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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.

By Isabelle de PommereauCorrespondent / November 27, 2012

Supporters of the right-wing NPD party hold a rally against a march of refugees in Potsdam in October.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

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Dresden, Germany

Councilman Jörg Lämmerhirt wanted people to stop looking the other way.

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In his Dresden districts, including one of myriad shoe-box-shaped "Plattenbauten" – housing communities that communists in the former East Germany built hastily from large concrete slabs, or "platten" – too few people reacted to the racist stickers with slogans like "National Socialism, Now!" and "Germany, Wake Up!" plastered on lampposts and bus stations. Young right-wingers, calling themselves "Free Forces," were left to take over local playgrounds, chasing kids away. And the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) scored strongly in municipal and regional elections.

So Mr. Lämmerhirt pushed back – and joined a growing backlash against right-wing extremism in Germany, particularly eastern Germany, where xenophobia festered during the communist era and after reunification. Although right-wing attitudes are still prevalent in the east, people like Lämmerhirt are promoting awareness of the problem and working to counter it.

A latent problem

Twenty years after rioting neo-Nazis set fire to a hotel that was housing asylum seekers in the eastern port city of Rostock, thereby bringing the world’s attention to right-wing violence in the former communist Germany, right-wing attitudes remain part of the fabric of society, particularly in eastern Germany and among young people, according to a new study.

In regions often battered by depopulation and unemployment – and where foreigners are almost absent – 15.8 percent of residents espouse rightist, extremist views, up from 10.5 percent two years ago, and compared with 7.3 percent in western Germany, according to the study by the Berlin-based Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a democracy-education organization close to the Social Democratic Party. Forty percent of residents in eastern regions express antiforeigner views today compared with 20 percent in the west.

"The study shows it once again. We have a problem with right-wing extremism, especially in the East," says Christian Demuth, who created the antiracism "Citizen.Courage" group six years ago to rally residents against a yearly neo-Nazi march marking the Allied bombing of the city at the end of World War II.

Released just days after German prosecutors formally charged the last surviving member of a neo-Nazi cell in Zwickau that was allegedly involved in the murder of at least 10 migrants in recent years, the study shows that extremism in Germany is not confined to isolated acts of violence, experts say. Rather, and especially in Germany’s east, it is an entrenched attitude of turning a blind eye born out of decades of dictatorship. The study, they hope, will reinvigorate efforts to break away people's apathy.

"Back a few years ago, people didn’t do anything because they didn’t care," says Mr. Demuth. "But there is a countermovement, a public debate about what to do to fight neo-Nazism."

The mental legacy of East Germany

In August when he came to Rostock, where he had been a pastor on the 20th anniversary of the riots, German President Joachim Gauck said right-wing extremism’s stronger prevalence in the east resulted from people thinking "in black and white" after being deprived of democracy for decades.

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