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

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit