German far-right rings alarm bells: At a neo-Nazi meeting in Aschersleben, Adrian Bridge feels the emotional heat from a group that believes Hitler was not all bad

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The Independent Online
AGAINST a backdrop of white, black and red flags from the German Reich and a huge banner depicting the German eagle, Waldemar Maier was having trouble keeping up with the pace of his own venom. 'Freedom for us means foreigners out]' he thundered. 'Prosperity for us means foreigners out] Germany for the Germans means foreigners out]'

The words, spat out at a furious tempo and accompanied by wild gesticulation, were greeted by loud cheers and the thumping of beer mugs on tables by the 100 or so Iron Cross-bearing, right-wing extremists gathered in the small east German town of Aschersleben at the weekend for one of their increasingly regular get- togethers.

With nightly attacks against foreigners' hostels continuing, the meeting was euphoric. 'At last the German people have decided to speak a clear language,' continued Mr Maier, a member of the National Democratic Party of Germany. 'Rostock (scene of the first attacks) was no disgrace. The real disgrace is in Bonn: with the politicians responsible for letting all these Kanaken (a derogatory term for foreigners) into Germany in the first place.'

Hatred for foreigners is matched by the loathing Mr Maier and his leather-jacketed comrades feel for the main political parties, seen as having eroded 'traditional' German values such as 'courage' and 'honour' since the Second World War and as being prepared to sell out the country by plunging it into an 'anti-German' European Community.

Their venom is accompanied by a virulent anti-Semitism, strident calls for a return to Germany's 1937 borders and an open admiration for Hitler and what they see as the golden years of National Socialism. 'There were a lot of positive things in Germany then,' insisted Bernd Kasulke, a 24-year- old regional leader of the neo- Nazi Nationale Offensive who whistles old SS war songs such as Hoist the flag high and All power to Germany, Fatherland.

'There was more social cohesion. There were things for young people to do. Hitler may have made mistakes, but no leader is perfect.' Until recently, such views were dismissed as the crackpot notions of a fanatical fringe, presenting no danger to the democratic institutions built up in West Germany after 1945. Now, with unemployment and unrest in the east reaching levels unparalleled since the Weimar Republic and growing anxiety in the West about falling living standards, there is real concern that they may be gaining ground.

'Unification has plunged the country into its biggest crisis since the war - and the conditions are perfect for a rise of the far right,' said Michael Swierczek, leader of the Nationale Offensive and one of the new breed of articulate neo- Nazi spokesmen whose conventional dress and reasonable tone are light-years from images of ranting dictators, swastikas and jackboots. 'After years of being totally ostracised, we now notice a shift in the public mood . . . People are much more receptive to what we are saying. The great taboo about belonging to the far right is gradually breaking down.'

There has been a general shift to the right in Germany - particularly to parties such as the Republicans and the German People's Union - but the country is far from embracing the extreme policies of the neo-Nazi movement. In a report on right-wing extremism, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution noted that while the numbers belonging to neo-Nazi groups in Germany had risen dramatically last year, they still amounted to only 6,000.

The extreme right is not only small, but split into 30 competing groups, some boasting barely 100 members, most of which are riven by internal rivalries and leadership squabbles. No clear Fuhrer has emerged so far.

Alarm bells are ringing, nevertheless. The most worrying trend is the sight of hundreds of ordinary citizens applauding and joining in the wave of attacks on foreigners' hostels which erupted in Rostock three weeks ago. Such images have been compared with those of Germans joining in the persecution of the Jews in the 1930s and have prompted the inevitable question: could Nazism return?

Mr Swierczek is in no doubt that it could. 'Winning over the people is the first important step,' he insists. 'And if the problems of asylum-seekers, unemployment and falling living standards are not solved quickly, support for us could then escalate dramatically. Germans hate chaos and uncertainty; they must have order. And in a crisis, they always turn to the right.'

In the emotional heat of the meeting, such sentiments appeared almost plausible. Outside, they still seemed ridiculous.

BERLIN (Reuter) - German officials evacuated 80 foreign refugees yesterday from an embattled hostel in the eastern town of Quedlinburg after nearly a week of right-wing violence. The interior minister of Saxony-Anhalt in former East Germany said the East European refugees had been moved to escape racist attacks.

(Photograph omitted)