BERLIN — Less than 24 hours had passed since Thorsten Heise and his fellow neo-Nazis were forced to call off their planned show of force here last week. Their failed efforts on the 60th anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich were being celebrated in local papers, under banner headlines such as “A Red-letter Day for Anti-Nazis.”
Heise, though, was sanguine. So what if the planned march by his far-right National Democratic Party, known here as the NPD, had been blocked by 5,000 to 6,000 counter-demonstrators? In 1994, when Heise was only 25 years old, some 3,000 far-left anti-fascists descended on his home to demand his imprisonment.
Such street struggles are nothing new for Heise, who served prison time in the 1990s for assault and was charged with a variety of other crimes. Indeed, it could be argued that engaging in them is part of his job description as the party’s recently appointed liaison to the informal neo-Nazi brotherhoods known as Kameradschaften.
Heise’s accession to the NPD leadership this past October is indicative of the increasingly central role the Kameradschaften are playing in Germany’s resurgent right-wing extremist movement. While the deployment of some 10,000 policemen kept last week’s canceled neo-Nazi march orderly, containing the Kameradschaften’s influence on German society may prove to be a more difficult challenge for the government. Indeed, as Heise himself proudly admits, the brotherhoods are performing democracy’s most important public service: giving a voice to the people.
“Kameradschaften are less fixed associations than platforms that everybody has access to,” Heise explained to the Forward. “The NPD, the Republicans, the Christian center, unaffiliated hooligans, skinheads, the young, the old — we provide the platform.”
The number of Kameradschaften in Germany is estimated at 150, each with roughly five to 20 active members. Feeding off widespread alienation among youth, particularly in the former East Germany, they are largely credited with introducing a new generation to the far-right movement.
They have done so primarily by developing a nationalist subculture, an amorphous milieu in which the disaffected find an often-violent outlet for their rage. While maintaining strong links to outlawed neo-Nazi groups such as Skinheads Sächsische Schweiz, the Kameradschaften have forged close ties with the NPD and other far-right political parties.
Since the NPD was taken over in 1996 by Udo Voigt, the son of a Nazi S.A. officer, the Kameradschaften have played a growing role in party politics. They have done so primarily through their systematic cooperation with the NPD’s youth wing, the Young National Democrats. The neo-Nazi groups are credited by many with helping to push the NPD across the electoral threshold in the former East German state of Saxony, where the party won 9.2% of the vote this past September.
The Kameradschaften have been able to make inroads into regional politics, in large part because they speak the language of — and are therefore perceived as speaking for — Germany’s disaffected youth. While the government officials that are tasked with monitoring right-wing extremists say Muslim terrorists continue to pose a greater threat, they acknowledge that the synergy between ideologues and street thugs has the potential to create an atmosphere of fear in certain areas of the country.
“The ideologically driven people are a danger because they can influence young people, because they have a strategy,” warned Claudia Schmid, director of Berlin’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the city-state’s independent domestic intelligence agency. “The non-ideologically driven youth present a different danger, but a terrible one, because they have the capability of killing or seriously injuring someone.”
More than 12,000 neo-Nazi crimes were reported in Germany last year, the second highest level since the reunified country began reporting nationwide numbers in 1992. Most of the attacks, Schmid said, are committed by unaffiliated 16- to 24-year-olds. These disaffected youth are drawn to a far-right social milieu revolving around heavy drinking, hard-core racist rock music, and Kameradschaften- and NPD-produced propaganda.
Attacks on Jewish targets appear to account for a tiny fraction of neo-Nazi crimes. The low figures are perhaps surprising, considering that antisemitism is a main rallying cry for the often-fragmented far-right movement, according to Hajo Funke, a leading scholar on right-wing extremism at Berlin’s Free University.
In Berlin and the five former East German states, where the far-right movement is strongest, victims of antisemitic attacks constituted less than 1% of those who sought help from Civitas, a government-run counseling program for victims of right-wing extremism. In a telling indication of the far-right movement’s current bent, nearly half the victims were youths who did not share the neo-Nazis political views.
Perhaps equally surprising, far-right leaders such as Heise — who burnish otherwise impeccable neo-Nazi credentials — are themselves quick to proclaim their tolerance toward Jews.
“I am not an antisemite, not at all,” stated Heise, who founded Kameradschaft Northeim in the central state of Lower Saxony after his release from prison. “I think that all people in this world have a right to self-determination, a right to living space and a right to freedom. No, I am not an antisemite, and I believe that I speak for certainly 90% in the NPD. You will always find racists; there are always a few who can’t be converted. But the vast majority of us are not antisemites.”
While Heise maintains that neither he nor his comrades harbor any anti-Jewish feelings, he laments what he calls “the constant tutelage of Germans by German Jews.” The not-so-veiled reference to Vergangenheitsbewältigung , the government-led process of coming to terms with Germany’s Nazi past, has become a rallying cry for the far-right movement. The NPD’s canceled march last week was organized under the slogan “Enough With the Culture of Guilt.”
The authorities here are sensitive about such calls for breaking with the country’s past — particularly given that half of Germans under age 24 do not know what the Holocaust was, according to a March survey by Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, an independent research institute. In recent months, as the country marked the 60th anniversaries of a number of major Nazi-era events, the government stepped up its efforts to deny right-wing extremists a platform for their views.
In March, Berlin banned Kameradschaft Tor Berlin and Berliner Alternative Südost, two neo-Nazi groups active in the capital, as well as a sister organization called the Girl’s Group. That same month, the German Parliament tightened the federal laws governing the right of assembly at historic landmarks such as Nazi concentration camps and Holocaust monuments. In April the eastern state of Brandenburg outlawed the neo-Nazi groups Kameradschaft Hauptvolk and Sturm 27, and this month a Bavarian court convicted on terrorism charges the leader of Kameradschaft Süd for plotting to bomb the dedication ceremony of a Munich synagogue.
The government’s judicial and legislative fight against right-wing extremism, however, has had a mixed record. A 2003 bid to ban the NPD was thrown out by Germany’s federal Constitutional Court on procedural grounds, which gave the party increased momentum in the run up to last year’s election in Saxony. Talk of banning the NPD is again swirling around the halls of power in Berlin, but the guardians of public order admit that marginalizing the party and its Kameradschaften-led base is a job they cannot handle alone.
“Fighting right-wing extremism is not only a question for the police and the intelligence services — it’s a question for schools, for parents, for the whole society,” said Schmid, the Berlin intelligence chief. “The whole society has to create an atmosphere that says, ‘We don’t accept this.’”