Dortmund combats the new face of German neo-Nazism

A new-look neo-Nazi outfit, the Autonomous Nationalists, embody the shifting complexion of Germany’s far-right.

Dortmund’s new generation of neo-Nazis have come along way.  
 
They wear the latest designer track-jackets and listen to the freshest techno-house mixes. They’re tech-savvy, embracing social media and using Twitter to communicate. 
 

To the naked eye, they’re just like you and me. But deep down, they harbour the same visceral xenophobia that made pariahs of their older cadres in the far-right.

 

“Today a neo-Nazi can eat Turkish kebabs and still go out and beat up immigrants”, says Johannes Radke, a German journalist interviewed by Reuters.

"They see themselves as the avant-garde of the Nazi scene," Radke said. "They're much more professional than some drunk, dim-witted skinhead - and more dangerous."

With their affinity for technology and their capacity to blend into the local community, the Autonomous Nationalists are a far more discreet beast. Their attacks are methodically planned, resembling the work of a private investigator rather than the vitriolic frenzies of their older peers.
 

Dortmund has long been a hotbed for neo-Nazi activity, but groups such as the Autonomous Nationalists have flocked to the former industrial powerhouse to exploit the anxiety and vexation caused by the city’s deteriorating unemployment crisis.

“Many Nazis moved here because they thought this was a broken city”, Dortmund mayor Ullrich Sirau told Reuters.

 
Reportedly, such an influx has sparked a soaring rate in Nazi-related crimes, with 131 crimes tied to far-right militants in the first half of 2012.
 
The problem is not just specific to Dortmund as well, over 1,517 far-right crimes including both propaganda offenses and violent crimes have been reported in the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia between January and June, a 52-case increase on the equivalent period in 2011.
 
The rising tide of German neo-Nazism came to the fore in 2007, when it was revealed that a neo-Nazi cell calling themselves the National Socialist Underground were responsible for the racially-motivated murders of nine people between 2000-2007, most of them ethnic Turks.
 
The combination of mounting German sensitivity and a rising trend of racially aggravated crimes prompted the North Rhine-Westphalian authorities to launch an extensive offensive in August, which saw the outlawing of three neo-Nazi groups, including the Autonomous Nationalists.
 
Accompanying the bans, around 900 police officers searched the almost 100 group residences or clubhouse in Dortmund and two nearby cities, seizing an array of banned propaganda material alongside various weapons, including imported firearms.  
 
But with no Autonomous Nationalists arrested in the crackdown, the group remains at large. And although the authorities have made significant inroads into disrupting the cell's command chain, its vitriolic heart still beats.
 
However, on September 1sta date neo-Nazi’s celebrate to commemorate Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 the only visible banners were ones demanding neo-Nazis to leave town.
 
Similarly, the board of Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund – the city’s football club – invested €250,000 in a state-of-the-art surveillance apparatus capable of taking close-ups of potentially disruptive fans. It paid dividends: at the opening game of the season, two fans were arrested for unfurling a banner supporting one of Dortmund’s banned neo-Nazi groups.
 
But despite social opposition and federal crackdowns on Dortmund’s far-right extremists, their ability to vanish into obscurity is a worrying sign. No longer can police identify these groups by their Swastika-clad bomber jackets or their Nazi tattoos. They will need to adapt to the evolving nature of the city’s far-right if the beast is to be vanquished.   
Photo: Getty

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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Is it OK to punch a Nazi?

There are moral and practical reasons why using force to stop a far-right march is justified.

It says a great deal about Donald Trump that for the second time under his Presidency we are having to ask the question: is it OK to punch a Nazi?

More specifically, after the events in Charlottesville last weekend, we must ask: is it OK to turn up to a legal march, by permit-possessing white supremacists, and physically stop that march from taking place through the use of force if necessary?

The US president has been widely criticised for indicating that he thought the assortment of anti-semites, KKK members and self-professed Nazis were no worse than the anti-fascist counter demonstrators. So for him, the answer is presumably no, it’s not OK to punch a Nazi in this situation.

For others such as Melanie Phillips in the Times, or Telegraph writer Martin Daubney, the left have seemingly become the real fascists.

The argument goes that both sides are extremists and thus both must be condemned equally for violence (skipping over the fact that one of the counter-protesters was killed by a member of the far right, who drove his car into a crowd).

This argument – by focusing on the ideologies of the two groups – distracts from the more relevant issue of why both sides were in Charlottesville in the first place.

The Nazis and white supremacists were marching there because they hate minorities and want them to be oppressed, deported or worse. That is not just a democratic expression of opinion. Its intent is to suppress the ability of others to live their lives and express themselves, and to encourage violence and intimidation.

The counter-protesters were there to oppose and disrupt that march in defence of those minorities. Yes, some may have held extreme left-wing views, but they were in Charlottesville to stop the far-right trying to impose its ideology on others, not impose their own.

So far, the two sides are not equally culpable.

Beyond the ethical debate, there is also the fundamental question of whether it is simply counterproductive to use physical force against a far-right march.

The protesters could, of course, have all just held their banners and chanted back. They could also have laid down in front of the march and dared the “Unite the Right” march to walk over or around them.

Instead the anti-fascists kicked, maced and punched back. That was what allowed Trump to even think of making his attempt to blame both sides at Charlottesville.

On a pragmatic level, there is plenty of evidence from history to suggest that non-violent protest has had a greater impact. From Gandhi in to the fall of the Berlin Wall, non-violence has often been the most effective tool of political movements fighting oppression, achieving political goals and forcing change.

But the success of those protests was largely built on their ability to embarrass the governments they were arrayed against. For democratic states in particular, non-violent protest can be effective because the government risks its legitimacy if it is seen violently attacking people peacefully expressing a democratic opinion.

Unfortunately, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult to embarrass a Nazi. They don't have legitimacy to lose. In fact they gain legitimacy by marching unopposed, as if their swastikas and burning crosses were just another example of political free expression.

By contrast, the far right do find being physically attacked embarrassing. Their movement is based on the glorification of victory, of white supremacy, of masculine and racial superiority, and scenes of white supremacists looking anything but superior undermines their claims.

And when it comes to Nazis marching on the streets, the lessons from history show that physically opposing them has worked. The most famous example is the Battle of Cable Street in London, in which a march by thousands of Hitler-era Nazis was stopped parading through East End by a coalition of its Jewish Community, dockworkers, other assorted locals, trade unionists and Communists.

There was also the Battle of Lewisham in the late 70s when anti-fascist protesters took on the National Front. Both these battles, and that’s what they were, helped neuter burgeoning movements of fascist, racist far right thugs who hated minorities.

None of this is to say that punching a Nazi is always either right, or indeed a good idea. The last time this debate came up was during Trump’s inauguration when "Alt Right" leader Richard Spencer was punched while giving a TV interview. Despite the many, many entertaining memes made from the footage, what casual viewers saw was a reasonable-looking man being hit unawares. He could claim to be a victim.

Charlottesville was different. When 1,000 Nazis come marching through a town trying to impose their vision of the world on it and everywhere else, they don't have any claim to be victims.