Germany: Neo-Nazis – just another Ossi story?

18 November 2011
Der Freitag Berlin

 National Socialist Underground members Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos.

National Socialist Underground members Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos.

Germany has been rocked by revelations that an east German neo-Nazi cell has been responsible for the deaths of nine immigrants over the last decade. An author decries enduring East-West divisions that highlight the failures of German unification.

We still don’t know a lot about the three right-wing radicals from Thuringia, Beate Z., Uwe M. and Uwe B. I try to see it like this: if I had come from the countryside and not from the town, had not only my father but my mother too crashed and burned after reunification, had the hard cases in my school tied up their combat boots with white laces instead of red laces, had their older brothers and sisters, instead of occupying houses in Leipzig-Connewitz and opening galleries, beaten up foreigners at bus stops – maybe I too would have been on that slippery slope that in most cases starts off harmlessly enough, but can end in disaster all the same. And now ten people have been killed.

I can’t not shake the feeling that little more than a very thin line in my CV separates me from the three violent neo-Nazis.  They’re about my age. And life in eastern Germany in the mid-nineties was kind of rough, cynical, non-stop, as if the lethargy, the futility and hypocrisy of the eighties in the GDR, together with the disappointments of the reunification period, had found bodily form in us as adolescents.

Still a student, after the fall of the Wall you had to decide whether you were ‘Left’ or ‘Right’. Nothing more sensible was about. That’s how we dressed, chose what bars and clubs to go to, the demonstrations to take part in: Left, or Right. You knew someone who had stolen a car, set fire to a vacant house, peddled drugs, kept a weapon stashed under the bed.

This simple story of drift

The Leipzig writer Clemens Meyer depicted this era well in his novel Als wir träumten (“As We Were Dreaming”), which was hailed by critics for its portrayal of the so-called underclass. In truth, many of us were there. It has little to do with the underclass; more with the feeling of being lost, which was stronger than the feeling of being an individual.

The more innocent among us headed downtown and stole clothes or bicycles. That was just going through puberty.  But it can get to a point where you lose all proportion. In September 1997, the trio, who were still living in Jena, planted their first bomb. In front of the local theatre police found a pipe bomb filled with ten grams of TNT.

It’s odd that this simple story of drift is not being told now. Odd that it’s not being asked: under what conditions could young people be so radicalised that calling them an “underground” seems legitimate? These questions, however, would point to the heart of a debate on East Germany that we’ve grown increasingly tired of over the years.

It’s already gone wrong so often. Instead of open and critical soul-searching in both parts of the country, recriminations flew, east against west, back and forth: it was more about ideologies than biographies, and in it always hovered a whiff of racism based on ethnic origins. Now, what has clearly come to light about the “Zwickau cell” is becoming taboo. One no longer asks why nine out of ten victims shot to death were in the area of the former Federal Republic, and whether this was more than just a coincidence.

East Germany has its own history

Instead, the debate is over the failures of the security authorities. That must be cleared up, for sure. But haven’t the teachers, the parents, the friends, the politicians, the institutions – haven’t they all failed? Can it not also be asked, equally fairly: at what point, at what time did we lose these children? Children that we were glad to think belonged to the generation that came out winners from German reunification.

But with the name “Brown Army Faction” a name has already been slapped on them, a label that shuts down the real debate before it can start. The East German neo-Nazis now appear as children of a West German movement, which they have no link with whatsoever. The “Brown Army Faction” label is no accident, but much rather reveals, yet again, the same old point of view.

This time, as well, it’s still the history of the old Federal Republic that thrusts itself into the centre of attention and sets the standards for comparison. The history of the RAF, which now steps forward in a kind of renewed escalation, is permitted to repeat itself only as an East German, ‘Brown’ variant. But it is really a generational conflict that underlies the group's violent acts? Does it separate the West German post-war parents from the East German reunification parents much more than it brings them together?

We won’t get answers to any of these questions if we don’t slowly start to buy into the idea that East Germany has its own history, which starts before 1989 and is about more than just reunification. When we start to tell this story too, and so start to establish new social and political realities, that would be the opposite of ‘Underground’.

Translated from the German by Anton Baer

An English version of this article originally appeared in Comment is Free as part of a Pressurop/Guardian and Freitag collaboration.