Neo-Nazism: It’s Not Just in Germany’s Beer Halls Anymore

Martin A. Lee is author of "The Beast Reawakens" (Routledge, 1999), a book about resurgent fascism

Fatma Elaldi, a Turkish-born woman who had been a legal resident of Germany for two decades, needed a new heart to survive beyond two more years. But her request for a heart transplant was denied by a pioneering clinic. Why? Because she didn’t speak German.

The Heart and Diabetes Center near Hanover told Elaldi, 56, that her poor grasp of the German language would impair her post-operative care. Even though she had medical insurance, a hospital in Cologne also refused to give her a transplant. “It smacks simply of racism,” said Elaldi’s daughter Bektas, who is fluent in German. “I could tell them everything she tells me.”

Elaldi’s bitter experience is particularly ironic given that many foreign doctors practice medicine in Germany, including some of the country’s most gifted heart specialists. Although foreign doctors have saved thousands of German lives, dark-skinned surgeons are reluctant to work in eastern Germany, where racist attacks against “non-Germans” are brutal and increasingly commonplace.

In one such attack, Omar Ben Noui, a 28-year-old Algerian asylum seeker, bled to death after he hurled himself through the glass door of a house while trying to escape from a neo-Nazi mob that chased and terrorized him. This sadistic manhunt, which targeted Ben Noui and two of his companions from Africa, occurred in the eastern town of Guben near the Polish border in February 1999. Eleven young skinheads were tried for causing his death. In some ways even more disturbing than the hate crime itself were the lenient sentences handed down by the court last month. Convicted of manslaughter, only three defendants were given jail terms of two to three years. Two others were let off with court warnings, and the remaining six got probation. “Many must be laughing in far right circles,” said Hesham Hammad, vice president of Aktion Courage, an anti-racist group, after the verdict was announced. “We have sent them the wrong signal that they can continue” their attacks. His warning rang true in Guben this past Tuesday, when three neo-Nazis were arrested and charged with stabbing a German boy, allegedly because he looked Asian. One of the three had previously been convicted in the death of Ben Noui.


The outcome of the Ben Noui murder trial was a major setback to the German government’s efforts to crack down on right-wing extremism and to promote greater tolerance of foreigners. A few days before the verdicts were announced, some 200,000 people had marched in Berlin to protest neo-Nazi violence. Held on Nov. 9, the 62nd anniversary of the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom, the huge demonstration was a response to an escalating series of racist and anti-Semitic attacks across Germany. Surging neo-Nazi violence broke all post-Berlin Wall records this year, according to Germany’s Federal Criminal Bureau. During the first 10 months of 2000, there were 11,752 reported right-wing extremist crimes, more than in any year since German reunification in 1990. The 20% annual increase in far right attacks included a sharp rise in anti-Semitic crimes. While a disproportionate number of these incidents have occurred in the economically depressed eastern part of the country, the neo-Nazi resurgence is a nationwide problem.

Hate crimes have claimed the lives of more than 90 people since German reunification. Today, the far right has become ever more brazen and sophisticated. Death lists posted on Web sites include the names, addresses and photos of anti-fascists, state employees, trade unionists and other perceived enemies, along with promises of cash for successful arson attacks. The latest official statistics indicate that there are more than 50,000 active right-wing extremists in Germany. Last month, Germany’s domestic security chiefs disclosed that they had seized record amounts of weapons and explosives--including pipe bombs, machine guns, several kilos of TNT, anti-tank bazookas, mortars, grenades and pistols--from neo-Nazis in a half dozen raids this year. The discovery of several large arsenals raised fears that right-wing extremists were planning full-scale terrorist attacks. “What we are seeing is a very worrying trend in the organization of far right groups with a view to committing terrorism,” says Graeme Atkinson, European editor of the anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. “They are talking about creating a ‘leaderless resistance’ of terrorist cells--what they call a brown underground--and of ensuring the creation of liberated zones, with foreigners driven out from rural areas and smaller towns.”

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder admits that his center-left government had previously underestimated the scope of the neo-Nazi menace. But German authorities insist that appropriate measures are being taken. These include the recent efforts by the German Cabinet to ban the 6,000-member National Democratic Party (NPD), which the government accuses of inciting neo-Nazi violence. On Nov. 10, the German parliament’s upper house voted to support Schroeder’s initiative to outlaw the NPD. But on the same day, Germany’s highest state medal, the Bundesverdienstkreuz, (Federal Cross of Merit) was awarded to Heinz Eckhoff, 77, a Waffen SS veteran who had joined the neo-Nazi NPD when it was formed in the mid-1960s. Eckhoff subsequently gravitated toward the conservative Christian Democratic Union, which dominated West German politics for many years while functioning as a catch-basin for various right-wing interest groups, including some that cling to the memory of the Third Reich.

The mixed signals from Berlin are indicative of the current state of affairs in Germany, where extremist tendencies are not limited to adolescents on the fringes. Neo-Nazi activity cuts across all social and economic groups and often enjoys the support of those who do not themselves participate in violence. “You find anti-Semitism not only in the beer hall but also in the champagne milieu,” says Michael Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of German Jews.


Often, the German government finishes what the skinheads have started. Victims of hate crimes have been expelled from Germany. An Algerian refugee recently lost his right to stay in the country on the grounds that he was not mentally fit to manage his life. But his lawyer maintains that his mental state resulted from the trauma he underwent nearly two years ago, as he watched a neo-Nazi gang hound his friend Omar Ben Noui to his death.

Polls show that 17% of the German population harbor extreme right-wing views. Mainstream politicians exacerbate the problem with strident anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric that sends a signal to increasingly confident neo-Nazis who feel they are the expression of the popular will.