For most God-fearing Germans, the Autonomen - 'autonomists' but in fact a loose collection of anarchist-leaning extremists - have long been a byword for disorder, disruption and terror, the horrific embodiment of the German nightmare.
After the initial confusion over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the apparent triumph of capitalism over communism in 1989, the Autonomen seem to have found their feet - and crowbars - again. According to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), militant anarchists and left-wing extremists committed 508 acts of violence in the first six months of this year, well up on the 354 recorded in the same period of 1992.
Ironically, the surge can largely be attributed to the wave of neo-Nazi attacks against foreigners that reached fever pitch last autumn after hordes of right- wing extremists besieged a hostel for asylum-seekers in the north- eastern city of Rostock. 'The rise of the far right gave a great boost to the Autonomen,' said Hans- Gert Lange of the BfV. 'After the apparent failure of the left in 1989, the anti-fascist crusade gave them a new focus and sense of their own identity.'
In Berlin, always a focus of the Autonomen, the war against neo- Nazism quickly led to the formation of vigilante groups which, on receiving tip-offs of xenophobic violence, would race to the scene to join battle. Of the 508 left-wing extremist acts of violence up to the end of June, 172 were against their right-wing counterparts.
Veterans of the Autonomen scene, which grew out of the protest movement of the Sixties, defend the violence with arguments such as: 'It is the only language the neo-Nazis understand' and 'If we did not go for them, they would come for us.' But they defend, too, the use of violence against the state and the great symbols of power, authority and wealth: the police, politicians and successful businesspeople.
'We live in an aggressive society,' said Tom, a stalwart of the Autonomen, which is said to number 6,000. 'Everybody has to let off steam somehow. And surely it is much better to throw stones through bank windows than at school mates . . . or foreigners?'
It is not difficult to pinpoint what the Autonomen are against: they are anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-Olympics, anti-militarist. But what are they for? According to Tom, apart from a vague yearning for an anarchistic Utopia, many are not really sure themselves. But they would all die for Kreuzberg - the district that is the traditional heartland of the anarchist scene and which remains apart through its mix of students, immigrants, gays, punks and artists. 'Property speculators out]' and 'Die yuppie scum]' state the graffiti on the best Kreuzberg walls. It is part of a desperate attempt to halt the gentrification which began when the district stopped being a West Berlin backwater cut off by the Wall and became one of the united city's most central residential locations.
Words are complemented by actions. When an Austrian businessman driving through Kreuzberg in a Mercedes halted at traffic lights, two men leapt forward, opened his passenger door and hurled a bucket of faeces over him. 'That should keep him and his sort out of here,' said Tom. 'I hope he told his friends about it, too.'
Last November, the Autonomen achieved international fame when 300 of them hurled eggs and paint at President Richard von Weizsacker as he was about to make a speech after an anti-xenophobia rally of 350,000 people in Berlin. But for many, their finest hour came on 1 May 1987, when, for a few brief hours, anarchy reigned in Kreuzberg and shops and stores were plundered and cars set alight.
Although no May Day in Berlin since then has been without street fights against the police, they have never equalled the level of that evening. 'It was wonderful,' recalled Tom. 'We really caught the police by surprise. Kids and pensioners were helping themselves to whatever they wanted from the shops and laughing as they did it. At last the tables were turned.'