Germany wakes up to festering neo-Nazi threat
BERLIN (Reuters) - After 30 years living in eastern Germany, Mozambique-born Ibrahimo Alberto this summer decided he could endure no more daily racist abuse. He turned his back on his job, gave up on what had become his home and moved with his family to the west.
The last straw for Alberto came when his son was playing in a soccer match and an opponent shouted: "Nigger swine. I'll beat you to death."
"I had enough. I saw it was getting more and more," Alberto told German radio after he moved to Karlsruhe. He is so scarred from his experience that he no longer talks to the media, former colleagues told Reuters.
Such every-day racism is fertile ground for right-wing militancy that easily turns into hardcore neo-Nazism and erupts into violent attacks.
This month's chance discovery in eastern Germany of a group of at least three fanatical neo-Nazis called the 'National Socialist Underground' who investigators believe murdered eight Turks, a Greek and a German policewoman has been a wake up call.
Investigators are looking into links with other violent crimes, including a 2004 bomb attack in Cologne, and have reopened all unsolved cases with a possible racist motive since 1998. They also found a list of 88 names of politicians and Muslim community representatives believed to be targets.
The discovery of the so-called Zwickau cell who carried out the racially motivated murders across the country between 2000 and 2007, as well as robbing 14 banks, has triggered accusations Germany has been blind to the threat.
Experts have for years warned of the violent potential of Germany's far-right milieu.
"The problem has been vastly underestimated. Unfortunately, I wasn't at all surprised to see such aggression," said Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung anti-racism group.
"These 10 deaths could have been prevented if someone had listened to our warnings back in 1998 that militants were thriving in Thuringia," she told Reuters. "I lie awake at night asking if I could have done more. But no one listened."
Many unemployed youths, especially in eastern Germany, fall under the spell of neo-Nazi groups, or "Kameradschaften," which indoctrinate them with propaganda glorifying Hitler's Third Reich. Peer pressure sucks them first into a racist ideology and then into violent crime.
Yearning for a sense of belonging, radicals wear military-style clothes and have their own Internet radio stations. They listen to music by bands with names like "Sturmtrupp" and "12 Golden Years" - a reference to the 12-year Third Reich.
Crime is effectively a logical step, say experts.
Kahane's foundation says far-right crime has claimed 185 lives here since 1990, compared to an official figure of 47. The left-wing Baader Meinhof gang and Red Army Faction that terrorised western Germany in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, killed 30 to 40 people.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a German intelligence agency responsible for monitoring threats such as Muslim fundamentalists and the far left and right, estimates the country has 25,000 right-wing extremists, 9,500 of them violent.
"The overall threat from right-wing militants has become enormous since German unification," said Bernd Wagner, founder of EXIT, a scheme to help right-wingers reject extremism.
"And every self-respecting militant neo-Nazi group has the potential to commit an act of terrorism," Wagner told Reuters.
Neo-Nazis infiltrate whole communities, converting young people to their ideology. They run sports clubs and summer camps, participate in voluntary fire brigades and even manage nurseries.
"A whole apparatus is set up encompassing villages and towns binding together people with the same views," said Wagner.
The Odertal area, around Schwedt, where Alberto lived, is an example. Close to the Polish border, unemployment is nearly 20 percent and its population has shrunk by a third in the last 20 years. Right-wing radicals have moved in and forced outsiders away.
Alberto, who suffered daily insults and provocations such as having piles of neo-Nazi newspapers stuffed through his letterbox, said the worst thing was a complicit silence from the townspeople of Schwedt, in the eastern state of Brandenburg.
"Silence means accepting the people who were always against me. Now they've won," he said.
Eastern states are especially prone to the problem.
During the Cold War, schools in the communist East Germany - unlike those in the West - did not try to instil a sense of national guilt for the Holocaust, meaning Nazism as an ideology was less of a taboo. There was also less exposure to foreigners.
Just listening to the lyrics of songs popular among neo-Nazis illustrates the implicit hatred and violence.
One song, "You are destroying our race," on a CD entitled "Our solution is violence" goes:
"You see them all over the land holding a half-caste by the hand. They present the ugly toads with which they are destroying our race ... You have to spit at them in the face. Beat them up without mercy and chase them with their brood out of Germany."
From here, turning to crime for a thrill is easy, say experts. And weapons are available. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution said in its 2010 report the availability of weapons and explosives posed a latent threat.
In view of the Zwickau case, this seems an understatement.
Victims' families have complained that investigators were deaf to their suspicions and police in Thuringia are under fire for letting the cell drop from their radar in the last decade.
Gamze Kubasik, the 22-year-old daughter of a man shot dead in his kiosk in Dortmund in 2006, said police had suggested he had gambling debts or was involved with protection money.
"Suddenly we were under suspicion. The police kept looking for dodgy business deals by my father. The police didn't take seriously our suspicion that it could have been neo-Nazis," she told top-selling Bild daily.
Kahane sees this behavior as "intentional incompetence."
"There hasn't been this kind of incompetence in fighting Islamists and left-wing extremism," she said. "It's partly due to the past, we don't like remembering our legacy."
For years, media have reported that some states have massaged their far-right crime figures to enhance their image.
Der Spiegel magazine reported how police officers in Saxony Anhalt argued whether the terms "nigger slut" or "I'll kill your nigger child" qualified as racially motivated.
The case has also triggered sharp criticism of methods used by intelligence services, such as the use of unreliable paid informants who have continued to sympathize with far-right groups, possibly even channeling payments toward crime.
Politicians from all parties have been quick to condemn the murders and vowed to step up action against the right wing. Conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel has described the Zwickau case as a disgrace for Germany [ID:nL5E7MN3X8].
But campaigners say the government will be judged on actions, not words. In what some see as a bureaucratic response, the government has proposed compiling a national register of far-right extremists and centralizing intelligence agencies.
The government has also said it will look at banning the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), represented in two state assemblies and the recipient of 1.06 million euros in taxpayers' money last year.
The NPD has condemned the murders but many experts believe some party members had at least informal links to the cell.
The party, which says the German constitution is a "diktat" imposed by victorious Western powers after World War Two, is more radical than populist, anti-immigration parties elsewhere in Europe. German authorities say it is inspired by Nazis.
"Elements in the party are closely linked to militants. The two feed each other. What the Kameradschaften do helps the party and what the party does helps the Kameradschaften, said Wagner.
Many experts doubt whether politicians will risk a second try at banning the NPD after a previous attempt failed in 2003 because prosecution witnesses were exposed as informants.
"What needs to be done is to develop a new spirit to properly tackle far-right extremism," said Wagner.
"It is about morals, ethics. It is about building an alternative influence to far-right ideas," said Wagner.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)