Wearing Identity on Its Sleeve, German Far Right Gets a Makeover

By Rachel Nolan

Published May 08, 2008, issue of May 16, 2008.
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Berlin - An otherwise quiet block in central Berlin has been rocked in recent months by paint bombs, broken windows and protests.

NO GO: Its original logo outlawed, a clothier switched to the one above.
NO GO: Its original logo outlawed, a clothier switched to the one above.

The cause of the commotion is a clothing store, Tønsberg, that sells a brand linked to Germany’s far right. To those unversed in neo-Nazi symbology, the brand, Thor Steinar, looks like normal urban street wear. But the clothing line is “an identifying mark for right extremists,” according to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, a domestic intelligence agency. The company’s original logo, a combination of two Scandinavian runes resembling the SS insignia, was banned in 2004 under a German law prohibiting Nazi symbols.

Since Tønsberg moved onto Rosa-Luxembourg Strasse in February, a radical leftist group called Antifa (for “anti-fascists”) has repeatedly broken windows and spattered the store with paint bombs. Now, a group of local businesspeople is planning ongoing, more above-ground protests with public information displays. Lilian Engelmann, whose art gallery is down the street from Tønsberg, said, “By moving onto this street, they have moved into the heart of Berlin, the middle of society.”

Tønsberg exemplifies a new, more mainstream face for the far right in Germany, and attitudes toward the store illuminate the tensions that Germany has faced in contending with the outwardly transformed right-wing culture.

“They are more tactical now, less openly aggressive looking,” said Hajo Funke, a leading scholar on right-wing extremism at Berlin’s Free University, of neo-Nazis’ new look. “Since reunification, they changed modes, not substance.”

The store in question is an outlet for Thor Steinar clothing, a brand that owner Axel Kopelke trademarked in 2002. Following the 2004 ban on the company’s original insignia, Thor Steinar came back with a different logo, free of SS associations: an X flanked with two dots.

“Thor Steinar’s message is only barely coded,” Engelmann said. “They sell a pair of jeans called ‘Rudolf’ and say it is just called that for no reason, but everyone knows it is after Rudolf Hess,” Hitler’s Nazi Party deputy.

Tønsberg employees declined to comment and instead provided a photocopied “open letter to customers and neighbors,” echoing the company’s official stance. It reads, “For those who still haven’t understood, we sell clothing, not a political view.”

It is safe to say that these are not the skinhead outfits of 10 years ago. “Rudolf” jeans cost 79.90 euros and, apart from their name, are indistinguishable from other fashionable jeans. Neo-Nazis and nonrightists alike shop at the store, although it is unclear whether all customers understand what they are buying. “The bomber jacket, shaved-head look is now considered old school in the right scene,” said Esther Lehnert, an expert from the organization Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextrimismus, which counters right extremism. She added that Thor Steinar is a brand made “for the scene by the scene” and is most popular among young people.

The changing demographics of this scene are reflected in the strategies of Germany’s far right party, the National Democratic Party. Since 2005, the party’s official policy includes ties with neo-Nazi brotherhoods called Kameradschaften, which actively recruit youths. The NPD hands out CDs with music by such rightist bands as Nordwind — named after a World War II German offensive — to attract the youth vote in advance of elections in Eastern German strongholds like Saxony. These CDs are also available for free downloading online.

“If you start preaching an ideology of hatred to children, they are obviously not going to grow up to be tolerant, democratic citizens,” said Deirdre Berger, director of the American Jewish Community of Berlin. Her organization is among many that have sent letters to Tønsberg’s landlord, encouraging him to kick out his tenants.

The Verfassungsschutz estimates that there are about 40,000 right extremists in the whole country — a fringe minority to be sure, but a vocal group that menaces minorities in parts of the former East and embarrasses the country abroad.

“Most subscribe to hardcore antisemitism,” Funke said. “But hatred against foreigners who look different is the first priority.”

The question of whether to ban right-wing clothes, books and political parties is fraught territory in Germany. There is always the danger that forbidding such things as CDs or T-shirts could make them more attractive to rebellious teenagers.

After a German supreme court threw out an effort to ban the NPD in 2003, the party increased membership to 7,000, its present total, from 700. Current efforts to ban the party are opposed by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, which claims that the move would only strengthen sympathy for right extremists and drive them underground, making them harder to monitor.

Germany currently has laws against Holocaust denial and Nazism, but these sometimes collide with laws regarding free access to information. Hitler’s autobiography-cum-manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” has been banned in Germany since 1945, but Stephen Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of German Jews, told a German radio station April 25 that his organization would support making the book available with an accompanying commentary.

These currents are visible in the controversy of Thor Steinar clothing. The brand has been sold in Berlin for the past three years in Alexanderplatz — the commercial center of the former East Berlin, not far from Tønsberg’s new store. Antifa broke windows and threw paint there, too, and the renter canceled the store’s contract. But forcing it out proved difficult, because German law protects the renters’ right to stay for up to three years in most cases. The Alexanderplatz contract ran out this year, causing the move to Rosa-Luxemburg Strasse.

There are three other Thor Steinar outlets, all in cities in former East Germany, where right extremism is strongest. A landlord in the city of Magdeburg brought Thor Steinar to court and won the right to throw out the store before three years were up, based on the tenant’s failure to disclose the nature of products sold — a decision that Thor Steinar has appealed.

The Hamburg-based company that is renting Tønsberg its new Berlin space canceled the contract five days after the store opened. The company’s legal counsel attended an open meeting “against fascism in Mitte,” called by the local mayor, and announced that the company would bring a suit against the store similar to that brought in Magdeburg.

But the legal process, while unlikely to last three years, could be lengthy. Meanwhile, the store will remain open in one of Berlin’s most popular shopping districts, though not without protest.

Several local store owners will dot the street with industrial-sized cartons covered with information about Thor Steinar’s connections to the neo-Nazi scene and about the history of Jews deported by Nazis from the area — formerly part of Berlin’s Jewish quarter. Christian Hanke, mayor of Berlin-Mitte, helped the group secure a six-month license for its display, which will be on view starting the second week of this month.

“Many people are joining because we do not want this store in our neighborhood,” said Fredericke Winkler, owner of a local boutique. Winkler has posted “No Nazis” signs in her windows in advance of the cartons.

The store owners in the group, who plan to place their information cartons “as close to Tønsberg as possible,” may face legal repercussions if the brand accuses them of illegally damaging sales.

“We are ready to go to court if necessary,” Engelmann said. “We don’t want tourists or residents going in there and not knowing what they are buying.”






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