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

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game