The summer fete was well under way in the normally sleepy village of Lübtheen in the Mecklenburg region of eastern Germany. Locals tending stalls outside low red brick houses offered home-baked bread and smoke-cured sausage. They hardly noticed the group of well-groomed young men in orangeT-shirts mingling with the crowd and distributing balloons and leaflets.
"The shirts they were wearing were exactly the same colour as those usually worn by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives at campaign rallies," Ute Lindenau, Lübtheen's mayor, told The Independent. "Nobody had the slightest idea that the men were all neo-Nazis until after they had left and people had time to study their vile propaganda."
The new and almost covert style of canvassing was being practised by Germany's neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (NPD), which is fighting to retain parliamentary seats in key elections in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern this autumn. The party first won seats there in 2006 after mounting a virulent campaign against foreigners. It also has seats in the east German state of Saxony
For Mrs Lindenau, the tactic was not much of a surprise. As a committed anti-Nazi and the mayor of a town known as a far-right stronghold of the east, she has watched the NPD gradually shed its skinhead image in an attempt to appeal to more voters. "These days the neo-Nazis are almost invariably polite and they make an effort to look respectable. They seem to have realised that the skinhead look is a vote loser," she said.
Mrs Lindenau's observations have now been borne out by Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BVS), the equivalent of Britain's MI5. In a report published last week, the domestic intelligence agency concluded that the country's far right had all but completely shed the aggressive skinhead image it was renowned for in the 1990s. "Members of the far right scene prefer to wear clothing or brands that orient themselves more towards general trends in youth fashion," the report noted. "The more noticeable skinhead culture is becoming increasingly less interesting for far right extremist youths."
But the less aggressive image adopted by the German far right has not resulted in a corresponding drop in violence. On the contrary, the BVS found that the number of neo-Nazis prepared to use extreme violence to convey their political message had increased dramatically, from 5,000 in 2009 to 5,600 last year. The report put the total number of far right extremists at 25,000 and noted that the number of far right crimes in the former communist east had risen by an alarming 40 per cent.
The kind of violence meted out by Germany's growing "autonomous nationalist" groups was graphically illustrated in March this year at the trial of members of a banned neo-Nazi group called Sturm 34. In a style reminiscent of the campaign mounted by Hitler's Nazis to make German towns and villages "Jew-free", Sturm 34 set about trying to make the east German town of Mittweida "insect-free and brown".
"Brown" is a German byword for Nazi. By "insect-free", the group signalled that it was out to rid the town of anyone who held a different opinion to its own. The court heard how the gang patrolled Mittweida and set about "insects" – mostly punk rockers and vagrants – with baseball bats and boxing gloves filled with sand to double the effect of face punches.
Sturm 34 persecuted the town's inhabitants for months before police finally intervened. In one particularly brutal incident the gang appears to have practised a favourite form of neo-Nazi assault called "kerb biting" in which the victim's lower jaw is smashed against a kerbstone with a kick from a steel-capped boot.
Experts on the far right say that in public the NPD's political core goes out of its way to distance itself from such behaviour in public. Many of its members have exchanged skinhead haircuts and boots for an almost preppy look.
Michael Weiss, the author of a new study on neo-Nazi dress codes entitled Hide and Seek, says the increasingly ordinary appearance of far-right extremists means they can often blend in at left-wing demonstrations or in sports stadiums. "These people no longer stand out," he said.
To recognise each other, neo-Nazis now resort increasingly to an array of about 150 secret codes, according to Mr Weiss. These include the number 88 on T-shirts or other garments. The eight represents the eighth letter of the alphabet, so 88 corresponds to HH, for Heil Hitler, a phrase banned in Germany along with the swastika.
Neo-Nazis have also started to wear the black and white Palestinian Kaffiyeh scarf – a garment once the preserve of the far left at demonstrations – in an attempt to signal that they are against Israel. "Their style incorporates elements from rock and pop culture. Neo-Nazis now have piercings," Mr Weiss said.
In Mecklenburg, where the NPD's popularity may be just enough to enable it to stay in parliament after this autumn's state election, the party's attempts to garner support have not been confined to a new dress code. The Social Democrat-run state government recently became so concerned about the party's attempts to infiltrate schools and youth groups that it insisted teachers sign a declaration pledging their commitment to democracy.
However some of the far-right party's politicians have not managed to hide behind the new guise of respectability. Sven Kruger, a building contractor who is also an NPD politician, has been exposed for using a sign to advertise his company which shows a sledgehammer smashing what looks like a Star of David. His premises were searched last year and prosecutors discovered photographs of German Jewish community leaders which were suspected of having been used as targets for pistol shooting practice.
Finding new support
* Germany banned Hitler's National Socialist Party in 1945, but the neo-Nazi NPD was allowed to form in West Germany in 1964 and made some short-lived political gains during that decade, although it has never entered a national government.
The party found new support in east Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and has since won seats in eastern state parliaments.
The government tried to ban the NPD in 2001, but the constitutional court overruled it.
The NPD merged with another far-right party, the German People's Union (DVU) last year. It is estimated to have 6,600 members and 25,000 supporters, many of whom belong to other neo-Nazi groups.
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