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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Germany's neighbours from hell

The village of Jamel in east Germany was once a place of rural bliss. Then neo-Nazis started buying it up. Tony Paterson reports

 It's hard to escape the menacing ideology that prevails in Jamel – a tiny hamlet of 10 crumbling red brick  Prussian-era farm houses set among the remote fields and beech woods of east German Mecklenburg. "Braunau am Inn 855 kilometres" proclaims a home-made signpost at the village entrance pointing in the direction of Adolf Hitler's birthplace.

At a sandy crossroads between the houses, a huge stone carries the slogan: "Jamel Village Community: Free, Social and National" – the choice of adjectives is as close to the term "National Socialist" as one can legally get in a country where the swastika and Nazi slogans remain outlawed.

Jamel, a village of some 40 inhabitants a few kilometres inland from the Baltic port city of Wismar, is almost a pure neo-Nazi stronghold. Seven of its 10 houses are occupied by families whose members either belong to Germany's far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) or support the movement unequivocally.

Horst and Birgit Lohmeyer are the exception in Jamel. Six years ago, the couple moved from Hamburg to their secluded house on the edge of the village, hoping for a life of rural bliss. Their expectations were soon shattered. "A few months after we arrived, the far right started driving out the locals and buying up the houses en masse," said Mrs Lohmeyer. "They want to turn this place into a Nazi-only village."

The Lohmeyers are determined to resist. "You have to have strong nerves to live here," said Mr Lohmeyer. Every summer the couple organises an anti-Nazi rock festival in their large garden as a show of resistance against the rise of the far right in eastern Germany. But this summer the event was marred by a nasty incident caused by a gang of drunken neo-Nazis who attacked one of the festival-goers and broke his nose. "We are not going to give in to these people – why should we?" asks Mr Lohmeyer. Yet it is difficult to see how the far right's dominance of life in Jamel can be curbed.

Twenty years after Germany's reunification, the village has become a disturbing symbol of democracy's failure in eastern Germany, a region that prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 had known nothing but totalitarian rule for more than half a century. Two decades on, the neo-Nazi NPD has entered parliament in the east German states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

The party's political gains have been followed by new figures published last month which puts the number of deaths caused by right-wing violence since 1990 at 137 – three times the official estimate. There were 891 far right assaults in Germany last year.

Yet if anything, the current political climate in Germany appears to encourage the doctrine of the far right. The country's best-selling book, entitled Germany Writes Itself Off, is a xenophobic diatribe by a former German central bank member, Thilo Sarrazin, who is convinced that Muslim immigrants are either criminals or sponging off the welfare state.

Leading members of the country's ruling conservative party called last week for a ban on immigration by Turks and Arabs and only last Saturday, the Chancellor Amadeu Antonio Foundation told a meeting of young members of her party that Germany's attempt to create a multicultural society had "utterly failed". An opinion poll published last week found that more than a third of Germans thought their country was "overrun by foreigners". Every fifth person polled said they wanted to see a strong leader, or a Führer, in control of the country.

The unemployment-wracked state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern appears to be a breeding ground for such views. The state's regional government has become so concerned about neo-Nazi attempts to infiltrate kindergartens and other youth organisations that it has ordered teachers to sign a declaration pledging their commitment to democracy.

The man behind Jamel's transformation into a model neo-Nazi village is a local demolition contractor and NPD politician called Sven Krüger, who was elected a local councillor in the region of north-west Mecklenburg in 2009. Mr Krüger, who has a string of convictions, makes little secret of his political beliefs. His demolition company logo shows a sledgehammer shattering what appears to be a Star of David. Mr Krüger and his supporters usually celebrate Hitler's birthday and the summer solstice by holding a large party at which banned Nazi-era songs are sung. A neo-Nazi wedding held on his premises in the summer attracted more than 400 far right supporters. In August state prosecutors searched his premises and confiscated photographs of German Jewish community members that appeared to have been used as targets for shooting practice.

The NPD swept into the parliament in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in 2006 after mounting a virulently anti-foreigner campaign. With fresh elections in the states scheduled for next year, the established parties fear that the far right has got its feet so firmly wedged under the table that it has become a permanent fixture.

"The NPD may not be recruiting huge numbers of new supporters, but they have become an unwelcome political fact that we have to deal with," admits Ute Lindenau, the mayor of the eastern village of Lübtheen, where the far right has gained a major foothold. Mrs Lindenau's village is home to the state's NPD leader, 56-year-old Udo Pastörs. The west German jeweller moved to Lübtheen soon after reunification in 1990. He describes Adolf Hitler as a "phenomenon" and in an interview with The Independent earlier this year, said he was "disgusted by the rubbish I see in the immigrant quarters of Britain", adding: "We want to make sure we don't have a multi-cultural society like that in Germany."

The NPD, Mrs Lindenau says, has cleaned up its skinhead image – polite activists show up regularly at village festivals in the region. "Last month a whole gang of them appeared dressed in orange T-shirts – that's the same colour used by Merkel's conservatives," she said. "The locals had no idea that the leaflets they were handing out were from a far-right party."

In an attempt to counter the NPD's infiltration, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern has enlisted the help of Berlin's anti-racist Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which runs training courses for teachers in the state and offers citizens advice. "Racism is an everyday issue around here. Nobody explained democracy to these people," said Anne-Rose Wergin, who runs one of the courses in the town of Ludwigslust. "For most people round here it's something that happens in far-away Berlin."

Rise of a racist party

* From its foundations in 1964, the NPD (whose name translates as National Democratic Party of Germany) has been associated with neo-Nazism, an image it has always rejected. But there is little doubt that it is on the extreme right, and many experts insist that it is a neo-Nazi grouping. Its tactics remain utterly racist: when Barack Obama won the presidency, for instance, it declared that Africa had taken over the White House.

Attempts to ban it have, nonetheless, never succeeded; the most concerted, from 2001-2003, failed after the court discovered that some of the party's inner circle were undercover government agents, and threw out the case.

Despite that victory, the NPD has failed to increase its share of the vote since, and holds no seats at a federal level. Efforts to gain greater popularity have not been helped by financial troubles, partly thanks to former treasurer Erwin Kemna, who was jailed for embezzling nearly $1m in party money in 2008. Even if it is a national failure, the NPD is still represented in two regional parliaments. Its strength in the east is undoubted.

The Independant