Germany's regional disparities fuel neo-Nazi culture

During a train trip across Germany, a Monitor correspondent noted regional differences that make neo-Nazi culture appealing in the east and alien in the west. A murder last week exposed the existence neo-Nazi cells in the country.

Görlitz. Dresden. Leipzig. Halle. I’m on my way back to Frankfurt on a searing summer day. The milk train stops in every little village, rattling through eastern Germany. The half-dozen passengers are dozing off. It is early in the morning, no conversation yet.

As I gaze out the window I see a forlorn countryside – run-down buildings, abandoned factories, empty train stations. Is this the legacy of 40 years of communism? In one of the most affluent countries in the Western world?

In the Saxony town of Halle, the train door slams open. Five young men burst into the compartment, laughing. One shouts, "Heil Hitler!" Startled, maybe scared, the passengers instantly look to their feet. 

He and his friends have shaved heads. They wear heavy black boots and black T-shirts with a huge German eagle spread on it and the word "Sturm," or "Storm" in English plastered on it. One in the group has a stack of CDs in his hands. "Rock für Deutschland" is written on the cover.

Now I get it. "Rock for Germany" is a rock and heavy metal concert that takes place every year in the nearby town of Gera, about 50 miles from Halle – or that's the official version. In reality, it is one of Europe’s biggest neo-Nazi festivals. That weekend, I found out later, it attracted a record 4,000 participants. The men I saw must have spent the night at the concert. 

Their racist shouting echoed in my mind Monday as I woke to the news that police believed that two men they found dead were behind the killing in the last decade of at least nine men – most of them of Turkish origin – and a policewoman. The men lived in a house in Zwickau, only 20 miles from where the "Rock für Deutschland" concert took place, and are believed to have been members of a local neo-Nazi cell. In a video, they claimed to be part of the National Socialist Underground. 

The region of Gera is known as the heart of Germany's radical right music scene, which police say is a gateway into the racist, neo-Nazi subculture that attracts disillusioned young people. The festival is one of myriad small neo-Nazi rallies that the men may have had contact with. For a long time, German intelligence services paid too little attention to that subculture – some say because they were overly focused on preventing potential terrorist attacks.  

From my adopted city of Frankfurt, with its affluent, shimmering banks, the neo-Nazi crimes seem like something from a bad science fiction movie. But what I saw and heard in eastern Germany testifies to a sobering reality: More than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, Germany remains divided into two. In eastern Germany, a sense of hopelessness prevails, often hand-in-hand with soaring unemployment and resentment against anything that’s foreign.

"Here you have young people whose parents, from one day to the other, lost their ideals," said Reinhard Melzer, the pastor of the Methodist church in the Saxony town of Görlitz, during my visit that summer. According to him, almost a quarter of the town's population is unemployed. "There was no chance for them to digest that. This loss of ideal was never discussed. And now, the young people have to deal with that."

Now everyone is asking questions: What to do about neo-Nazi violence? Should there be a national data bank with names of neo-Nazis? Should the government ban extremist parties?

Maybe all of that is good and necessary – but as long as Germany remains two societies, it is questionable whether those measures would work. 

On that long train journey, I remember the feeling of relief when I reached Kassel. Finally, I was back in western territory.

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