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How A German Art Collective Got Neo-Nazis To Identify Themselves

Following this August’s far-right rallies in Chemnitz, Germany, many participants got off easy.

Of the estimated 7,000 attendees, many of whom were caught using illegal Nazi salutes and accosting immigrants, nearly all evaded arrest and, crucially, identification. Now, The Daily Beast reports that an effort by the German leftist art group the Center for Political Beauty (abbreviated in German as ZPS) was behind an effort to get participants to reveal themselves. The ZPS revealed the deception, part of the group’s ongoing battle with far-right nationalism on December 6.

Here’s how it worked. After the rallies, which devolved into riots, ZPS started collecting footage and cross-referencing faces in the crowd with social media profiles. They were able to identify around 1,500 people. While this information alone was impressive, it didn’t go far enough. ZPS wanted a more comprehensive list of names.

ZPS set up a website with all of the pictures and names they had collected. But they set the site up to display just 20 pictures per page. In this configuration Neo-Nazis who wanted to know if they’d been exposed searched their own names and the names of people they’re connected with.

“The first thing they’re doing is using the search function on the website to input their own name, or somebody they know, but who nobody else knows, in order to see if this website really works,” Philipp Ruch, ZPS’s artistic director, told The Daily Beast, “to see if it’s really possible that we identified 1,500 people.”

It worked like a charm, Ruch said, especially after the website was picked up by a far-right site. While the ZPS’s list is still incomplete, the searches tipped them off to the names and associates of approximately 25 new rioters.

“What we got was quite a network of who knows who, and who else was in Chemnitz,” Ruch told the Daily Beast.

While the website ruse might not be considered conventional art, ZPS’s past projects reveal a consistent ideology based in performance art and an activism of public awareness. In 2015 the group reburied, with the family’s consent, an exhumed Syrian migrant initially buried in Sicily. The group was also responsible for installing a recreated Berlin Holocaust Memorial on the property of a far-right politician this summer.

With the online offensive, Ruch and his team are infringing even further into nationalist territory, using tools like Facebook, where alt-righters communicate and plan events like the riots in Chemnitz, to expose them. And with the search function gambit, they’ve struck a novel new possibility in the fight against fascism: Neo-Nazi, reveal thyself.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at [email protected].

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