Neo-Nazis in Germany, or dj vu?

BERLIN — An argument at a summer fair in the small town of Muegeln, between Leipzig and Dresden, ended with a mob of 50 drunken young men chasing eight men from India, longtime Muegeln residents, across the town square. The drunken men were wielding knives and other weapons and shouting, “Foreigners get out!”

The Indians, some badly wounded, found refuge in a snack bar belonging to one of them. The police showed up just before the mob broke down the door.

A few days later, north of Berlin, a similar mob attacked the Pakistani owner of a little snack bar. He, too, was barely saved by the slow-moving police.

In June, in Thuringia, the victims were not people of color but a theater group traveling with a show opposing race hatred. Several actors were injured, one severely.

Those are a few recent cases. Many incidents go unreported. When they are serious enough to get into the media, the politicians respond quickly.

The mayor of Muegeln quickly asserted that those in the mob were certainly out-of-towners; he knew of no organized right-wing extremists. In an interview with a right-wing extremist magazine, however, he stressed that he was “proud to be a German” and that the whole incident was “overly dramatized.”

Certain aspects recur over and over. The police arrive late, usually after victims have been beaten, though mostly before anyone is killed. They take down the names of one or two attackers before letting them slip away with the others, but detain the victims for lengthy interrogation, often before arranging medical care.

Legal punishment meted out to mob members, if any, rarely exceeds a year or two on parole.

The media invariably stress that far more attacks occur in eastern Germany, no doubt due to the allegedly nasty traditions of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the East German state which ruled here until 1990. Of course, few mob members were old enough to even start school in the GDR. And many such attacks also occur in western Germany.

Nonetheless, they are more frequent in the eastern provinces. The main reason is clear: in eastern Germany, almost the entire industrial base was scuttled during the first years after unification (or annexation, as many call it) and the unemployment rate has steadily been about double the western German rate. In many towns and smaller cities with one or two factories, their closure condemned the inhabitants to joblessness and hopelessness.

Three main racist groups can be distinguished. Organized bands of neo-Nazi thugs, until recently conspicuous with shaven heads, heavy boots and semi-uniform clothing, hunt down, beat and occasionally kill people of color, usually small businessmen, but also attack tourists, the homeless, the handicapped and young people who don’t match their standards.

A second, much larger group does not belong to any organization but supports them and their loud opposition to a worsening social system, which they blame either on the Jews or the more common Turks, Vietnamese, Africans or Poles.

The third group uses the first two and the public disappointment or apathy to gain political positions. They increasingly dress normally and are careful about what they say publicly, often addressing the social needs faced by so many people, even opposing the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, but never forgetting their stress on jobs “for Germans.”

Their main party, the National Democratic Party (NPD), or its sister parties are achieving new victories in provincial elections. This brings them the large sums of money granted by the government to all parties winning electoral seats.

In many towns and villages, especially in eastern Germany, local governments and judges either sympathize with or fear the neo-Nazis, who call these areas “liberated zones.” A few show more courage, together with church and union groups. But when young antifascists actively defy the many NPD marches, they often find themselves being apprehended and arrested, while the neo-Nazis get police protection.

The NPD hopes to achieve 5 percent of the vote in 2009, which would give it seats in the national Bundestag. Even if the economy improves, the neo-Nazis may increase in strength. If the economy gets worse, an increase is almost inevitable. Many a worried German is looking at the history books about the years preceding Hitler’s rise to power.