KNIGS WUSTERHAUSEN, GERMANY — The undercover police inspector and his partner slowly cruise through the desolate neighborhood of low-rise apartment blocks. The night is moonless, and street lights give off only a meager glow.
"This part of town is known as a 'national liberated zone,' " says the inspector, referring to the term right-wing extremists use to denote their turf. In this small town south of Berlin, as in communities throughout eastern Germany, neo-Nazi skinheads have made entire neighborhoods unsafe for foreigners and others who do not suit their ideology.
At a stop sign, the officers notice a car whose occupants sport extremely short haircuts. They stop the vehicle, check the young men's identification, and open the trunk to look for weapons or outlawed Nazi paraphernalia. They find nothing.
"We're just letting them know that we care about them," says the inspector, as he continues on his beat.
The plainclothes officers belong to a newly formed police squad in the state of Brandenburg known as MEGA, a 45-member "mobile commando force against violence and xenophobia."
This poor, rural state surrounding Berlin has gained notoriety as a bastion of neo-Nazi activity. The head of the federal office for foreigners affairs, Cornelia Schmalz-Jacobsen, has expressed concern that when the government relocation from Bonn to Berlin is complete next year, foreign diplomats could be in danger when outside the capital.
In 1997 the Brandenburg Interior Ministry registered 569 right-wing crimes, of which 152 had a "xenophobic background." According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is charged with monitoring extremist political movements, the former East Germany as a whole accounted for roughly 45 percent of right-wing acts of violence nationwide, though only 20 percent of the population lives there.
A wave of neo-Nazi attacks, mainly against asylum seekers, followed German unification in 1990. After a brief respite in the middle of the decade, many observers fear a new escalation of right-wing violence, especially in eastern Germany, where the unemployment rate is higher than 20 percent, twice as high as in the western states.
Yet the dismal economic situation is only one reason for the high incidence of right-wing activity in the former Communist east.
The East German regime propagated social conformism and repressed institutions that fostered a civil society. The few foreigners in East Germany were isolated from the main population. And while West Germany openly confronted the Nazi past, Communist rulers in East Berlin inflated themselves as inheritors of the "anti-fascist resistance."
After unification, the combination of these factors with the new political, social, and economic realities led to widespread disorientation in eastern Germany, and more recently, disillusionment.
"The people in the east live in a values system that is very vulnerable to right-wing extremism because it connects with their previous experiences," says Bernd Wagner of the Center for Democratic Culture in Berlin. A former East German policeman who has been monitoring neo-Nazi activity, Mr. Wagner says right-wing, xenophobic thinking in the eastern states has taken on the insidious form of "cultural subversion," burrowing into daily life and taking on the attributes of normalcy.
While violent teenage skinheads make up a small but visible minority, Wagner says they have a lot of support among the population, where neo-Nazi thinking is "an omnipresent frame of mind."
In an opinion poll published this week in Der Spiegel magazine, 55 percent of eastern German respondents agree that foreigners in the country live at the expense of Germans, while 38 percent think so in the west. Almost half of the eastern German respondents believe foreigners take away jobs, and twice as many in the east as in the west think "a dictatorship could solve current problems better than a democracy."
Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that a far right party will muster enough votes to enter parliament in next September's federal elections.
In contrast to right-wing extremists in France or Austria, German neo-Nazis lack a charismatic leader to make their cause popular. Wagner says the fact that right-wing extremists in Germany do not have a political voice is one reason they take their activities to the streets.
In Knigs Wusterhausen, officers in the MEGA squad remark that the town is unusually quiet. In expectation that neo-Nazi skinheads would try to disrupt a local antiracism day, uniformed police patrol the main streets. MEGA officers attribute the relative calm to their vigilance.
The night is another small success in preventing right-wing motivated crimes. Yet critics and officers alike agree that the force can fight only the symptoms, not the roots, of the prevalent neo-Nazi subculture in the region.
* This series ends on Friday with stories about right-wing parties in Germany and Italy.