The secret world of the neo-Nazis

Issue 

The New Reich: Penetrating the Secrets of Today's Neo-Nazi Networks
By M. Schmidt
Random House Australia, 1993. 255 pp. $25
Reviewed by Kate Shannon

"'You have reached the main educational office of Wotans Volk ... Your call will be returned. Speak after the machine gun.' Then you hear the gunfire. If the caller leaves the right name or code word, he will be called back and guided onward via telephone", explains Michael Schmidt, describing the elaborate rendezvous system of Germany's neo-Nazis.

What started for Schmidt in the northern summer of 1988 as a film on Germany's present-day Nazis ended in a book and a personal commitment to expose the growing threat of neo-Nazis — not just in Germany — and the part played by judiciary, police, revisionist historians and mainstream right-wing politicians in facilitating their development.

The first part of the book, "Inside the Scene", deals with the indoctrination films, the brutality, the paramilitary training, the drinking and the xenophobia. Many of the young neo-Nazis, especially the skinheads, "were strengthened by their own sense of social rejection".

"The Nazi scene is a completely male society." As in the Third Reich, explains Schmidt, the role of women is limited to specific traditional spheres. The women's organisation, Deutsche Frauenfront, has few members, mostly partners of neo-Nazi activists. "The organisation exists probably only to 'prove' that the neo-Nazis aren't misogynists."

Yet Sebastian Haffner, "a respected political journalist" in his Notes on Hitler claims that "great leaps forward" were made in the emancipation of women during Hitler's rule. In fact, Haffner adds, Hitler "was without doubt a socialist — in fact, a very successful socialist". Haffner is one of many mainstream journalists or historians who are apologists for Hitler and the Third Reich.

In the heady days of 1989, with the fall of the wall and the imminent reunification of Germany, it was only neo-Nazis who chanted "Germany for the Germans". But by 1992, Schmidt says, a nationwide survey found 51% of Germans were sympathetic to this slogan.

More alarming are the results of a 1992 poll funded by IBM, which Schmidt argues shows how "the atmosphere in Germany is changing". Approximately 30,000 young Germans between 16 and 24 are prepared to act violently toward foreigners and refugees. The study classifies almost a third as "thoroughly xenophobic or at least prone to xenophobic ideas", while 13% are "close to a fascist successor organisation". Thirty-five per cent of school students believe in a "Greater Germany that includes the Eastern Territories".

"The studies also show that the increase in extreme right allegiances is linked to a strong tendency to deny the horrors of the Nazi era." Schmidt explains, "In my own school I learnt more about chivalry than about the mechanisms of the Third reich ... The virtual banning of this subject from public discourse is already wreaking a bitter revenge. If so many know so little about the Third Reich, it becomes possible for a new generation of Germans to consider nationalism chic."

Schmidt gives a detailed account of "the battle of the historians" through the 1980s, when a revisionist current attempted to whitewash the crimes of the Third Reich. Revisionists cited by Schmidt include Joachim Fest and Ernst Nolte (two authors on my school reading list as accepted historians).

Apologists for the Third Reich generally bring up the Stalinist governments in the USSR and the former East Germany, putting equal signs between the two. Fest talks of Auschwitz as merely "a technical innovation". Fest, co-editor of the major daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, praises Hitler's "revolutionary ideas of 'renewal', of transformation of state and society into a conflict-free, militantly closed 'national-community'".

In July 1991, the liberal Business Week's publisher, Wolfram Engels, "urged us to break the 'taboos' since 'the economic history of the Nazi era is especially interesting', citing a 'stirring' growth rate of nearly ten per cent. 'Can we renounce a recipe for success simply because Adolf Hitler once used it?' Evidently not. 'After all, we do not also renounce participation in the Olympics, or German shepherds, or choral singing.'"

Thus Schmidt argues "a new climate was created, in which such opinions could be expressed in bestsellers and respectable editorials which naturally lessened the resistance to such propagandists as David Irving". Officially against the law in Germany, denial of the systematic killing of six millions Jews is an important part of the neo-Nazi agenda. It isn't that neo-Nazis are ashamed of Auschwitz, but denial of it is seen as a crucial prerequisite to winning broad popular support.

The politicians have failed, argues Schmidt. Often the mainstream conservatives such as Chancellor Helmut Kohl prepare the path for the more extreme right Republican Party and the neo-Nazis. As a German Green explained to Green Left Weekly last year, there are links between respectable parliamentarians and disreputable street fighters, but there is also a division of labour.

At length, Schmidt covers the judiciary's and police's leniency toward, and sometimes complicity with, neo-Nazis. With excuses of drunkenness, boredom, youthfulness or provocation, minimal sentences are given to those responsible for racist violence, even murders. This is in stark contrast to the courts' and government's handling of left activists.

Article 129a, introduced in the 1960s by the West German government, was used to crack down on left "terrorists". In 1990 and 1991, 297 proceedings under this law were brought against left "terrorists" for "propaganda and support", and 41 suspects were placed in pre-trial detention. In the same period only six proceedings were brought against the right. None of these concerned propaganda, even though right publications celebrated racist attacks on refugee hostels and new crimes and arson attacks were publicly announced on television.

While Schmidt is of course correct to maintain that unemployment and poverty cannot justify neo-Nazi violence against refugees and other "non-Germans", he fails to come to grips with how the economic recession can provide a resonance for racist ideas among some alienated youth.

It is no coincidence that fascism developed during the depression years of the early 1930s and is now starting to re-emerge during the recession of the 1990s. In Germany today, more than 7 million people live in poverty. A fight against neo-fascism has also to take up these issues, challenging the austerity policies of both Kohl's government and the Social Democratic Party.

Schmidt's warning of the danger is timely, but not reason for pessimism. The other side of the picture is the millions of Germans who took to the streets to protest against the racist attacks of the extreme right. Although some of the demands of these demonstrations were confused, there is a mass sentiment in Germany opposed to the return of fascism and no mass sentiment in favour of it. This fact Schmidt loses sight of.

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