Dortmund faces challenges of refugees and rising far-right
City is prime target for neo-Nazis and many fear trouble is brewing
A neo-fascist rally in Dortmund on May 1st. “Dortmund has a problem, something we don’t play down, but the whole country has a problem with the far-right – we’re just the tip of the iceberg.” Photograph: Markus Matzel
When Germans talk about the far-right and neo-Nazis, they usually mean eastern Germany. But eastern Germany doesn’t have a monopoly on far-right extremism – something that is painfully clear as the forecast for people seeking refuge and asylum here rises to 800,000 or more this year.
Last weekend at a Cologne open-air market Henriette Reker was campaigning to be next mayor. Without warning the 58-year-old, closely involved in co-ordinating refugee response in the western German city, was stabbed four times in the neck by a man with a neo-Nazi background. After two emergency operations, while still in an artificial coma, voters elected her mayor.
Last Thursday in the southern state of Bavaria, police foiled a series of attacks on asylum homes by a “serious and dangerous” neo-Nazi group, after arresting 13 members and securing weapons, ammunition, baseball bats, knives and a swathe of Swastika-festooned far-right propaganda.
Attacks on refugee homes are now an almost daily occurrence, and the stones and molotov cocktails are flying in the west as well as in the east. In absolute terms, the most attacks on asylum seekers and hostels are in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), home to one in five Germans. Adjusted for population, eastern German states occupied the first three spots for extremist attacks in 2014, but NRW comes in fourth place.
The focus of NRW’s extremist problem is Dortmund. Once dubbed the “heart of Social Democracy” by Willy Brandt, the decline here of coal, steel and beer – old Dortmund’s three certainties and employers – has left the city a prime target for neo-Nazis. And its location, on the edge of the Ruhr industrial conurbation, makes it an easy destination for far-right supporters from the rest of the state.
Last March two extremist parties won about 2.5 per cent of the vote and two seats in the municipal council: the neo-Nazi NPD and a newer arrival, “Die Rechte” (The Right).
The election night party ended in a heated standoff between party guests inside Dortmund town hall and far-right supporters outside, armed with whistles and pepper spray.
“The wave of sympathy towards refugees is draining away rapidly and you can see people now standing at the edge of far-right demos here, nodding their heads at what they hear,” says Marcus Arndt, a Dortmund-based journalist.
He observes the right-wing scene closely: by day in the shopping precincts with pensioners; by night in front of fast-food restaurants talking to young women. “They warn them about foreigner rapists, hand them flyers and pepper-spray and say ‘we’re there for you, we don’t want that you’re raped’,” says Arndt. “Of course they’re not interested in protecting them: they are pursuing other goals.”
Arndt’s interest in the far-right scene in Dortmund has come at a price: earlier this year he was attacked by a group of masked men and, via the internet, received an anonymous death notice.
The journalist, a good-humoured 44-year-old with multiple piercings, has continued his work regardless. That he had police protection for a time is an indication that the risk-assessment of local police differs to the risk Dortmund officials want to communicate to the outside world.
Determined to shake off its “Nazi capital” label, Dortmund established in 2007 an “office for diversity, tolerance and democracy”. Town hall officials can produce brochures, pens and even beer mats against extremists and their populist arguments.
Chief organiser Hartmut Anders-Hoepgen describes his broad alliance with other city groups to educate parents, companies and community groups about the far-right’s many, shifting faces. The city has also worked with Dortmund’s football clubs, he says, to stop fan structures being abused as recruiting grounds.
“Dortmund has a problem, something we don’t play down, but the whole country has a problem with the far-right – we’re just the tip of the iceberg,” he says.
A major problem in tackling extremist groups is of Germany’s own making: stringent post-war laws that make it difficult to ban political parties or public assemblies. The irony is not lost on Dortmund officials that laws devised to prevent a repeat of Nazi-era crackdowns on their opponents are now happily exploited by today’s extremist parties.
Michael Brück (28) is one of the leading lights of Dortmund’s neo-Nazi scene. When not representing Die Rechte in the town hall, he studies law and, since January 2013, operates from the Dorstfeld district, a neo-Nazi stronghold in Dortmund, the mail-order website Antisemi.it.
Products include pepper spray, balaclavas and “I [heart] NS” canvas bags, though he says the biggest sellers these days are the “no to asylum home” stickers, which he ships all over Germany.
Brück says his fellow western Germans are less willing to protest publicly in general, and on the refugee question in particular.
“People come to our stands here and say, ‘you’re right’, but they don’t dare to join up, because they fear consequences,” he says. “When the situation deteriorates further, we will get masses of people on the streets in the west, though.”
He became interested in politics as a 12-year-old, he says, annoyed at the “injustice” of the taboo on expressing hard-right opinions in public. A rapid talker and thinker, Brück’s speedy rise has come by reverse-engineering Germany’s historical hypersensitivity on this point.
“We deliberately use provocation . . . because we know our opponents overreact, become hysterical and unobjective,” he says. “We want to toy with them.”
Through gritted teeth, local politician Friedrich Fuss admits that pushing the far-right provocation button works every time for Die Rechte.
Fuss is a local Green Party mayor for a district that includes the Dorstfeld neo-Nazi stronghold. Sitting in his art-filled dining room, he wishes town councillors would take a laid-back attitude to Die Rechte rather than losing their heads – or leaving the chamber – whenever Brück speaks.
“Because we were seduced once, we’re paranoid that it’s still in us,” he says. “We should take the far-right seriously, but we don’t have to play into their hands by being anxious.”
“Until now we knew these far-right people were there and what they were capable of,” he says. “But the Cologne case, that someone is attacked, takes things to a new level.”
At a disused vocational training facility on Dortmund’s outskirts, now a home for underage asylum-seekers, Rosalyn Dressman walks the corridors to inspect the final building works.
Since her arrival from Nigeria in 2001 she has experienced open discrimination in Dortmund and, last year, a neo-Nazi picket of a community centre for migrant groups.
“We heard noises outside and saw people giving the Hitler salute, but when things turned aggressive the police showed up,” she says.
Nevertheless, Dressman remains distinctly unimpressed by extremist groups’ attempts to rattle her. Dortmund is more tolerant and open today than when she arrived, she says, and while others wring their hands over Germany’s refugee challenge she has thrown herself into managing it.
“I sometimes wonder what rights the neo-Nazis are protesting for. They have their rights whereas we’re the ones being discriminated against,” she says. Walking the corridors, showing dormitories and bathrooms, she passes a group of young men playing pool.
“This is a big challenge for Germany now and nobody planned it. But once the first shock subsides, I think we can do this.”