Young Extremists See No Future in New German State
RALF BARTSCH, a social worker for youths in this east German suburb north of Berlin, is expecting company for afternoon coffee and cookies: seven skinheads and neo-Nazis.The youths arrive punctually at 5 p.m., take off their thick shoes in the hallway so as not to dirty the living room carpeting, and shake hands all around as introductions are made. Group members, between 16 and 22 years old, seem to be models of German etiquette. Yet minutes later, when one of the closely cropped young men begins telling Mr. Bartsch of his membership in a neo-Nazi gang, he describes its main activities as "fun, drinking, and beating up foreigners." The group is well armed with gas pistols, baseball bats, and brass knuckles, he says, and they all wear combat boots "for kicking." Later he admits taking part in an attack on a home for foreigners. Bartsch, who knows his guests through his work at the town's youth center, is interviewing the young man as part of a project for the east German state of Brandenburg. By conducting anonymous interviews with extremists, Brandenburg hopes to learn the causes behind their violence and how to control it. The young man says he likes the "camaradarie" of the neo-Nazis. He views the group as security against leftists and "anyone who gets in our way." He and his friend next to him are homeless, Bartsch explains afterward. They've been living as squatters in an abandoned apartment. The young man says his parents are divorced and that he left his mother after she "betrayed" him to the former East German Stasi secret police. As a result he was jailed and only his father came to visit him. He gets by with financial help from his father, though he also has an apprenticeship at a steel factory in a neighboring town. Across from him, a skinhead says that he needs to belong to a group for protection from Turkish gangs in west Berlin: "A lot of the things they've done to us you wouldn't believe. I tell my parents, and they think I'm making it all up." The first young man says he also belongs to his neo-Nazi gang to protest what's happening in Germany. He likes the freedom of expression that came with reunification, but says, "The social aspects are missing." There are not enough jobs or apartments, and foreigners are taking benefits and jobs away from Germans, he says. What's needed is to restore order, maybe even a dictatorship, and to get the foreigners out. "It's our fatherland," he says, "and strangers have no part in it." All the youths complain about lack of money and poor job prospects. Employers want nothing to do with skinheads, one says. The only woman in the group, who is 18, says she has a baby to care for, and the social payments are not covering the expenses. "If I didn't have my mother, I wouldn't be able to make it," she says. It's frustrating, says another youth, that now there are suddenly wonderful things to buy but no money to buy them. "You see so much stuff you want. You have the freedom. But you can't experience it. That's the problem," he says. In nearly an hour's discussion with Bartsch, the subject of Jews never comes up. When asked whether he is also against Jews, the neo-Nazi says "that would be too extreme." Others in the group say they do not know any Jews, though one says he thinks Jews are just as bad as foreigners. "I don't think they've thought this through," Bartsch says on the subject of anti-Semitism. "They grew up in a society where not much was said about the realities of the Third Reich. What they want is order. They live under the illusion that this is the way it was in that time." Most of those in Bartsch's apartment for this interview say they have participated in violence. Rumbles with leftist groups can't be avoided, says the woman, adding, "It's part of the fun." Violence is necessary, says the neo-Nazi, "That's how you make the foreigners afraid. That's how you put pressure on them." Meanwhile, they laugh, the few policemen in town are no match for their groups. Bartsch believes most of the right-wing radicals he knows want help, and says if they had jobs or apprenticeships, they would eventually leave their groups. More football fields and sports centers won't solve the problem, he says. "What the politicians could do is create a future for these people," he says. Next month, Bartsch hopes he can start a job-creation project that would employ seven right-wing extremists, one of them the homeless neo-Nazi. "These kids can't say who they are in this society. They have no money, no work, no chances," Bartsch sums up. "Rather than being a no one, they want to be skinheads."