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Xenophobia: Germany Still Has Trouble Countering Neo-Nazis

Followers of Germany's neo-Nazi NPD party wave a black flag during May Day demonstrations in Berlin's Koepenick district on May 1, 2009.
The slogans are turning up at neo-Nazi rallies all over Germany: "Germany for Germans!" "This is national resistance on the march!" "USA: global genocidal headquarters!"

Frequent demonstrations attracting thousands of radical supporters of extreme nationalism or a revival of National Socialism in Germany have become a feature of right-wing extremism in Germany.

But the phenomenon can be perceived on more than the political plane; it appears to permeate German society on several levels.

According to an annual report published in May by Germany's federal office for the protection of the constitution, 30,000 Germans consider themselves to have extreme right-wing views; nearly 5,000 are militant neo-Nazis.

The report also says 2008 saw 20,000 right-wing criminal offenses and -- most distressingly -- more than 1,000 violent crimes, including at least two hate-related murders. That figure marks a 5 percent rise over 2007.

To some, the statistics are alarming enough.

But antiracism activist Timo Reinfrank is even more worried by the lack of response from the government. "What appalls us is the air of normality in which these facts are registered, year after year, with no adequate reaction," Reinfrank says. "The murders which appear in this year's report -- for the first time since 2004 -- indicate how dramatic this rise in right-wing extremist violence has become."

Generalized Into Oblivion

Discussions about neo-Nazism are not new in Germany. The country has seen several waves of anti-xenophobia initiatives since reunification, when it witnessed a spectacular rise in violent attacks on immigrants, refugees, and citizens of ethnic Turkish origin.

But despite Germany's reputation as a country bound by law and frequent declarations of its commitment to civil liberties and human rights, critics say governments of the last 20 years have been inconsistent in their attempts to eradicate the sources of racism and neo-Nazi violence.

Now, with a mounting economic crisis and other social woes, some fear it may be too late for Germany to prevent a resurrection of the far right in parts of the country.

Germany's interior minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has offered a sunnier outlook, saying he is "highly pleased" that the economic downturn hasn't resulted in wholesale defections to the extremist camp.

That has done little to ease the concerns of critics who are calling on the government to produce a comprehensive strategy against neo-Nazism.

Oliver Decker, a Frankfurt psychologist specializing in right-wing extremism, says many in Germany's political mainstream continue to address the problem only in sweeping generalities.

"There's a possible problem in democratic parties that are 'relativizing' the problem -- by falling back on classic labels like 'extremism,' for example," Decker says. "In doing so, they are obfuscating the very massive problem that actually exists on the right."

'No Go' Areas

Under Christian Democrat Helmut Kohl, who served as chancellor of unified Germany from 1990-98, the government addressed rising xenophobia by banning a number of far-right organizations and -- controversially even if supported by the opposition Social Democratic Party at the time -- strengthening restrictions on political asylum cases.

That move, critics complained, appeared to legitimate right-wing concerns about "ueberfremdung," or foreign infiltration. And in fact, neo-Nazism continued to thrive in the new Germany, evading fresh laws and restrictions by adapting the ways they organized.

Loose networks of militants calling themselves "autonomous nationalists" sought subculture status and street-level domination rather than elected office or influence within mainstream society.

To some extent, they succeeded. In smaller towns and the countryside -- mainly in the country's east, which still remained economically weak -- neo-Nazis concentrated their attacks on immigrants and antifascist activists.

They frequently managed to establish what they called "nationally liberated zones" -- an allusion to the Third Reich's aspirations of a "judenfreies" Germany, a German reich free of Jews.

Reinfrank says the existence of such zones throws into doubt Germany's domestic security and the long-held principle of "the state's monopoly on the legitimate use of violence" that is at the core of the German definition of statehood.

"Especially in east German regions, but also in some rural regions in west Germany, there are some so-called no-go areas, where people who don't fit into the Aryan-German world view can't travel to -- that applies to punks, leftists, skaters, immigrants, and gays and lesbians," Reinfrank says. "In the meantime, right-wing extremists are increasingly attacking conventional democratic parties and their activists, or anyone standing in their way in one sense or another."

At the same time, far-right parties have successfully made inroads into mainstream politics on the local and regional levels. Throughout Germany, such groups are prevailing in places where they don't meet any clear opposition from the majority.

In some instances, mainstream officials have even chosen to cooperate with their far-right opponents, arguing that the groups can come together on issues of common practical concern rather than getting bogged down in ideological stalemates.

That has been the case particularly in the former East Germany, where fewer people feel a strong connection to the country's mainstream parties and where a shaky economic landscape and widespread feeling of disillusionment with the political system have left many residents feeling like second-class citizens.

Civil Society As A Counterstrategy

Decker warns against seeing neo-Nazism as a problem that is exclusive to the east, however.

"As to the [public] attitudes, the East-West comparison is only of limited value," he says. "We have to look very precisely at the various situations and social milieu in order to understand what's happening there."

For years, there have been calls for action to address those milieus and for civil-society initiatives that could help counter the neo-Nazi movement.

After a fresh wave of violent attacks in 2000, the government declared a "revolt of the decent," prompting antifascist protests and subsidies for grassroots organizations in neo-Nazi strongholds of the country.

But critics say the time horizons of those programs were limited, follow-up subsidies scarce, and the effects minimal as a result.

Reinfrank, who serves as the managing director of the Amadeo Antonio Foundation, which gives support to local antiracism groups, laments that there are parts of Germany where extremism has come to be accepted as more normal than the opposition to it.

He fears the chance to drive back neo-Nazism may have already been missed. Any real solution, he says, will have to be broad and long-term -- and must see a return of average citizens to everyday social affairs, like volunteer work and civil services, that have been co-opted by the right.

"You already have a rightist civil society, neo-Nazi grassroots organizations, working very concretely at the spot. Combine that with the structural weaknesses of the East German regions, or rural areas in the west, and they're taking over very basic tasks, like tutoring school kids, doing youth work, engaging in voluntary fire brigades," Reinfrank says. "People think, 'Those are the guys that care for us; they're our caretakers.' Ideally, these were the kinds of tasks in which the democrats engaged."

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