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Selling A Volksgemeinschaft – The Normality of the Extreme

 

“Ja?”

“Jesse und Mattera, wir sind mit Herrn Schwerdt verabredet.”

“Ja! ”

The steel-door opens, we enter the sluice.

A pale-skinned, shaved-headed, well-behaved man welcomes us with a suspicious look through the small slit of his window.

“Zu Herrn Schwerdt wollen Sie?”

„Ja, bitte.“

„Moment!“

The next door swings ajar.  We proceed to the ground floor of something much like a warehouse. Rows of shelves, crammed with shirts, towels, flags and other necessary articles curl around the walls.  The doorman leads us through to the “conference room”. The chamber greets us with a huge black, white and red banner. In bold face, half-a-meter high, are stamped the letters “NPD”. Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Nationaldemocratic Party of Germany. We are in party headquarters, about to speak with national managing director Frank Schwerdt, born 1954, who earlier had faced trials for dissemination of NS-propaganda material and other offences and finally received sentences adding up to 17 months imprisonment. 

- “Herr Schwerdt, what does democracy mean for the NPD?”

- “That the government leadership represents the society’s mainstream and the constitution.”

“The NPD is directed against democratic principles (…)”, says the Landesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Berlin’s secret service, in its 2002 report on extremism.  The NPD, however sees itself as Germany’s “only true opposition party”, as Germany’s “national resistance”. Having no power in any German parliament, and lacking positive media attention, it carries out such “national resistance” to the street with pamphlets, catchy slogans and provocative demonstrations.  Words like “Volk” (the people), “National” and “German” dominate the party’s appearance in public. The NPD sees itself as the only party capable of gaining independence from US control for Germany. Moreover, it aims at reversing the process of European integration, abolishing the Euro and reintroduce the Deutsche Mark as the national currency. Nevertheless, the NPD insists on not wanting to isolate Germany, despite its overall goal to get rid of international political and and economic constraints. Functioning in parallel with such ideals are promises to decrease the presence of migrants.

- “Herr Schwerdt, what are NPD’s intentions regarding the several million foreigners in Germany?”

- “Those who want to stay, we cannot force to go home, but we can create incentives for them to leave through development aid.”

The concept is simple: Throw money at the immigrants’ “home” countries, and they will leave Germany. How to achieve such a feet without sucking the federal treasury dry is an issue

Schwerdt does not answer. Yet the simplistic logic and xenophobic attitude displayed by the NPD in regards to the “foreigner question” serves to highlight the social disconnection of the party.

- “Herr Schwerdt, how do you react to claims by the Berlin Verfassungschutz that the NPD is a rightwing extremist group?”

- “I do not disapprove of being called a ‘rightwing extremist’, although I believe this is a definition open to interpretation.”

“Extremism is a collective term for those political endeavors which accord on their disapproval of the democratic constitutional state and its fundamental values and rules”, as specialists on political extremism Backes and Jesse state.

“When looking at the right-wing extremists in Germany, one quickly observes that east and west are different”, says Herbert Weber, an official at the anti-rightwing think tank Zentrum Demokratie und Kultur. “In the East, the rightist ideas seem to be close to socialism, avoiding clashes of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ with the old idea of ‘Volksgemeinschaft’, the community of the people. In sum, an idealistic picture of a just and egalitarian society with a view to the interior.” In the West, the view is more focused on the exterior and in determining that what distinguishes the German “Volk” from other peoples. The first is idealistic, the second ideological. The NPD answers the Eastern “idealistic” longing for community and sincerity by promising a “national economy” with “German Jobs for Germans” – and for Germans only.

And who is German? According to the NPD and similar extremist parties, German is one who has German ancestors. It is thus is a question of blood.

- “Herr Schwerdt, which importance does the ethnological element have in this context, taking into account the notion of equality?”

-“Before the law, there is no difference. However, the ethnological needs of peoples should be valued much more highly in current politics.”

The question of what these “ethnological needs of peoples” actually are remains cleverly unanswered. “The ideology is clearly racist, because it excludes everybody from the ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ who is not German by blood”, concludes Herbert Weber, emphasizing that the idea of a so-called “Volksgemeinschaft”, the community of the Germans, is a central element of the right-wing ideology. Germany’s ideal society and “Volksgemeinschaft” are identical for the NPD.

