THE BLOG

Germany's Neo-Nazi Problem

06/08/2013 17:08 BST | Updated 05/10/2013 10:12 BST

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The spot checks for illegal immigrants at British railway stations and Home Office vans telling immigrants to "go home" are intimidating and misguided - but anyone comparing it with Nazi Germany seriously needs to read up on their history.

German commentators have been tutting at the British government's hard line. But Germany needs to focus on its own, very serious racism problem which is being overlooked amid all the hype about its stable economy and well-organized social system.

If you're black or brown and fancy visiting Germany this summer, then bear in mind that parts of the former communist east, with its fairytale forests and castles, architectural jewels like Dresden and Weimar, and beautiful Baltic coastline are no-go areas for foreigners because of the risk of racist attacks by neo-Nazis.

That's not my statement: that was said by Uwe-Karsten Heye, chairman of a leading anti-racism NGO and a former government spokesman, in 2006.

It remains true today. There is one racist or anti-Semitic assault every day in Germany, and the per capita rate is highest in the east, where foreigners make up less than three percent of the population, according to police figures that campaigners say grossly understate the true level of violence.

Admittedly, that's just a fraction of the race hate crimes recorded in England and Wales -- 35,816 in 2011, according to government figures, of which 85 percent were violence against persons. But the numbers aren't comparable - if anything, they show Britain is taking racism seriously by logging it more diligently.

Ask immigrants here and you get stories of everyday discrimination. A decade ago, I wrote about an asylum-seeker from Cameroon who was accustomed to people making ape noises as he walked past. He said Potsdam, the city he lived in, was a "battleground" if you're black. In 2010, I interviewed a Turkish-born teacher who has lived in Germany for 44 years. Speaking perfect German, she told me she gets verbal abuse from passers-by on a daily basis because she wears a headscarf.

I have often wondered what the public response would be in Britain if a part of the country, say Scotland or Wales, the Midlands or the Northeast, gained the reputation of a no-go zone for non-whites. I like to think there would be a national outcry and a government-led campaign to address it.

The Stephen Lawrence murder in 1993 and the initial acquittal of the suspects led to a huge uproar and eventually resulted in reforms that changed British society.

By contrast, Germany, envied by many Britons these days, has had scores of Stephen Lawrences since 1990 - and has done very little about it. Estimates put the number of deaths from far-right violence since 1990 at close to 200.

The victims include Amadeu Antonio, an Angolan worker who suffered fatal head injuries when he was attacked by skinheads in 1990. Or Algerian asylum seeker Farid Guendoul, who bled to death in 1999 after cutting his leg on a glass door while being chased through the eastern town of Guben.

Or the eight Turks and one Greek- ordinary shopkeepers including a flower seller, a grocer and a tailor -shot dead in a killing spree by a neo-Nazi group between 2000 and 2006. The same pistol was used in all the murders, but astoundingly, the police refused to consider racism as a motive.

The alleged perpetrators of those shootings -members of the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) group - were discovered by chance in 2011.

The case is a huge blow to Germany's reputation, exposing authorities as institutionally racist and blind to the neo-Nazi threat.

Public outrage was brief. And even though a parliamentary committee looking into the botched murder investigation is due to report its findings shortly, there is no sign that much will change.

Too often still, racist assaults don't get investigated or punished vigorously enough. Anti-racism groups complain of a lack of funding and political support.

Yet Chancellor Angela Merkel, about to win a third term in the September 22 election, has done little about it. She doesn't have to. Most voters don't really care because they don't feel threatened by it.

Neo-Nazis are a particular problem in the east because the region suffered huge upheaval after unification in 1990, and immigrants became scapegoats for all that was going wrong. Young men with poor job prospects were especially receptive to far-right ideology and Nazi hero worship.

In many towns and villages, neo-Nazi groups are the only pastime for young people. They run clubs and organize children's fetes and rock concerts. They're even trying to get a say in the management of kindergartens.

The problem is exacerbated by a lack of resistance to far-right thinking in the east. Generations of West Germans were taught to accept national responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich. It was different in East Germany. The fascist past, children were taught, had nothing to do with them.

The eastern economy has improved. But the neo-Nazis are still there, and have become more entrenched. The extremist NPD party is represented in two state parliaments and in many town and village councils.

I started writing about the far right when I moved to Berlin in 2001 as chief correspondent for Reuters. Even back then, analysts warned that it was being underestimated and had become a terrorist threat.

But if international awareness of Germany's racism problem increases, Mrs Merkel might finally feel compelled to do something about it. It's high time she did. You get racist, far-right whackos everywhere - but Germany, which perpetrated the Holocaust, should have zero tolerance towards its new Nazis.