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In Search of Neo-Nazis : IN HITLER’S SHADOW: An Israeli’s Amazing Journey Inside Germany’s Neo-Nazi Movement, <i> By Yaron Svoray and Nick Taylor (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: $24.95; 275 pp.)</i>

<i> Peter Wyden's latest history, "Stella," is available in paperback from Anchor/Doubleday</i>

The Germans never cease to astound me and neither do the books that get written about them.

I’ve been among them more often than I can count, from my birth in Berlin during the pre-Hitler 1920s, through my work as a member of U.S. Military Government following World War II, to my investigations in recent years of the terrors of the Nazi era.

I was, nevertheless, stunned when I returned a few months ago after a two-year absence. The very air seemed altered by the power of the “New Right’ to enforce Rechtsruck , a jolt toward conservatism that was busily turning the clock back.

To counter the prevailing notion that Germany’s poisonous ultra-nationalism died with Hitler’s suicide half a century ago, Israeli journalist Yaron Svoray went undercover to portray the forces keeping the Fuehrer’s ideas alive.

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With help from writer Nick Taylor, Svoray styles “In Hitler’s Shadow” like a thriller, casting himself as a cautious James Bond, teetering on the brink of assassination.

Here we see him setting off to a gathering of neo-Nazis: “He checked the action of the switchblade, flicking it open several times, savoring its heft and the way the blade sprang into place and locked with a business-like click. He peeled a length of duct tape from the roll he’d bought the day before and taped the knife inside his right ankle. . . .”

A young co-conspirator asked, “Will it be dangerous?” “Dangerous? No,” Svoray lied. “But I think we will see many things to upset us. . . . Get hold of yourself or we’re going to be in big trouble.’

Their destination was the home of Curt Miller, a retired nursery owner in Mainz-Gonsehheim. There, Svoray uneasily watched young men in black leather drinking beer and punching each other playfully. He feared the worst: “Svoray knelt to tie his shoe. He wanted to feel the reassuring weight of the knife. . . .”

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The prize trauma at Muller’s was the seat of the toilet, decorated by Stars of David. “Here is where we defecate on the Judas Star,” our author was informed.

The raid on Muller was a highlight of Svoray’s crusade, billed as a “penetration of the German neo-Nazi movement” and subsequently publicized on “CBS This Morning” and in press conferences at the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles.

Unmentioned here was another 1993 visit to Muller’s home, this one by New York Times correspondent Craig R. Whitney. Whitney, without switchblade, was likewise treated to Nazi tirades and Fourth Reich furnishings. But while Svoray implies that Muller is representative of German public opinion, Whitney’s more realistic reporting showed that the Mullers have for 20 years been regarded as loonies, notorious for little more than a disgusting fondness for celebrating Hitler’s birthday. Perhaps the printing deadlines for this book prevented the author from mentioning that German police shut down Muller’s nostalgic displays earlier this year after Muller’s festivities triggered increasingly furious protest demonstrations.

So Svoray’s well-intentioned “penetration” of Germany’s crackpot clusters is largely redundant and marginal. His targets are mosquitoes: hostile and pesky, but inconsequential. They are divided and their numbers are puny, even if perhaps underreported. Moreover, violent political crimes are declining and tend to be committed not by the mini-factions Svoray describes, but by lone, demented and usually drunken hooligans.

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Typically, Svoray’s quarry floats on grandiosity. One would-be revolutionary leader tried to hold him up for $5,000 (“cash only”) to help launch a “Fourth Reich.” It is a laughable, Lilliputian fantasy.

This is not to say that Hitlerism is not still a menace. The danger, however, comes not so much from the colorful Rechstruck , but from respectable citizens who would not let themselves be seen among Svoray’s groupies, but carry and spread the Nazi virus just the same.

These are the mainstream voters who pay 1,000 marks for a used copy of “Mein Kampf;” who troop, up to 4,000 a day, to the Fuehrer’s “Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden; applaud speakers who dismiss the Holocaust as “just a myth”; celebrate Hitler’s birthday, not with crazy Curt Muller, but with beer and speeches at home, or, as happened lately, at the police academy in Berlin-Ruhleben. These are taxpayers terrified of “racial impurities” imported by asylum seekers from abroad and the expense of integrating them into German society.

Even more worrisome are the influential thinkers who, in the current terminology, “intellectualize the New Right”: respectable and widely quoted professors such as Berlin historian Ernst Nolte who have found “positive elements” to praise in national socialism. The gassing of Jews, Nolte told me, was only a sign “that painless death was intended.” And Hitler?: “I don’t consider him the embodiment of evil.”

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These are the truly insidious worms rooting about “in Hitler’s shadow.”


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