A Smack of Weimar

A low-intensity war is taking place in parts of Europe, with terrorist activities and open battles on the streets between neo-Nazis and their increasingly militant opponents.

Published October 6, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

DRESDEN, GERMANY -- on the night of Aug. 8, two men, soldiers in the German army, painted swastikas on the walls of a building at Forststrasse No. 9 and set it on fire. The 25 Italian construction workers who lived in the barrackslike hostel were away, but the building was reduced to rubble. A month later, the swastikas were still visible on the surviving walls.

There were no flowers at the site of the torched abode. No one made an angry speech against intolerance. Even the anti-fascist watchdog groups expressed more weariness than rage.

"We weren't surprised," said Daniel, a 20-something college student, and anti-fascist activist, "it happens all the time. A month ago, another shelter for immigrants was burned down. Before that a theater troupe from Poland was attacked."

The same week the Forststrasse building was torched, 350 members of the National Democratic Party (NDP) -- one of the three far-right parties now active in Germany -- marched on a village outside Dresden. Save for 50 youthful activists -- who were separated from the marchers by the police -- no one came forward to confront the new brownshirts.

Late last month, another far right group, the German People's Union (DVU), fell just 200 votes short of winning a seat in the city legislature of Hamburg -- Germany's second largest metropolis -- with 4.9 percent of the vote, an increase from 2.8 percent in 1993. Most experts consider the 25,000 member DVU Germany's strongest neo-fascist political machine.

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl says the importance of the neo-fascist parties shouldn't be "overdramatized." And Kohl is correct: In many ways the DVU and its right-wing allies the NPD and the Republicans -- like similar parties in Poland, Denmark and Sweden -- remain at the margins of political life.

But Europe's youthful new brownshirts do make their will felt in the streets through beatings, murders and arson. As the DVU saturated Hamburg with advertising and direct mail (sample slogans: "Hamburg for Germans, Istanbul for Turks"), neo-Nazi thugs were busy clubbing and stomping environmentalists in Saxony and people of color in eastern Berlin.

Indeed much of post-Wall Europe is simmering with a low intensity war. In Germany, violent assaults by neo-Nazis have declined from a high of 2,285 in 1992 -- including more than 700 incidents of arson and 17 fatalities -- but "propaganda-related" crimes of the extreme right are increasing. And while the headline-grabbing mass pogroms have faded, right-wingers now work in small terrorist cells designed to elude authorities.

This is not happening only in high unemployment zones like eastern Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. The prosperous, nearly classless Scandinavian countries have witnessed some of the worst attacks in recent years. Immigrants, gays, leftists and environmentalists are favorite targets.

On July 29, a campground set up by environmentalists to protest a highway project outside Dresden was blitzed, the green activists beaten and their tents set afire. One eco warrior said he felt lucky: "Last year, when we protested the road project the 'faschos' came, 30 or 40 of them, with baseball bats. They beat us until we were unconscious. One person had a cracked skull. Four of us went to hospital."

But there is emerging an increasingly militant response. German authorities acknowledge that they keep tabs on 30,000 "left extremists" who may be willing to take it the streets. And many do. Last year, police attributed 35 incidents of "extreme property damage" and 18 individuals permanently disabled or placed in critical condition due to left-wing assaults. One anti-fascist action poster slapped up all over Berlin depicts ski-masked "antifas" literally chasing skinheads onto a train out of town. Another pictures a phalanx of black clad, motorcycle-helmeted street fighters on the hunt for neo-Nazis.

Throughout Europe the groups targeted by right-wingers have become combative. On Aug. 16 near Roskilde, Denmark, 150 neo-Nazis marching to mark Rudolf Hess' death day were met by about 1,000 counter-demonstrators determined to shut down the rally by any means necessary. Armed with bats, molotov cocktails, pipe bombs, slingshots and stones, the mob -- most masked -- skirmished with riot squads and forced the extreme rightists to move their march to a secret spot.

"The Nazis were scared to show up. The police couldn't protect them," said Jen, an American living in Copenhagen, "so we stormed the commuter train about 500 deep and went to their headquarters." At Nazi leader Jonny Hanson's home base in the town of Greve, the antifas squared off with a battalion of riot cops. Police fired round after round of tear gas at the rampaging leftists who, having run out of pipe bombs and molotovs, were hurling anything from street signs to small trees; at one point. About 30 desperate antifas tipped over a bottle recycling dumpster to replenish their supply of projectiles.

That night in Copenhagen, after the chaos had dissipated and Danish TV was beaming images of the clash into people's living rooms, the antifas -- punks, hip-hoppers, ravers, socialists and anarchists -- were still fired up. "We have to get their base," one Danish woman said, "After all, it's defensive, they burned out our places. We have no choice but to fight."

By A. Clay Thompson

A. Clay Thompson, a former activist in the squatter movement, has just returned from a two-month reporting trip to Germany and other countries in northern Europe.

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