Angst from the underground

Neo-Nazi groups are spreading throughout Germany, garnering a new following at college-prep schools.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The intention of the flier received by the student-body president of the Elisabeth Gymnasium in the western German city of Mannheim last year was clear: "Stop the filling of our schools with foreigners," it urged. "Stop foreigner violence in our schools. The boat is full."

Other letters - disseminated, it was later discovered, by an organization related to the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) - were also received by high schools in the nearby town of Ludwigshafen, which called on students to help halt immigration.

The letters also urged students to support "the freedom of opinion for all political groups and standpoints," a reference to ongoing efforts in Germany to ban radical right-wing groups.

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While the recipients of the letters in Mannheim and Ludwigshafen promptly alerted the authorities, such open propaganda efforts signal a recent change in Germany's radical right-wing landscape.

Throughout most of the 1990s, right-wing youth groups and neo-Nazi gangs tended to be concentrated in Germany's lower-level high schools, known as Realschulen and Hauptschulen. They are now, according to observers of the scene, attempting to make headway in the university-track Gymnasiums and recently, especially in the states of former East Germany and in Berlin, they have been experiencing some success.

"It is a problem that is present in almost every school in Berlin," says Bianca Klose, head of the Mobile Consultation Program for the Center of Democratic Culture, a program that helps educate teachers and students alike about Germany's right-wing scene. "People say that it isn't as bad as it was three or four years ago. I disagree. I say the right extremists have just learned not to be so obvious. I would say the problem is growing."

Beyond school grounds

While there are no statistics that focus exclusively on right-wing extremism within Germany's schools, the problem in German society at large is on the rise.

According to recently released statistics, more than 10,500 right-wing crimes were committed in 2002, up 5 percent from the previous year. And while the overwhelming majority of the crimes involved defacing synagogues or disseminating right-wing propaganda, 725 of the assaults were actually violent, including the brutal murder in the summer of 2002 of a 16-year-old German boy in the eastern town of Potzlow whose attackers mistakenly thought he was Jewish.

Within schools and youth groups, however, right-wing extremism is no longer represented by overtly violent, skinhead youths wearing Springer brand boots, bomber jackets, and pit-bull T-shirts. Rather, it is becoming subtler.

"Right-wing extremists have recognized that the open wearing of symbols attracts unwanted attention and are even, on occasion, illegal," Ms. Klose says. "Just a very well-cared for appearance and submission to a teacher's authority are a sign of rightist thinking. In fact, right-wing extremists are often teachers' favorite students."

For Matthias Adrian, this comes as no surprise. Until two years ago, Mr. Adrian, who's now in his late 20s, was an active member of the NPD and in charge of youth development for Hessen, a state in southwestern Germany. As a party member, he taught young NPD members to become involved in classroom discussions so that they might provide a counter to more tolerant voices.

He says the NPD also uses students who are already right-oriented to try to attract others into the group.

"When I was with the party," says Adrian, who now works with EXIT, a program that helps neo-Nazis leave the right-wing scene, "I used to encourage young extremists to attain the position of class speaker or to get involved in the student government. They then could start all sorts of initiatives, like putting a flagpole up in front of the school or class trips to France instead of Auschwitz or whatever."

Such active politicking by the NPD has had some results within German schools. The NPD's so-called Pupil Initiative for the Free Formation and Expression of Opinions, a program Adrian worked to build up, is active in eastern Germany.

In Greifswald, for example, a small town in the northeastern corner of Germany, students began publishing a right-wing newsletter called Sprachrohr ("Communication Channel") in 2001 with financial help from the NPD.

Not a coordinated attack

While the newsletter is decidedly right of center, it avoids the inflammatory, pro-Nazi rhetoric often associated with neo-Nazis.

Despite the removal of their website from the Internet, Sprachrohr continues to publish intermittently, and like-minded students in towns nearby have begun publishing their own issues.

Despite such activities, Adrian and other observers caution against the impression that the right wing is leading an organized attack on Germany's schools.

According to Klaus Ferien, head of the German Archive of Youth Cultures, between 80 and 90 percent of German youth want nothing to do with right-wing violence. Most extremists, he says, are not terribly politically minded at all. "Youths - primarily male - join the scene because they're looking for friends," Mr. Ferien says.

"They probably already possess a racist worldview, and have an affinity for violence and the extreme consumption of alcohol. These are the main factors. Most aren't politically active at all."

In addition, there are hundreds of groups, many of them generously funded by the German government, currently working to combat such right-wing activity. Adrian himself travels throughout Germany on behalf of EXIT, giving presentations to teachers or to classes, often because they suspect some of their students might be slipping toward the radical right.

And almost every Gymnasium in Germany has a group that takes great pains to promote multiculturalism and tolerance. Even the curriculum itself is heavily weighted toward a confrontation with Germany's 20th-century history.

Schools haven't always been so open about Germany's past, however. It is in the schools of the East where the problem is at its most intractable.

While the five states of former East Germany are home to just over one-quarter of Germany's population, more than half of the country's right-wing extremists are from the region.

Most experts are laying the blame on the former East German communist system, which did little to confront Germany's Nazi past.

"I think it definitely has to do with how the Nazi period was or was not confronted by the different regimes," says Wolfgang Metzger, coordinator of a program that works with right-wing criminals in eastern German prisons.

"In the socialist states, what happened was blamed on the capitalist system and the responsibility was shipped west. They didn't confront the positions within their own population that still were connected to the Nazi period."

It is exactly that confrontation that those who are working against the right-wing scene, like Matthias Adrian, are looking for.

"Sometimes," he says, "I get bored when I am telling democratically minded people that fascism is bad. I prefer going into classes with a right-wing mainstream or with extremists. That is the front line. The NPD calls it the 'Fight for the Minds,' and that is what I am doing. It gives me a good feeling to be fighting."

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