily pregnant friend of mine -- asked them to stop smoking and turn the music down. It was then that I heard the lyric "Kraft durch Freude" -- the old slogan "Strength through Joy" used by the Nazi holiday program -- and suddenly got a sinking feeling in my stomach.
Close encounters of the Third Reich kind
The group that I had written off simply as a bunch of working-class chuckleheads was apparently exactly the same type of right-wing extremists threatening to damage Germany's image as a modern and tolerant country during this summer's World Cup. Perhaps most alarmingly, they didn't look like they were right-wing bigots. They were simply German Prols -- in Britain they'd be called chavs, in America maybe dismissed as trailer trash. No shaven heads, no combat boots or bomber jackets, but that didn't keep them from cheering when one of them would shout "fascism!" or "Adolf Hitler!"
It's about then that I snapped and yelled: "Knock off that Nazi crap!" Backed up by comments by a number of other passengers in the carriage, this quieted them down for awhile. But eventually one of them started to talk loudly about the need to be educated and not just read books like "Hitler's Willing Executioners" by Daniel Goldhagen. Debating such people is rarely a fruitful exercise, but when another friend tried to explain to him just how misguided he was, it quickly became clear that like most intolerance, their bigotry was born of the most prosaic types of fear and ignorance.
Trying to shift away from being labeled as a Nazi, a 22-year-old rather unimaginatively tried to put the blame for Germany's problems on foreigners. German schools -- presumably in economically depressed areas like Brandenburg -- were being closed whereas schools in parts of Berlin with lots of Turks or Arabs continued to grow. An Ethiopian-born German citizen had supposedly provoked his attackers into nearly beating him to death. Right-wingers were being made scapegoats by shifty Italians, who were making up stories of being assaulted. Then he pathetically pleaded that they were just out to enjoy a few beers for Herrentag and asked why they couldn't just be left alone.
Fear and ignorance in Brandenburg
The answer to his rhetorical question, of course, is because their brownshirt shenanigans have no place in modern Germany -- a country that is overwhelmingly a tolerant and open place. They might not have been hardcore skinheads that beat people up simply for not being German -- they said nothing to a small Asian woman who passed through them in the train on her way to the restroom. But they almost certainly wouldn't have had a problem watching some jackbooted thugs assault someone just for being black and in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that's what is so disturbing about the whole incident. The number of core right-wing extremists in German remains a very small, if dangerous, group. The bunch on the train came across more as wannabe Nazis than the real deal. However, that isn't meant to downplay their disturbingly racist and extremist attitudes that have apparently so thoroughly soaked into a certain segment of German society -- especially in the economically depressed east. Such ideas are largely latent, but they are seemingly becoming less so, as evidenced by the brazenness of my fellow train travelers.
Unfortunately, a very tiny minority of troublemakers could easily disrupt the World Cup and seriously damage Germany's image abroad. But if that's what it takes to root out the festering fear and ignorance I saw firsthand on my way to the Baltic Sea, then it would be a very small price to pay indeed.