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Saturday, 15 May 2010


At the beginning of this year, a wannabe neo-Nazi burned down the "House of Democracy" in the small town of Zossen just south of Berlin. The case lays bare the deep roots of extremism in eastern Germany.

On the morning of Jan. 22, Daniel S. went into his father's shed and poured gasoline from a 20-liter (5-gallon) canister into a 1.5-liter soft drink bottle. He took along an igniter and left the farm. Daniel, 16, had big plans for the day. It was bitterly cold and there was snow on the ground in Zossen, a small town just south of Berlin. Daniel was wearing a heavy jacket and gloves when he climbed over a fence on Kirchstrasse at around 10 p.m. A modest hut built during East German days stood on the property. Daniel pushed open a window and jumped in. It was dark inside the building, but he could make out books, musical instruments and computers. He placed the coal igniter onto a shelf, poured gasoline from the bottle onto the igniter and lit it with his lighter, and then quickly jumped back outside through the window. The white, flat-roofed building was ablaze within minutes. The fire department was unable to put out the fire, and the building burned down completely. The damage was estimated at €100,000 ($127,000). But the political fallout was far greater than the property damage. Dedicated citizens had only opened the building, known as the "House of Democracy," in September. Until the night of the fire, the building had housed an exhibition on Jewish life in the town of Zossen. On that night, a sliver of hope also went up in flames. The eastern German state of Brandenburg has taken many steps to fight the activities of right-wing extremists. Prosecutors have increased the pressure on skinheads, and extreme right-wing organizations and concerts have been banned. The state has spent a lot of money to strengthen civil society, and its efforts seemed to have paid off, as the number of extreme right-wing crimes decreased. And now the House of Democracy had been reduced to ruins.

The State Office of Criminal Investigation quickly took over the investigation. A warrant for the arrest of Daniel S. was issued a week later. According to the public prosecutor's office, the teenager had made an "extensive" confession. The defendant had apparently wanted to help right-wing extremists in Zossen "achieve victory." But the police officers were not satisfied. Although they believed Daniel S. was the main culprit, they began searching for people who could have incited him to commit arson. They discovered a group of young neo-Nazis for whom the 16-year-old was apparently a compliant tool. The investigation has led directly into a neo-Nazi swamp, an environment in which the boundaries between neglect, brutalization and right-wing extremism are fluid. "There is a receptive audience," says Michael Scharf, the Brandenburg head of state security, "which is easily controlled by right-wing extremists, poorly socialized and has an affinity for violence." As it turns out, the Zossen arson incident will tell more than the story of an unstable 16-year-old. The underlying problems relate to the appeal of right-wing groups, their arts of seduction and their lack of scruples in turning followers into criminals. The sign on a gray, two-story house in the village of Mellensee, six kilometers from Zossen, reads "Trautes Heim" ("Home, Sweet Home"). Daniel's father Uwe is sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a gray tracksuit. He takes a long drag on his cigarette. His son's file is lying on the table; it includes a photo depicting a friendly-looking boy with an awkward smile. The photo is in a clear plastic sleeve, and the arrest warrant, printed on red paper, is right behind it. Uwe S., 44, the father of six children, works as a boiler man. His wife is pregnant again, and he is home on paternity leave. Daniel is troubled, the father says, pointing out that his son has "adjustment problems" and doesn't know what he is doing. According to Uwe S., Daniel had no friends and was often bullied. The boy eventually started getting into trouble, which included stealing things. According to his father, Daniel broke into a supermarket, but it had already been cleared out. He stole an empty cash register -- evidence, for the father, of how troubled his son is. He refers to him as if he were a neighbor's child gone bad. There is no trace of empathy in his voice.

The court has recognized that there were parenting problems in the family. Daniel was sent to the Lübben State Hospital for psychotherapy in the summer of 2005. He has been in psychiatric treatment since April 2007. He completed the 8th and 9th grades in a special learning workshop, and in 10th grade he spent only two weeks in school. For the police, Daniel is already a hardened criminal, with a history of theft, burglary and assault. The assault incident couldn't have been that serious, says the father, because the victim was released from the hospital after only one day. In November 2008, the municipal court in Zossen convicted Daniel of theft and resisting arrest. He is currently the subject of 10 preliminary investigations. "I never had friends," Daniel once said about himself. But he tried to make connections and sought recognition, which he found in the right-wing scene. His father is convinced that his son's new friends, the ones he had been spending time with, are to blame for his son having become an arsonist. He is referring to Daniel Teich, a neo-Nazi, and his friends. Uwe S. closes the file and says: "Now why is he still at large?"

