German spy agency stages exhibition to warn of far right
EBERSWALDE, Germany (Reuters) - In a German exhibition hall stands a life-like dummy of a 1990s neo-Nazi with shaved head, lace-up boots and bomber jacket. Next to it is a dummy of a latter-day neo-Nazi, wearing non-descript dark clothing, a cap and scarf, able to blend into any crowd.
They are part of a touring exhibition staged by German security services to educate youth on the mutating threat of neo-Nazism. It is a task given extra urgency by the unnerving discovery 18 months ago of a neo-Nazi cell that carried out execution-style murders unnoticed for almost a decade.
Organized by Germany's domestic intelligence agency (BfV), the exhibition - including rueful video testimonies from former neo-Nazis - aims to raise awareness of an ever-adapting and increasingly tech-savvy far right.
It is another example of a decades-long determination by German authorities to ensure the ideology that drove Hitler's Third Reich and the Holocaust gains no serious new foothold in their prized post-war democracy.
One display in the exhibition that has left youngsters aghast is a neo-Nazi version of the board game Ludo in which players, with rolls of the dice, propel their pieces as "Jews" into death camps as quickly as possible.
"The far right's attempts to recruit young people pose a huge danger to society and to our state, as well as to the people who devote themselves to its perverted ideology," BfV chief Hans-Georg Maassen said in an introduction to the exhibit.
"Not just the state but all social actors must join the fight against extremism. And to engage you need knowledge."
The appetite for such knowledge increased with the unearthing of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi cell created in the late 1990s by three youths that went on to commit 10 murders, utterly undetected.
The NSU's existence came to light in November 2011 after two members committed suicide following a bungled armed robbery. The trial of the third, Beate Zschaepe, 38, begins next week.
The case prompted finger-pointing over law-enforcement authorities' missed chances to apprehend the gang, botched investigations, and what critics called a complacent, entrenched disregard for the threat of the far-right.
The BfV, in particular, was accused of being more worried about protecting its informers than acting on tip-offs and of focusing on Islamist threats at the expense of neo-Nazis.
But, in an extraordinary example of contact between a secret service and ordinary people, BfV agents now tour Germany to show schoolchildren how easy it can be to be lured by the far right.
The exhibition, which began in 2004 but was reworked after the NSU affair and has been seen by some 150,000, just passed through the east German town of Eberswalde, north of Berlin.
Eberswalde holds the grim distinction of being the site of the newly reunited Germany's first racially motivated murder in 1990, when a 28-year-old Angolan man was killed by a mob.
The dummy of a skinhead neo-Nazi harks back to the time when Eberswalde Mayor Friedhelm Boginski was a teacher and confronted almost daily with swastikas on buildings and school books.
"That murder changed our town," he recalled. "People realized they must stand up and show courage towards neo-Nazis."
That is one of the reasons neo-Nazis now choose to be more inconspicuous. The second neo-Nazi dummy drives home that point.
It sports the dark scruffy clothes that are the typical garb of leftist agitators. In fact, Germany's far right is highly adaptable, embracing many subcultures such as rap and graffiti.
One group, the Unsterblichen (Immortals), uses social media to coordinate night-time processions, walking through towns with flaming torches and wearing masks to intimidate residents.
"Most of the schoolchildren we are explaining this to will already be familiar with it," said Dieter Utermoehlen, a member of the BfV who accompanies the roving exhibition.
"How kids react depends on their level of education. Typically there will be one or two who don't pay any attention."
Although the exhibition drew small left-wing protests in late 2011 due to anger that the BfV did not address its failings regarding the NSU in the show, the feedback is largely positive.
For teachers, it can be a vivid complement to class studies of Nazi history and trips to concentration camps. One young visitor voiced "upset at how much hate people can feel". Other pupils have expressed shock at harsh neo-Nazi music and said they had become more aware of the meanings of neo-Nazi symbols.
A think-tank study last year raised a stir in reporting that xenophobia was still deeply rooted in parts of German society.
Within the formerly Communist east, 15.8 percent of people displayed far-right thinking. In the former West, 7.3 percent.
In 2011 authorities estimated there were 23,400 far-right adherents in the country of 82 million, down slightly from 2010, though the number of those considered violent rose to 9,800.
Zschaepe, the surviving NSU cell member, faces charges of complicity in the murder of eight ethnic Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, two bombings in Cologne and 15 bank robberies.
Nigel Copsey, a professor in the far-right research center of Britain's University of Teesside, said early intervention in a child's education can be effective but the message had to be reinforced at home by family and peers, and repeated often.
"It is important to have ethnic minorities involved, as personal contact is key to breaking down racist myths and stereotypes," Copsey said.
The exhibition ends with testimonials from those who have left the neo-Nazi scene and advice on who to turn to.
"I grew disillusioned, then everything collapsed like a house of cards," said one, his face and voice disguised.
"I think people find this cool, think it offers some kind of future. But how could an ideology which is almost 100 years old and which failed so utterly back then offer anything at all?"
(This story was refiled to correct the name in paragraph eight to National Socialist Underground from National Socialist Union)