- “Herr Schwerdt, is the NPD capable of winning a majority?”

- “Yes, since the economy continues to spiral down and more and more people are beginning to realize that.”

“There is a potential of 13% of the votes for a right-wing party in Germany”, says Herbert Weber. The NPD however, received 0,9% of the votes in the last elections for the Berlin city parliament (2001), while the party received 0,4% of the votes in the elections for the Bundestag, the federal parliament (2002). All right-wing extremist parties in total account for not more than 1% of the votes on the federal level.

In 2001, the Federal Government together with the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (chamber of representatives of the federal states) filed an application before the Constitutional Court with the aim to declare the NPD unconstitutional. However, the application failed in 2003, mainly due to the high number of informants serving as cadres in the party who have been called as witnesses and received money for information they gave to the Verfassungsschutz.

The NPD and similar parties represent only a faction of the organized rightwing in Germany, yet their importance for the rightwing scene lies in the ability to unify the nationalistic political scene. “The party organizes the scene and in turn the scene can vote for the NPD and thereby express its solidarity”, explains Matthias Adrian, 27, a former NPD functionary who left the party in 2000 after some ten years within the scene. “The only reason the NPD participates in the election is that they want money.” In Germany, those political parties who gain more than 0,5% of the votes are entitled to receive funding from the government to pay for their expenses during electoral campaigns. Since the NPD received only 0,4% of the votes in the last elections, it did not reach its goal of becoming eligible for government funding, thus facing a heavy set-back. Adrian continues outlining the party’s finances: “The money is invested in merchandizing and by selling all sorts of articles to its supporters. There are NPD coffee-mugs, NPD clothing, even an NPD ‘Germanic’ eau-de-toilette. The party makes money with the scene for the scene. It’s a big business.”

- “Herr Schwerdt, what kind of electoral potential do you see for the NPD?”

-“We are trying to reach younger voters, those who are unbound by traditions and open to something new.”

As in any socio-cultural milieu, youth act as the lifeblood of the rightwing political scene.  Yet the right-leaning, active “younger voters” which the NPD seeks to pull within its fold are anything but a coherent, malleable lot.  On the contrary, the rightwing “street” encompasses a broad range of disparate factions.  These range from the young footsoldiers of more organized parties such as the NPD and DVU (Deutsche Volksunion) to highly fragmented skinhead gangs who lack a systematic approach.  In between such extremes lie a number of distinct structures, most notable of which are the Kameradschaften (comradeships), whose members are in general between the ages of 15 and 30.  

More streamlined and hierarchical than the youth gangs which they often seek to coopt, the Kameradschaften nevertheless lack an open public face.  Indeed, they could more accurately be characterized as local, underground clubs, a rightwing “high society”.  Something akin to secret fraternities, their orientation usually lies between the political and the recreational, although almost always focused around extremist ideas.

The notion of an East-West divide forms a critical component in explaining the continuing regeneration of the rightwing street.  Neonazi, extremist youth culture and rightwing organizations are almost completely concentrated in the suburbs of East Berlin and across East Germany.  For it is here that the “losers” of Reunification lie.  Many communities in the East are still relatively poor and underprivileged in comparison with their counterparts in the West.  In the young members of such working-class, undereducated localities, the seeds of rightwing extremism take root.  Moreover, in these areas the stamp of the previous regime is still felt.  “The GDR never had its own ‘1968’, its own period of self-liberation and individual realization” states Weber.  “An authoritarian, family-centered, socialist mentality dominated.”  

The rightwing street of present continues to use such themes.  A loose and decentralized framework in many of the rightwing organizations of the East reflects this.  Such a socialist mentality may act as a coping mechanism, a way for a large working-class once accustomed to job-security and stability within the GDR to deal with the changes that have proceeded at break-neck speed since Reunification.  Within this context, aggression against immigrants and foreign businesses provides a means for venting frustrations associated with economic and social change.

