Roots of Neo-Nazism Already Ran Deep in Former GDR

Michael Pugliese debsian at
Tue Aug 29 19:08:35 PDT 2000

Roots of Neo-Nazism Already Ran Deep in Former GDR

August 28 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung By Jochen Staadt

BERLIN. Neo-Nazism in eastern Germany is often written off as the reaction of frustrated young people bewildered by the changes that rolled over their region following the collapse of the former East Germany. In fact, the phenomenon has deep roots reaching back into the decades of communist rule.

Indeed, East German leaders felt compelled to buttress their state's declared antifascism with a long list of laws and regulations criminalizing neo-Nazi offenses.

In the mid-1970s, the communist leadership became alarmed by reports from the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, of a growing number of right-wing extremist incidents. A similar phenomenon had been seen in the late 1960s, when a string of electoral successes by the extreme-right National Democratic Party in West Germany inspired sympathizers to paint swastikas throughout the east.

At that time, the Stasi centered its investigations on individual youths or small groups of apprentices and young workers, but after 1975, the central party control commission of the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED) began receiving increasingly disturbing reports of neo-Nazi incidents and "fascist groupings" in East German high schools. It was not just the number of youths involved that had increased, but also the degree of militancy. Right-wing extremist views were now being aggressively espoused.

A report from the Dresden regional party outlined more than 30 "political incidents" in the area in the early summer of 1977. At one Dresden high school, there was frequent "glorification of fascist symbols and distribution of fascist ideology, including poems and songs dedicated to Hitler." Increasingly, "children of Soviet citizens" were "being harassed and verbally abused." And homemade SS badges had appeared at six high schools. "Eighty pupils at the Otto Grotewohl high school in Bautzen were in

possession of such a badge," the report warned. At another school, the son of the parents' committee chairman was beaten and his father cursed as a "communist pig."

The SED's response? Apart from lamenting an insufficiently firm response from party organizations, outsiders were blamed. "These incidents reflect the enemy's ideological line of offense and its influence on a section of youth," a report from the party's control commission declared. "They bear anticommunist, anti-Soviet and nationalist characteristics." The report was also submitted to Erich Honecker, the East German leader, who returned it with the references to West German influence underlined.

The Stasi officers assigned to the matter shared the tendency to blame the Western media's influence and visits to West Germany. The possibility that the causes may lie embedded in their own society was never seriously taken into consideration.

This is remarkable, given that the leaders of the SED's youth group, the Free German Youth (FDJ), had a pretty good idea how most young people formed their political views. When asked, "Who has the greatest influence on your personal development?" 53 percent of youngsters in the Prenzlau region had answered, "home," with only 24 saying school and teachers, and only about 9 percent citing friends. In a burst of youthful frankness, just 3.2 percent said the FDJ.

And yet the FDJ was to attribute the growing number of punks and right-wing extremist skinheads in the 1980s exclusively to "the concerted ideological influence of the enemy." Skinheads in Cottbus, Dresden, Halle, Magdeburg, Erfurt and Leipzig, the youth group's leaders reported, were "marked by brutality, violence, neo-fascism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia."

When the adults of Rostock and the "socialist model city" of Hoyerswerda applauded youths firebombing homes for asylum seekers in the post-communist 1990s, there was widespread horror that the end of the dictatorship had allowed the sudden emergence of prejudices that had been passed on over the generations in rejection of the official state ideology. But former SED leaders who were in the know shook their heads with dismay that so many people were taken aback by the widespread far-right sentiment in the east.

For all the official propaganda blaming Western influences, the SED leadership had in its time been forced to bow to a pervasive and indigenous anti-foreigner sentiment. Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski, who ran the country's foreign trade and foreign exchange operations, recalled the opposition he faced when trying to find accommodation for Vietnamese imported as laborers into East Germany. Plans to set up a community for them in Schwerin, for example, had to be dropped after "discussions with the population."

Unlike in West Germany, there had been little discussion of the degree of support the Nazis had enjoyed among the population. The very term "National Socialism" was taboo, with the SED determined to put both socialism and the concept of the nation in a positive light. The official line was basically that Germany had fallen prey to fascism between 1933 and 1945 because the reactionary forces of finance had managed to split the labor movement and bring Hitler to power in order to preserve capitalist interests.

This allowed universities and other academic bodies in East Germany to treat "German fascism" as a surface phenomenon in historical terms, while schoolchildren were taught a narrow-minded antifascism that saw West Germany as a refuge for old and new Nazis alike. In East Germany, it was implied, old Nazis had simply disappeared from the face of the earth, while the removal of capitalism -- and therefore of the social roots of fascism -- meant that new Nazis were supposed to be an impossibility.

East Germany, it was claimed, was establishing "genuine national socialism," and the SED had no compunction about forming a National Front headed by a National Council. There was a National Democratic Party, a National People's Army, a National Defense Council, National Awards, a National Heritage, the "First Workers and Farmers State of the German Nation" and, as of 1971, even a "Socialist Nation."

The occupying Soviets had declared denazification in their zone complete in February 1948, allowing the radical purges of the immediate post-war period to be replaced by the rapid reincorporation of minor Nazi party figures into the governing apparatus. Nazis who had not committed "fascist crimes" but had proved their remorse "through honorable work" were to be allowed to contribute to "democratic and economic development," even though this prompted some longtime communists to resign in disgust. They could not stand to work with the supporters of the party that had thrown them into concentration camps.

When the Soviet internment camp on the grounds of what had been the Buchenwald concentration camp was dissolved and the minor Nazi functionaries imprisoned there were set free, a number of party groups already contained more former Nazi party members than longtime Communist party supporters. Yet there was silence throughout the Soviet zone of occupation.

Later, whenever the Western media threatened to question the image of a Nazi-free German Democratic Republic, the SED would remove as graciously as possible a few functionaries in a show of continuing anti-Nazi resolve. In 1958, the SED functionary Ernst Grossmann was relieved of his official duties after West German officials discovered that he had served during the war as an SS corporal at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. These embarrassing retreats continued until 1986 and the hugely embarrassing controversy over Professor Hermann Klenner, East Germany's representative at the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

After Mr. Klenner attacked Zionism and Israel in a speech, the Isreali delegate stood up and read Mr. Klenner's Nazi party number, adding bitterly that the East German representative must consider himself well-qualified to discuss matters relating to Jews. Yet East Berlin hesitated to recall Mr. Klenner -- a Stasi informer, it was later revealed -- until the U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan threatened a boycott of the body by Western countries.

The New York Post commented: "The East Germans have made a regular practice of accusing others of sheltering former Nazis. The fact that they are themselves represented at the UN by an ex-Nazi is an interesting reflection on communist cynicism."

There was no mention of the affair in the East German media, however. Like the emergence of neo-Nazi youth groups, it was a topic the authorities did not want publicly discussed. This official conspiracy of silence remained until the Berlin Wall came down. The years since have shown that the "antifascist barrier" had a lot of skeletons walled up behind it.

The East German experience has seemed to many observers particularly relevant in recent weeks, as calls to ban the National Democratic Party have risen to the top of the political agenda in Germany. If even an advanced surveillance network such as that operated by the SED and the Stasi failed to stop the spread of neo-Nazi sentiment among the young, it is asked, how will the simple act of outlawing a party be any more successful?

It is also pointed out that in western Germany, where the National Democratic Party has been allowed to operate openly, far-right violence has been much less of a problem than in the former East Germany.

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