To keep out a neo-Nazi foothold, one German town unites

Until recently, Delmenhorst was one of Germany's many decaying, postindustrial factory towns, blighted by unemployment and poverty and without a sense of pride or common purpose. But when a right-wing organization threatened to turn an abandoned downtown hotel into a neo-Nazi conference center five months ago, Delmenhorst's residents joined together and found some very creative ways to buy the building.

The city's butchers launched a "Bratwursts Against Nazis" campaign. Taxi drivers urged donations in lieu of tips. A professional soccer team from nearby Bremen donated signed jerseys, which were auctioned on eBay.

Meanwhile, countless protests sprang up in front of the building. Muslims and Jews banded together for one event. Children marched from schools across the city to stage a demonstration. Labor unions and politicians jumped into the fray, sometimes rallying crews of more than 4,000, according to organizers.

Delmenhorst's near daily protests and $1.2 million fundraising blitz, which made headlines across Europe, echo the anti-Nazi battles that have erupted in many towns as Germany's right-wing parties have surged.

According to the German Ministry of the Interior, there were about 8,000 politically motivated right-wing crimes between January and August 2006. That's double the number that were counted during the same period in 2004 and a 20 percent increase over 2005. Far-right parties have also made stunning electoral gains in parts of the nation's ragged east.

Experts believe the far-right groups have been able to achieve this success largely by building ideological centers that offer everything from right-wing workshops to rock concerts and social services for the elderly.

"These places are decisive for spreading the far right's influence in local communities and making them a legitimate social force," says right-wing extremism expert Hajo Funke.

Delmenhorst's ordeal started in late July, when the Wilhelm Tietjen Foundation for Fertilization bid $4.4 million for the Hotel am Stadtpark. The organization is directed by Jürgen Rieger, a neo-Nazi lawyer known for defending right-wing extremists and leading an annual march honoring Rudolf Hess, a top Third Reich official. He also wrote a book on the "disastrous" effects of "bastardizing" races.

Mr. Rieger has bought at least six properties since 1995, including a farm, a theater, a former army barracks, and a 19th century manor. His aim is to establish right-wing training facilities, as well as communes and fertility centers for members of the "Nordic blond race."

Winning the good fight

Delmenhorst's saga finally drew to a close two weeks ago, when the city, with the help of private donations and fundraising efforts, bought the 100-room hotel for some $4 million. The public drew a sigh of relief and politicians waxed triumphant.

"The Nazis are out, the city is united, and we have won the good fight," said Mayor Patrick de La Lanne.

"We knew it would destroy our community," says Günter Feith, a 58-year-old architect. "There would be constant clashes between Nazis and protesters. The streets would always be swarmed with police. You could basically shut our city center down."

It was Mr. Feith and Gerd Renker, a local tax adviser, who launched a fundraising drive to buy the building just days after Rieger's plans became known.

The effort all but transformed the cultural life of this quiet city with a dozen or so fundraising concerts – featuring everything from rock and blues to choral music. At least 10,000 of the city's 80,000 residents also dipped into their own wallets.

Money began to pour in from some unlikely places. Niko Wilker, a 16-year-old high school student, who sports fatigues and combat boots, says he donated most of his $90 allowance one month. "I didn't want to see brown shirts invading the city," he says.

By mid-August, when the deal with Rieger was initially supposed to close, the people of Delmenhorst had raised more than $1 million. But they were still far short of matching Rieger's $4.4 million, and they were making enemies in far-right circles.

Hackers frequently attacked Delmenhorst's anti-Nazi organizing website. Feith started getting death threats. A band of right-wing activists also threatened to go after donors and even posted a list of their names on the Web.

Determined not to give in, officials started scouring the law books. "We tried to create every conceivable legal hurdle to keep the Nazis from buying the hotel," says Mayor de La Lanne.

One scheme involved enlarging the downtown renovation area to include the building. Politicians hoped this would allow the city to buy the hotel at a price determined by a neutral third party. In other words, for much less than Rieger was offering.

In response to the city's plan to rezone the hotel and low-ball Rieger's generous original offer, the hotel's owner, Günter Mergel, threatened to give the building to Rieger's foundation if the group would promise to assume Mr. Mergel's debt of more than $2 million.

A question of money

Throughout September, Delmenhorst continued to wrangle with Mergel. Meanwhile, Rieger, who had been insisting that the deal was about to close, suddenly fell silent. In early October, German media reported that his foundation had been wiped off the commercial register in Britain, where it was legally based. Some reports speculated that the organization was bankrupt.

Still, the city of Delmenhorst scraped together $3 million and, in mid-October, announced plans to buy the hotel. The deal was finalized on Dec. 20.

Many residents are euphoric. "Never before have we been so strong, so united as a community," says Feith.

But the hefty price tag has launched a new wave of controversy. Some German pundits and Delmenhorst residents now believe the building's previous owner used the Nazi threat as a ploy to get double the appraised value, which was about $1.7 million.

"Mergel played the politicians to get more money," says Luigi Miccoli, who runs an Italian restaurant inside the abandoned hotel complex. "He just used Rieger's name for profit."

Mergel could not be reached for comment. As for Mayor de La Lanne, he insists that the community had no choice but to buy.

"We paid the price we did for political reasons," he explains. "And it was worth paying. If we hadn't, the Nazis would have come in and our city would have been ruined. Life here would never have been the same."

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