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Germans move to quash rising right-wing extremism

Although xenophobic attitudes still plague Germany, particularly in the postcommunist east, Germans are raising awareness of – and resistance to – the problem.

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Right-wing extremism is the "mental legacy" of communism, concurs Klaus Schroeder, an expert on right-wing terrorism at Berlin’s Free University. The vicious attack against Vietnamese, Roma, and Sinti asylum seekers in Rostock 20 years ago – and the fact that it was only timidly condemned – is a case in point, he says.

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"What happened there, with people clasping hand, cheering, and jubilating could have never happened in the west," says Mr. Schroeder. "There was a feeling of unlimited freedom, of ‘we can go out and beat foreigners up."

In East Germany, people’s collective responsibility for Third Reich crimes was not discussed openly, nor was how to deal with the roughly 200,000 "contract workers" the communists imported from countries like Cuba, Vietnam, and Congo.

"When a skinhead beat up a worker from Mozambique it wasn’t in the newspapers," says Schroeder. "The state handled everything. Things were put under the carpet." And after German reunification, people "were left in a vacuum, without a sense of orientation," which was fertile ground for xenophobia and extremist attitudes to grow.

In many eastern towns and villages today, officials from the right-wing NPD party still sit on town boards and organize sports and youth activities, say experts. Often, residents do not see the NPD as being a "problem party."

Backlash

In the east, "People take freedom and democracy in stride, but they’re not willing to get involved and defend it," says Schroeder.

But Demuth's and Lämmerhirt's initiatives suggest that things are changing. From Berlin to Dresden and Rostock, a grass-roots movement to counter right-wing extremism is gaining ground.

Fed up with people’s silence, Lämmerhirt two years ago helped create the "Laubegast is colorful" civic program. Named after one of the Dresden neighborhoods he represents, it aims at bringing together people and rallying them against right-wing extremism.

"We wanted to get the problem of right-wing extremism to become a public discussion," he says. "To show that the NPD answers are too easy."

And last year, counter-demonstrators outnumbered neo-Nazis participating in the traditional "march of mourning" in Dresden, says Demuth. "The Feb. 13 march is still there, but now it’s accepted you’re always going to have a countermovement," he says.

Federal authorities have taken steps against right-wing violence, establishing a central register of neo-Nazis and opening a Joint Defense Center Against the Far Right, for instance.

But for anti-neo-Nazi activists like Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who spends much of her free time removing neo-Nazi stickers and slogans in Berlin, even better would be that people get rid of racist stickers themselves. Ms. Mensah-Schramm has collected 5,450 photos and 1,100 stickers of right-wing propaganda over the years, which she circulates to city halls, theaters, youth centers, and schools as part of an exhibit called "Hatred destroys."

"Citizens have to learn how to have more guts," she says.

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