Teich, 24, lives a short distance away from the family's apartment, on the inhospitable grounds of a former Soviet army barracks. A sticker from the neo-Nazi NPD party on the mailbox reads: "Rudolf Hess: Captured, murdered, forgotten." In February, the Zossen District Court convicted Teich of "denigration of the state and its symbols." He was tried together with five other right-wing extremists, members of a group called Freie Kräfte Teltow-Fläming, or FKTF (Teltow-Fläming Independent Forces). Teich had called for a march under the motto "60 years of lies are enough," and had distributed a flyer that depicted a tombstone with the inscription: "1949-2009 Here in this grave rests a pathetically cowardly nation." Teich usually wears dark clothing and sunglasses, and a black cap with a sticker on it that reads "National Socialist." He has a tattoo of barbed wire on his wrist. Teich's language is that of a trained right-wing extremist. His sentences sound as if they were taken from a manual for up-and-coming Nazis. He talks about the "regime of the Federal Republic of Germany" and the "system press." He also claims that the NPD is too middle-class for his tastes, and that he prefers the left wing of the (Nazi paramilitary group) SA. He is soft-spoken and offers little indication of the brutality of which he is capable. He was convicted of aggravated battery in 2005. "We wiped out a pedophile," he says, because, as he claims, the courts didn't do their job. He explains that he was a skinhead at the time, and he says that he still doesn't regret his actions. Sometimes Teich and his friends walk around in Zossen, armed with sticks and clubs, shouting and drunkenly painting swastikas on walls. Or they hang out at Anita's Snackbar at the train station, where an NPD friend who is also being investigated works as a waiter. Anyone who looks closely enough can recognize the SS runes in the word "IMBISS" (snack bar) printed on the front of the building.

For state security officials, Teich is a key figure in the right-wing extremist scene. He announces neo-Nazi marches, conducts training programs and knows Horst Mahler, a lawyer who has represented the NPD in court. He often visited Holocaust denier Rainer Link, who moved to Zossen in 2006. Link ran an Internet café on the market square where young members of the NPD and the FKTF would meet. When "stumbling blocks" -- small stones embedded in the sidewalk to mark where Jewish families lived prior to the Holocaust -- were laid in front of his house in November 2008, Link placed beer crates over the stones. Later, they were sprayed with swastikas. But the young Nazis abruptly ended their relationship with the older Nazi when they discovered hardcore pornography on his computers. They wanted nothing to do with a pedophile homosexual. On Nov. 30, Link was found dead in his apartment. He had committed suicide. The apartment was sealed off, but it was burglarized a short time later and the thieves took along computers. Teich was one of them. Since the spring of 2009, the neo-Nazis finally have a concrete enemy they can fight, a citizens' initiative of committed people called "Zossen Shows its Face." The head of the group is insurance broker Jörg Wanke, who is determined not to allow the right-wing extremists to gain any ground. The initiative is causing a stir in the quiet little city of 17,000. It makes people uncomfortable, so uncomfortable, in fact, that Mayor Michaela Schreiber, an independent, has distanced herself from the citizens' initiative. It is too far to the left for her taste, and she is concerned about the potential for violence between left-wing and right-wing extremists. Since the leftists came on the scene, crimes committed by right-wing extremists have been on the rise in Zossen. Teich has launched a form of urban warfare against Wanke. On July 5, 2009, he sprayed the words "traitor of the people" and "leftist pig" on Wanke's office building, and in August he wrote "Wanke will die soon" and "Zossen stays brown" onto a wall.

