In the first case of its kind in Germany, a right-wing rock band was deemed a criminal organization and its lead singer was sentenced Monday to more than three years in prison for lyrics that venerate Nazism and incite racial hatred.
A Berlin criminal court sentenced 38-year-old Michael Regener to 40 months in prison after a six-month trial that tested the boundaries of free expression in a nation with strict laws against hate speech. The court ruled that Regener's band, Landser, is a threat to the country's Jews and millions of African and Muslim immigrants.
The band's bass player, Andre Moericke, and its drummer, Christian Wenndorff, were each sentenced to nearly two years' probation and ordered to perform 90 hours of community service. Founded in 1992 as the Final Solution, the band has been a favorite of neo-Nazis worldwide and a troubling voice of intolerance.
"This is the first time that a band has been found to be a criminal organization," said prosecutor Joachim Lampe.
The band members refer to themselves as "terrorists with electric guitars." Their lyrics are more intellectual than those of most bands of their ilk, but their agenda is just as blunt. "Let's get the enemy, bombs on Israel," go the words of one song. Another tune laments: "In the old days, Africa was wonderful/Now our white brothers stand with their backs against the wall."
Enacted after the Holocaust, this country's antidiscrimination laws are among the most stringent in the world. They forced Landser -- an old German word for foot soldier that was used during World War II -- to produce four of its albums outside the country. The recordings were advertised on the Internet and shipped by mail order to evade German authorities.
The band quickly became a symbol for far-right radicals, and its songs praised skinheads for a series of arsons and murders against Germany's immigrant communities in the late 1990s. Testifying at Landser's trial, Thorsten Heise, a prominent neo-Nazi, told the court that Regener's lyrics are "radical, a little bit more thoughtful, ironic and full of humor."
Landser was viewed by some as a barometer of freedom of expression. One of the group's distributors, Thule Publications, noted on its Web site that "by purchasing [a Landser] CD from Thule you are supporting free speech for our people."
The court case coincided with what many officials describe as growing racial hatred across Europe. The European Union is sponsoring a conference on anti-Semitism in February, following a report that expressed concern about attacks on Jewish targets.
The Interdisciplinary Institute of Conflict and Violence Research at Germany's Bielefeld University is conducting a 10-year national study on racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Preliminary results suggest a syndrome of "hostile mentalities." The study found that 55% of Germans believe there are too many immigrants here, 52% believe that Jews use the Holocaust "for their own advantage" and 46% disapprove of women wearing headscarves for religious reasons.
The headscarf has spurred widespread debate in this nation, as in France, as Islam's presence in Europe has grown. German state legislatures are debating bills that would forbid Muslim teachers from wearing headscarves in classrooms. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder supports such bans.
This follows a Constitutional Court ruling that found a teacher in one district could cover her head because no local law prevented it.