Skinheads and Neo-Nazis:
Bitter Fruits of a Bad History
Other European Updates:
France and the Middle East Conflict
The Jewish Stake in a Changing Europe
Rightist Violence in Germany

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December 2000

Understanding the atmosphere in which East German skinheads and other Nazi-style youths commit their attacks on foreigners and other "different" people, including Jews and Jewish sites, is critical not only to combating their crimes, but to grasp the indivisibility of human rights. This is not to say that all neo-Nazi youths are east German, or that the violence is limited to that area, but rather that it is in the formerly communist-ruled region that the problem is most concentrated and persistent.

The town of Bautzen, a community of some 50,000 inhabitants about an hour from the Saxon capital of Dresden, has a lot to say to the foreign visitor – not only about the impact of 57 years of totalitarian rule but about our limited range of information, even in the "global village".

"Bautzen" has the infamous ring in many East German ears that Dachau or Buchenwald had in those of Jews and dissenters under the Nazis. From 1933 until the early forties, when gas chambers began to operate, Dachau and other such sites in Germany functioned as concentration camps. People today justly identify Dachau with the mass murder of Jews, yet Jews suffered from nazi terror in those camps throughout the thirties, and it is in this period that they were comparable to Bautzen under the communists.

Bautzen had two prisons, one of which, in the center of town, is a memorial because it operated like a concentration camp. It had cells for solitary confinement in which prisoners had to stand for 19 out of 24 hours, with assorted other totalitarian techniques of detention and interrogation. The police that ran it – Stasi for short – was the equivalent of the Gestapo.

As in Nazi Germany, the majority of the population adjusted, always watchful of what they said or did for fear of being denounced, as they had been under Hitler. The switch from extreme right to extreme left was easy to accept. Once the occupying Soviet troops had installed the satellite government, the rules were familiar, particularly the need to follow the rules and the leaders. As for the Jews, they had been all but eliminated by the Nazi death machine. When the Soviet-run administration took over in 1945, the Jews’ fate went unrecognized in the new textbooks and media, since the victims of the Nazis were "anti-fascists"—signifying that the racist and anti-Semitic focus of Nazi persecution did not count in the new ideology.

Foreigners who came to the "German Democratic Republic" were carefully selected, mostly from third world countries, for study and training and kept in well-guarded ghettoes. Ordinary East Germans did not have contact with them, lest those people from the outside world, even though they had been carefully picked for ideological loyalty, inadvertently sowed seeds of dissent.

This was the system under which the parents of the current generation in the eastern part of Germany lived and under which the young people went to school.

Only those who had been kept in Bautzen, their relatives, friends and those who thought independently remember what it represented. They were and are the minority. The majority, as in Nazi Germany, had kept its hands "clean" by not saying or doing anything that could jeopardize the job or the promotion and ruin one’s status in the community. The Stasi made sure of that by keeping files so massive that to this day, more than a decade later, they are still being reviewed.

In August, 1989 it all came down. Freedom broke out. Young people who had gone to school under the communist system and, in the style of the Hitler youth to which their parents had belonged, had marched in the ranks of the "Free Democratic Youth", found that suddenly there was nobody telling them what to say and do. They saw their parents unhappy because the market system in the reunited country put father out of his job, in which he may have had little or nothing to do but did have status. He had dropped from factory supervisor or administrator to taxi driver. Mother used to have lots of East German marks, but sparsely stocked or empty shelves offered little worth buying. Now she had no money but was looking at show windows bulging with merchandise.

Yet "social conditions" neither explain nor excuse the young neo-Nazis’ violence. Self-pity and a deep sense of injustice and envy had spread fast in the post-communist society. The controls of home, school and other key institutions had become less effective. Protest was the extremist fashion of the day and gaining attention the objective.

But how? Get the old system back? Not only was it impossible, but even given all the new frustrations, it was pretty bad. There was one way to make oneself seen and heard. It was to be what everybody – the old and the new – were against: a Nazi. What is more, there were people in West Germany who were running Nazi-style parties and who might be sources of money. These parties had young supporters in the "old" western regions who for reasons of their own -- sometimes their parents’ continuing sympathy with Hitler’s anti-Semitism and racism-- were ready to attack foreigners and Jews. So the Swastika-like symbols, beating Africans to bleed or even die, burning foreigners’ homes and synagogues and sacking of Jewish cemeteries were ways to shock the establishment. They had found a way to become important and to put a strain on "bourgeois" democracy.

Yet all was not bad during this visit to the east. An encouraging experience was a lecture in Dresden. Ian Kershaw, British author of the two-volume, highly praised biography of Hitler, was speaking about the second volume, which had just come out in German. The story for this visitor was not the lecture, but the fact that a half-hour before it was to begin, there was no seat left. Hundreds of young people, mostly students, thronged the room, standing or sitting on the floor.

At the end of the author’s hour-long talk, they peppered him with questions about Nazism, the perpetrators, Jews and the Holocaust. These hundreds in one city were also East German youngsters, and hopefully more typical of their generation than the skinheads, who number an estimated 6,000 in all of Germany.

The visitor’s lasting impression, however, remained Bautzen. Standing in one of those solitary confinement cells and listening to the account of the guide of what the captives experienced there sounded like what my father told my mother and me after five weeks in Buchenwald in the wake of Kristallnacht. It was dramatic evidence both of the similarity of totalitarian systems, of the appeal and the fear they held for the average citizen, and of the fact that human rights are indivisible. It is a principle which to sustain is deeply in the Jewish interest.

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