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Neo-Nazis Along Germany's East-West Divide

Article illustrative image Partner logo An NPD rally in Frankfurt

The former East Germany is still considered to be a hotbed of neo-Nazism. Still, the movement to oppose the extremists is growing even stronger – to the point that leaders in the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) know that when they stage their public gatherings and marches more opponents will be in attendance than supporters.

First, some recent history: Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos – the three neo-Nazi terrorists who, among other crimes, murdered 10 people between 2000 and 2007 – grew up in this part of Germany, and built their first bombs here. Even when they went underground, they stayed here, living undiscovered in Chemnitz and Zwickau until November 4 2011, when Böhnhardt and Mundlos killed themselves in a mobile home in Eisenach.

Most of the murders committed by their "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) terror cell took place in the western part of Germany, in Nuremberg, Munich, Hamburg, Dortmund, Kassel and Heilbronn.

German authorities were taken by surprise that neo-Nazis from the East were responsible for the series of unsolved murders, even though the trio from Jena perfectly matched the profile of those who perpetrate acts of fascist extremism in Germany. Where else would a far-right terror group form if not in the East, where those tendencies are the most firmly anchored?

And even 22 years after German reunification, all the statistics, including election results, show that every third right-wing extremist in Germany comes from the five “new states” of Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia, where only one-sixth of Germany’s population of 82 million lives.

Before and after the Wall

According to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), in 2011, based on population averages, there were more than double the amount of extreme-right acts of violence in Saxony-Anhalt, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony than there were in the western German states of Lower Saxony and North Rhine Westphalia, and ten times more than in Baden-Württemberg. And the only German states where members of the NPD have been elected to state parliament are Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony.

Local election results show that the NPD neo-Nazis have captured up to 20% of the votes in small towns and rural areas of Lusatia, Saxon Switzerland and Vorpommern -- a factor to be reckoned with.

But it would be too simplistic to want to see right-wing extremism as solely a phenomenon in the East. Far-right extremism was never (and is today less than ever) only eastern Germany’s problem. In the turbulent years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, many young people in the East (where economic crisis hit hard) were susceptible to the neo-Nazi message of hate. Still, the West had plenty of hate ambassadors all too ready to sniff out opportunity and take advantage of it.

"The stuff of dreams" is what Michael Kühnen (1955-1991), a leader of the West German neo-Nazi movement, called the susceptibility to far-right ideas of those brought up in the highly authoritarian education system in the former East Germany, particularly young men.

West German neo-Nazis like Kühnen were drawn to the East in the 1990s, and while the NPD may still have its greatest electoral potential in eastern states, its leadership is marked by the influence of West Germans such as Udo Pastör, who heads the NPD fraction in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament, or long-time NPD chief Udo Voigt, both of whom are Rhinelanders.

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