On the Rise of Neo Fascism in Contemporary Germany
Nadav Eyal Encounters Neo-Nazis in 2014
It’s pouring rain when I arrive with my producer, Antonia Yamin, in Schleusingen, a small town in what was once East Germany. We drive to the address we had been given, but no one is there. Our news organization is nervous about this meeting with neo-Nazis. We have told our editor that, if we do not call in at the time of the meeting to tell him that all is well, he is to alert the German police.
We wait for a few anxious minutes and a black car appears. Out steps Patrick Schroeder, tall and blond, with a square jaw and narrow-set eyes. His companion is Tommy Frenck, a neo-Nazi who ran for a seat on the local council. Frenck was once convicted for involvement in incitement.
The two young men look uneasy. The police won’t allow them to hold the meeting here in town, they report. “Follow us,” they say.
We drive behind their car over an unpaved road. We wonder whether we’re being led into a Nazi ambush. But then, to our relief, we’re stopped by a German police car. Never were we happier to see a German in uniform. The authorities clearly know about the meeting.
The policeman asks for identification. “This is Tommy Frenck’s place,” he informs us in passable English. “Do you know what they do there? Führer? Nazi? We in Germany have a problem with the extreme right.” He explains that we’ll be required to testify in court if there are displays of support for Nazism at the meeting. “It’s Germany’s secret service that told them we’re here,” Schroeder charges, standing next to the policeman, clearly delighted by the attention.
Allegedly, Schroeder is a new breed of neo-Nazi. The German media has even coined a word for people like him—they refer to him as a “nipster,” a Nazi hipster. Rolling Stone ran an article about Schroeder’s online program and campaign to persuade Nazi groups that the hypernationalist scene must also accommodate young people who prefer a hip-hop or hipster lifestyle. Schroeder seeks to expand the circle of Nazis in Germany and gain legitimacy. That’s why the neo-Nazis of Schleusingen agreed to meet with me, a Jew.
German law prohibits all expressions of support for racism and Nazism, including display of a tattoo with a Nazi motif. Schroeder knows this very well. Like other German radical nationalists, he speaks in coded language to circumvent the law. A former Nazi once explained to me how it’s done. “For example, I can print ‘anti-Zionist’ on shirts in a Nazi Gothic font,” he said, “and there’s no problem with this because it ostensibly expresses opposition to Zionism, which is a political movement. But my audience knows the law. They understand that it actually means ‘against Jews.’”
We enter a small yard where the neo-Nazis meet. A barbecue is heating up and there is a large bucket of pork marinating, waiting to be grilled. Young local extremists stand around, mostly dressed in black. They look at us with curiosity and whisper among themselves. I once swam with sharks, protected inside a metal cage. Being surrounded by neo-Nazis is just like being surrounded by sharks, except that there’s no cage. We mingle cautiously, sticking close to each other. Ostensibly, this is a meeting to prepare for local elections, but the date, May 8, is a significant one and possibly gives away the real reason for the barbecue. It’s actually V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies in 1945. For the Nazis, it’s a day of mourning.
Standing rigidly, with his hands clasped behind his back, Schroeder shoots the bullet points of his credo at us in fluent English. First, “the Muslims, to put it simply, are taking over this country.” Second, “In Berlin, there are schools where it’s difficult to find a single German child.” Third, “In a few decades, this will happen everywhere in this country.” I ask him how the “takeover” is being pursued. He offers an example: “They prohibit German children from eating pork in school. You don’t do such things if you want to be part of Germany. If there’s someone who wants that type of Germany in another fifty years, like the Neukölln borough in Berlin, then okay. But I’m one of those who say we won’t let this happen.” Neukölln has a large Muslim population. The so-called Muslim threat is a recurrent theme in conversations with extreme rightists in both Europe and North America.
Muslims have perpetrated most of the deadly terror attacks in Europe in recent years, and the extreme right has effectively exploited that to drum up votes. Muslims account for only 5 to 6 percent of Europe’s population. In France, the European country with the largest Muslim community, the percentage is 7.5 to 10 percent. Even if all these Muslims wanted to change Europe’s character—a debatable statement at best—they hardly have the political power to do so. No Muslim party is represented in any of the parliaments of the large European countries. There is little tolerance for religious fanaticism in secular France, and certainly not in Germany, which has long rejected multiculturalism. The Muslim minority in Europe has grown; projections for 2050 put the population at about 10 percent. If the continent were to permit intensive immigration (which it does not at present), Muslims would reach 14 percent. In short, Islamic fundamentalists have no avenue to gaining substantial political power in Europe in the coming decades. But the prospects of the extreme right in Europe are another story. Not only is the far right confident about its future, it also knows that it has already been in power before. It’s much better placed to be voted into power than Muslims are.