It was summer, and Daniel S. was spending more and more time with the neo-Nazis, often going to their hangout on a square in front of the Rewe supermarket in Zossen. He liked the way the right-wing extremists treated each other. Teich kept his distance at first. "He's nuts -- he gets on my nerves," he said, referring to Daniel S. Daniel felt the rejection. "They told me that I didn't know enough," he says. But Teich eventually came around. "I explained a few things to him," gave him a bit of training, he says casually. In September, Daniel was finally allowed to take part in one of the Neo-Nazi group's marches on the market square in Zossen. The House of Democracy opened its doors in the same month, despite the right-wing attacks. Zossen's citizens refused to be intimidated by the neo-Nazis. A few days later, the building was burglarized. Teich and a "comrade" ransacked the building and emptied the contents of a fire extinguisher inside, a spontaneous act committed while drunk, as he later said when he was questioned. Teich was long a role model for Daniel S. The neo-Nazi was unemployed, broke and without a car, and an errand boy was just what he needed. Daniel S. asked Teich what he could do to help him. He would bring his Führer food, and after a dispute with his father, he moved into the empty apartment next to Teich's apartment. When Teich found out about several burglaries Daniel had committed, he shouted at him and told him not to ruin his life. Teich, who had had his own encounters with the law, even called the police, which sent officers to question Daniel S. By then, the 16-year-old belonged to the group, or at least he almost belonged. He played computer strategy games with the neo-Nazis, games that involved capturing the White House and the German parliament building, the Reichstag. But Teich did not reveal any sensitive information to his apprentice, who was allowed to read a few flyers, but nothing more.

On January, the group met in front of the Rewe supermarket again. Insurance broker Wanke and his citizens' initiative planned to hold a rally on Jan. 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The right-wing extremists discussed how they might interrupt the left-wing group's event. We should burn down that shithouse, Daniel supposedly said. Teich apparently responded that Daniel didn't have the guts to do it. But the boy saw his opportunity. He had dreamed of a "ticket into the movement," as one of the neo-Nazis later put it. And he knew that his friend Teich had already been in the building once before. Daniel asked for a floorplan of the building, but Teich was probably too smart to give him something in writing. Teich incited him to do it, Daniel later said during questioning, and even drew a sketch for him. Teich says that all he did was draw an outline on the table with his finger to show Daniel what the room dimensions looked like in the House of Democracy, and which window was easy to open. This was his chance to show that he had real cojones, Teich supposedly said. The neo-Nazi leader claims that the discussions lasted several evenings, discussions of ways to go about doing it. Nevertheless, he says, they were nothing but war games, and he never believed that Daniel was capable of carrying out the plan. But Daniel wanted to be more than a hanger-on. He wanted to belong, finally, and he drew his own sketch. The next day he set out to complete his task. On Jan. 22, at 2 p.m., Daniel showed up at Teich's door with a backpack and the bottle of gasoline. They played on the computer, and at about 8 p.m., Daniel said goodbye. He took the bus to Zossen, where he met four friends at the train station and, not able to keep his mouth shut, told them what he was about to do. Originally, he had intended to wait until 2 a.m. to set the fire, but it was too cold. Instead, he broke into the building at 10 p.m. By the time it was on fire, Daniel was already on his way home. He threw away his gloves and walked to Mellensee, a one-and-a-half hour walk, during which he finally came to believe that he was truly part of the movement.

When he heard about the fire in the news the next morning, Daniel was surprised to see that the entire house had burned down. He hadn't considered it possible. He asks his father whether he had heard the news. Teich learned about the fire on that same night. A few e-mails were sent, e-mails to announce the successful arson attack. "It made me feel good," he says. But Teich didn't go to the scene of the crime. He knew that things were about to get serious, and that he too could be implicated. He knew that Daniel wouldn't be able to keep his mouth shut. The boy knocked for a long time before Teich finally opened his door three days later. He stood in front of him and bragged about what he had done. Teich says that Daniel seemed truly happy. The 16-year-old was arrested soon afterwards. One of his new, false friends had squealed on him. He was taken to the town of Fürstenwalde, to a facility for youths where he will be kept until the trial. A psychologist is currently preparing his report. The investigation is directed against six presumed culprits and confidants, including Teich, but he remains at large. Charges are expected to be brought in a few weeks. Meanwhile, the citizens' initiative is building a new House of Democracy. It will be a solid, stone building, and there will be bars on the windows.