A group-centered thinking is reinforced by a common youth culture.  Appearance is one facet of this, and teenage kids are often pulled into the rightwing scene by what they perceive to be a “cool” uniform.  The shaved head, bomber-jacket and dockworker boot combination immediately screams “skinhead” in the public imagination, but this is not the only calling card of extremist youth gangs.  Brands such as “New Balance” and “Lonsdale” have been almost entirely coopted as “neonazi clothing”, although a group’s uniform often varies by taste.  

Appearance represents only the tip of the cultural iceberg, however.  Although the NPD and older, more organized extremists are quite ideologically inclined, the rightwing street is anything but.  Most kids get into the scene for the purpose of gaining the power and camaraderie associated with a group.  Their interests are usually not ideological but recreational.  Intoxication and property damage are high on the agenda; German history lessons are not.

“Music is one key to reach the right on the street”, says Adrian. “The others is the fanzines, local youth magazines with small-scale distribution.” These media often pave the path into the right-wing scene. The vast majority of kids has its first contact through listening to music produced by bands such as “Landser” or “White Aryan Rebels”. The lyrics are defined by an aggressive, hateful language, sometimes even explicitly using the names of prominent Jews or anti-fascists. Carsten Pfohl, senior official at the Verfassungsschutz in Berlin explains the phenomenon: “It is not exactly that the lyrics transport the ideological message directly, but that the music acts instead as a medium to create a group-experience at get-togethers and concerts for example.” On these occasions the listeners meet others like them and discuss their music the lyrics with the ideology now playing a role. “Step by step the youngsters are absorbed by the scene”, says Wolfgang Arnold, Executive Director of the federal League for Democracy and Tolerance. “The kids don’t know where they are going”, he adds.

On a different level, however, are people who know exactly where they stand and where they want to go. “We call them the discourse-oriented extremists”, says Folker Schweizer, official from the Verfassungsschutz Berlin, contrasting this group with the activity-oriented right-wing extremists. From loose discussion circles who carry out an awkward “nazi polka show” to active think tanks and individuals, they are engaged in elaborating the rightist ideology. The so-called “Deutsche Kolleg” (DK) represents an extreme case, aimed at restoring the “Reich” and communicating its ideas on a complex and abstract level, thereby hardly reaching those who represent the right-wing ideology on the street. “You would have to make these ideas ‘skinable’”, explains Matthias Adrian. DK’s founder is Horst Mahler, a lawyer and convicted left-wing terrorist who switched political sides, joined the NPD, and eventually left the organization because it did not stand “right enough” for his taste. Another phenomenon is what is called the “New Right”, a conservative centered not in dealing with the glorious past of the German Reich as other extremists do, but on discussions in the foreground of society. “These intellectuals know the codes of the mainstream”, says Herbert Weber, “and whether you define them as extremist or not largely depends on where you draw the line.” Although the “New Right” is not a coherent movement, it can be characterized by its strong focus on national identity and national strength. When talking about the “New Right”, reference is always made to the journal “Junge Freiheit” (Young Freedom), a weekly with a circulation of some twenty to thirty thousand copies. “We are a ‘right’ paper in the sense that we are not ‘left’”, says Thorsten Thaler, the paper’s chief-of-staff. “ How “right” the paper actually stands is a matter of heavy dispute. In this context it is remarkable that the paper receives few to no orders for advertisements, and thus has to rely heavily on donations. This would seem to imply the existence of a large private patron, although “Junge Freiheit” denies the existence of any such funder. “’Junge Freiheit’ stands at the fringe of leaving what I would call the tolerable spectrum of opinions in a pluralistic democracy”, says Wolfgang Arnold. While the Verfassungsschutz of Berlin has not come to a concluding assessment yet, the Verfassungsschutz of Northrine-Westphalia in Germany’s west critically mentions “Junge Freiheit” in its annual report. This procedure is heavily attacked by the paper. 

Many organizations are occupied with developing strategies to counter the expansion of right-wing extremist ideologies. Just like their opponents, the approaches of those who fight against the extremists range from the violent to the ideological.  Much more focused on the grassroots, street level lies the self-styled “Antifa” (Antifascist) movement, a divided network of left-leaning youth.  “The Antifa are there to provide an alternative to the right-wing scene,” says former member Jan Sydow.  Essentially using an approach that mimics that of their right-wing counterparts on the street, Antifa members try to pull youth from schools and clubs away from the right.   Their activities encompass everything from educational meetings to night witch hunts where Antifa take to the streets and beat up neonazi targets.