Here, in the small towns of eastern Germany, neo-Nazism is less an ideology than a scene, a lifestyle. The young people around us, chowing down on their barbequed pork, sport t-shirts promoting extreme right-wing heavy rock bands and silver pendants in the shape of five-pointed stars. Neo-Nazism is a way to belong to something. Schroeder and Tommy Frenck are the group’s ideologues.
“The German era ended on May eighth, on the day of Germany’s surrender in 1945,” Schroeder says. His comrade in arms Tommy Frenck adds: “Two thousand years of German history came to an end on that day.” Schroeder expounds: “We’ve never been as enslaved as we are today. So pinned to the floor. It began with the Nazis’ defeat and continues today. Sovereignty died that day. Volksgemeinschaft* was at its peak, and since then has only gone downhill. . . my grandparents told me, if you don’t look at the treatment of Jews, it was completely perfect. . . The Third Reich society was great. . . for the normal guy, who just lived in that state.”
“Who was not a dissident, a homosexual, a Jew, a Roma,” I remark.
“Yes,” he confirms.
Schroeder’s Thousand-Year Reich nostalgia is a species of fundamentalism. True, the term “fundamentalism” generally refers to a religion, and Nazism is not a religion in the conventional sense. The sociologist of religion James D. Hunter explains that “all fundamentalist sects share the deep and worrisome sense that history has gone awry. What ‘went wrong’ with history is modernity in its various guises. The calling of the fundamentalist, therefore, is to make history right again.” Alon Confino, a historian of modern Europe, writes about the way the Nazis imagined a world without Jews, and how this idea of racial purity drove them to craft a “new genesis,” an utterly new tradition of the origins of a new world order. In other words, they sought not just to conquer territory but also to conquer memory and history while expunging the Jews from them. Nothing could be more fundamentalist than this fantasy of primeval purity. The fantasy mandates that the modern unclean world must be purged by destruction, murder, and genocide.
I ask Schroeder if he accepts the historical fact of the Holocaust. “In Germany, you can address the question of how many witches were burned at the stake but you can’t discuss other questions,” he dissembles.
Like many fundamentalists, Schroeder is unable, or unwilling, to grapple with arguments that distinguish between identity and political opinion; people are merely pawns of their ancestry and always play the role written for them by their race or religion. Nazis are being denied their democratic right to free speech, he maintains: “I don’t think there’s a difference between us as a group, when they say all neo-Nazis are extremists and they should be in jail or if you say, in my opinion, that Jews have a lot of power in the banking sector.” I respond that Nazis are people who have decided to support a political idea. Jews are born as Jews; it’s not an identity they choose for themselves. “Yeah,” he says, uncomfortably. But that doesn’t stop him. “If Hitler had won the war,” Schroeder proclaims, “he would’ve become a great hero in the world. The one who loses is always denounced and becomes the bad guy. What would be the historical fact if Hitler had won the war? You wouldn’t be reading then about six million Jews or something. You’d read in history books that Hitler was great, the biggest German hero ever.”
But six million Jews would still be dead, I respond.
“But you wouldn’t hear about it,” he replies, triumphant, “It doesn’t matter what really happened.”Like many fundamentalists, Schroeder is unable, or unwilling, to grapple with arguments that distinguish between identity and political opinion.
I am reminded of Heinrich Himmler’s infamous Posen speeches. His SS troops were, he claimed, maintaining their decency while they carried out the secret Final Solution. “Most of you must know what it means when 100 corpses are lying side by side, or 500 or 1000. To have stuck it out and at the same time—apart from exceptions caused by human weakness—to have remained decent fellows, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” In Himmler’s world, and in that of the neo-Nazi hipster, truth has no inherent meaning and facts die an agonizing death. Truth is simply a statement that accords with Nazi ideology. What matters is how history is written, not what actually happened. Power alone accords meaning.
“There are a lot of stigmas about us,” Tommy Frenck complains. “It is said about us that Jews cannot speak with us, they leave here only as a pile of ash. But look, you’re standing here, and everything is normal.”
I don’t feel like I’m in a normal situation. I tell Schroeder and his friends that Israelis are flocking to live in Berlin. “If they start to take over Berlin,” the neo-Nazi says with a motionless expression, “it’s a problem. It’s not what I want.” At that point, we decide it’s time to go.
From Revolt: The Worldwide Uprising Against Globalization by Nadav Eyal. Copyright 2021 Nadav Eyal. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.