One of the most striking characteristics about the population of Berlin is its enormous racial diversity. Up to 30% of Berlin residents are of foreign origin and in certain areas of the city, such as where I live, that figure reaches as high as 80%. By far the most numerous racial minority is Turkish, followed by Russians, Poles and Italians. Upon first impression, it appears that this is happy marriage between those of purely German origin and those of foreign or mixed-race roots. Upon closer inspection however, it’s clear that racism is a genuine problem in Germany and that neo-Nazism is a very real and growing threat.
Earlier this month, the news in Germany was dominated by a member of a Neo-Nazi criminal gang being charged in association with the racially-motivated murders of ten people, as well as committing two separate bomb attacks. There is a growing fear that Neo-Nazism is taking a foothold in German society, particularly as a result of the global recession. Another worrying headline in the last few days here came from a respected survey of social attitudes, which confirmed that extreme-right sentiment is on the rise all over Germany, and particularly in former East Germany, up from 10.5% in 2010 to 15.8% today, the highest level ever measured by the researchers, who say it continues to rise.
At first when I arrived here, I began to notice a few small things that made me aware of this problem. While Neo-Nazi activities are for the most part underground and not immediately visible, you often here locals talking about the growing threat being posed by far-right extremists. What’s more, on practically every street corner you can find posters or flyers denouncing Neo-Nazi activities and calling for action against these groups. It would logically follow that if there is so much activism being targeted against these groups, they must be pretty active and substantial themselves. The local newspapers carry stories almost on a daily basis about racially motivated attacks and sometimes even murders, but this only serves to strengthen the huge anti-Nazi movement.
Particular areas of Berlin are well known for being home to large numbers of right-wing extremists and are practically seen as no-go areas, particularly for those of non-German heritage. Remembering the atrocities of Nazi Germany is an important part of modern German culture, but on the other hand, equally important are freedom of association and freedom of speech. This makes for an interesting situation, whereby it is illegal to deny the holocaust but at the same time, several local parliaments have growing representation from the political wing of the far-right movement, the National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD. It is the NPD that organises regular racist-themed marches and public gatherings on the streets of Berlin, and these gatherings often lead to heated conflicts between riot police, NPD activists and anti-Nazi counter protesters.
The economic downturn has seen a huge increase in support for far-right parties across Europe, such as the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece and the somewhat more moderate Front National in France. The modern, post-WWII German Constitution was very much written in the spirit of ‘never again’, and luckily this makes it difficult for extremist parties to get any representation in the national parliament. Therefore, despite the fact that the political representation of the far-right is fairly limited, there can be no doubt that the there is a growing extreme-right sentiment among the native population. While it is hugely unlikely that we will see a German Chancellor coming from the NPD any time soon, the threat of racially motivated organised crime is very much real.
The NPD is becoming ever more popular in poorer areas of Germany, where they are particularly reaching out to young Germans. One of the tactics they are employing is to step in where social services have been reduced or withdrawn, offering youth clubs, after-school services and offering financial advice to poor families. The youth wing of the NPD is particularly strong, and for the first time in many years, Nazi sentiment is more prevalent among young people than older people.
Worryingly, many anti-Nazi activists also claim that there are some Nazi sympathisers among the German Police and Secret Services, and that is the reason that these issues have not been tackled with the force you might expect in recent years. One of my flat-mates in Berlin is of Turkish roots, and she is also an active member of the anti-Nazi movement. An example of the activities which they take part in is running night-patrols on the outskirts of refugee camps and settlements in the city, which are under threat of attack from violent extremist groups. I’ve actually decided to volunteer alongside her next week, which should be interesting.
While this problem is a very real one, I should mention that the atmosphere here is not as dangerous as the figures I previously quoted would suggest. For the most part, Berlin’s diverse and culturally rich population live alongside one another in perfect harmony, and the prevalent attitude among the citizens is that Neo-Nazism has no place in modern Germany. Hopefully, in the long-term, this solidarity among the population will prevail over the hate-fuelled attitudes of the far-right.