Another approach to the rightwing problem is that of “EXIT”, an organization providing a program through which rightwing extremists who wish to leave the scene can have a chance to do so. The individual must make the first step in contacting the organization.  Once this has been accomplished, the reconciling person must tell his complete story, after which the Exit team decides upon the best plan of action to tackle his unique needs.  In general, the program is tailored around psychological and social dialogue.  The length of counseling for each person ranges from about a half year to a year in most cases. EXIT is not a welfare organization and does not give financial handouts to those it helps.  Rather, the group simply does its best to reintegrate the individual into mainstream society.

The EXIT program and the Antifa movement are merely two examples among many groups working to counter rightwing extremism. A problem which unites all of these, however, is their limitation as a reactive force.  EXIT, Antifa and others can push against the rightwing current, but they can not redirect the flow from its source in schools and communities in the East.  Moreover, the alternatives provided by such groups always seem to lie on the extreme left.  “The problem is the political correctness” notes Adrian.  “This PC attitude alienates young kids who would rather join a strong, tough looking rightwing gang than sit around and discuss gender issues for hours.”  

One possible solution to the problem, which is often brought up by activists like Sydow and Adrian, could be the creation of something like a German “boy scouts” for communities in the East.  This would ideally function as a neutral alternative, with young leaders who are neither extremists on the left nor the right.  Such a movement would provide the group dynamic seen on the streets, but with a program based on common values and positive social concerns. 

Additional Government participation is also an absolute necessity.  More structured educational programs in schools would give teenagers an ideological base to counter what they receive from rightwing music and media.  Moreover, increased financial support for local community sport clubs would help kids find more constructive activities.  The key is to find dynamic, non-ideological alternatives.  Youth must be given a chance to say “this is my community” without a right or left-wing bias as the basis for such a definition.

- “Herr Schwerdt, is the NPD isolated within the party spectrum?”

- “Yes, we feel alienated by the political mainstream.”

Does the NPD, a mail-order company with an attached 0,4%-party on the side, pose a real threat to democracy? The question remains open to debate. However, regarding the rightwing street widespread in East Berlin and East Germany, the danger has another face. In the thirteen years since Reunification, the skinheads, Kameradschaften and other rightwing youth have remained a persistent hazard to the daily lives of minorities living in the East. Although the media provides exposure of the problems on the streets, local communities seem to take the phenomenon of rightwing extremism for granted. “The true danger”, says Wolfgang Arnold, “is the normality”.

 

References

 

I. Interviews:

1. Herbert WEBER, researcher, Zentrum Demokratische Kultur – June 19, 2003

2. Anonymous, Mobile Unit Against Rightwing Extremism, Zentrum Demokratische Kultur – June 19, 2003

3. Wolfgang ARNOLD, executive director, Bündnis für Demokratie und Toleranz (League for Democracy and Tolerance) – June 20, 2003

4. Timo REINFRANK, staff member, Amadeu Antonio Stiftung (Foundation) – June 20, 2003

5. Hans H. NIBBRIG, journalist – June 20 and 23, 2003

6. Matthias ADRIAN, staff member, EXIT Deutschland – June 20 and 24, 2003

7. Frank SCHWERDT, Bundesgeschäftsführer (national managing director), NPD – June 23, 2003

8. Jan SYDOW, former Antifa-activist – June 23, 2003

9. Thorsten THALER, chief of staff, Junge Freiheit – June 24, 2003

10. Birgitta LÖNS, head of staff, public relations unit; Carsten PFOHLS, head of staff, unit on analyzing right-wing extremism; Folker SCHWEIZER, official; Verfassungsschutz Berlin (state’s secret service)– June 24, 2003

II. Literature as quoted in the report:

- www.idgr.de/lexikon/bio/s/schwerdt-frank/schwerdt-f.html

- Verfassungsschutzbericht Berlin 2002 (annual report of Berlin’s secret service)

- Uwe BACKES, Eckhard JESSE; Politischer Extremismus in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, 4th edition, Bonn 1996

 

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