East German town divided on how to fight extremism

The town of Zossen lies in the German state of Brandenburg, which surrounds Berlin in the eastern part of the country. Before German reunification in 1990, the town of 6,000 was part of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany.

Tough times came to Zossen and the rest of the former East Germany when the country reunited with the West. High unemployment rates at the beginning of the 1990s, combined with the feeling that West Germans were looking down on their Eastern fellow citizens, led many to shift their general beliefs to the right side of the political map.

The situation has improved, but pockets of right-wing extremism still exist in Zossen, where economic development has also been slow. Many shops are abandoned, and many buildings are in need of repair. In the center of Zossen, a bright spot in an otherwise dreary town, two young men sit on a bench eating a kebab at lunchtime. They identify themselves as right wing extremists.

"We took part in a neo-Nazi march two years ago," one of them said.

Zossen Takes Action

Jörg Wanke remembers those marches well. He's a member of the 'Zossen Zeigt Gesicht' initiative, which translates roughly as 'Zossen takes action.' It's a local organization of about 50 people trying to fight right-wing extremism.

High unemployment fuels right-wing extremism

"In late 2008, early 2009, neo-Nazis marched through Zossen carrying torches," Wanke said. "There are also smaller crimes: swastikas and slogans tagged on walls, and someone defaced a commemorative memorial for victims of the Third Reich."

The initiative's former meeting place, the House of Democracy, was even burned down last year.

Despite the good intentions of 'Zossen zeigt Geischt', Wanke and his team are not popular with everyone in the community.

"A property developer blamed me for not being able to sell his houses anymore, because of Zossen's bad reputation caused by our activity," he said. "I have lived here for 20 years, but some people treat me like a traitor for what I do."

A sense of belonging

One organization trying to bridge the gap between Wanke's local initiative and citizens in Zossen is the 'Mobile Advisory Team, or MBT, a German government organization trying to promote awareness for democratic values in the state of Brandenburg.

Jan Kassiske, a member of MBT, explained that the modern extreme right wing is not just about ideology.

"Nowadays, the more attractive thing is to be a part of a group," Kassiske said. "They have very good internet platforms and hard-rock right-wing songs, for example. But it's still dangerous for democracy."

To continue their efforts to defend democracy in Zossen, Wanke and 'Zossen zeigt Gesicht' have found a new place which could function as the new House of Democracy. Ironically, it is in front of the fire station. However, the house is not going to be occupied any time soon. That's because the initiative is facing some resistance from city hall.

Using the economy

Michaela Schreiber has been the mayor of Zossen since 2003 and was re-elected in September. She came out of her modest office on the second floor to welcome Deutsche Welle at the entrance to city hall. While she does acknowledge the presence of right-wing extremism in Zossen, she thinks the problem is exaggerated, and making a big fuss about it won't help.

Schreiber favors the softly-softly approach

"This is a small town," she said. "We all know each other here. So, most people know the five or so extreme right-wing people that are organized here. It's not the hotbed of right-wing extremism, as some people claim."

She also downplayed the significance of the fire at the House of Democracy.

"It was done by a teenager from out of town, who has a mental disability," she said.

Schreiber grew up in Zossen but left to study in the western state of Rhineland-Palatinate. She came back, though, because she was homesick for the town she grew up in. Since becoming mayor, she believes dealing with extremism should be done quietly, using the economy.

She increased the number of social workers in Zossen, and the town's seven-percent unemployment rate is a low figure compared to the rest of Brandenburg.

Tough atmosphere

MBT's Jan Kassiske says Schreiber has done a good job in moving the city forward.

"The mayor had good ideas, like supporting social work," he said. "It was a success."

Kassiske also praised Schreiber's efforts for fighting extremism, although her methods don't always align with those of 'Zossen zeigt Gesicht.'

"The initiative is grassroots-orientated, and the mayor is administratively orientated. Those two don't work well together," he said. "It is hard to develop a democratic atmosphere in such a tough situation."

Anti-extremism campaigns can backfire and boost nationalist parties

With the mayor at odds 'Zossen zeigt Gesicht' right-wing extremists could take advantage of the lack of progress.

"The far-right scene is very mobile," explained Kassiske. "They are simply moving to where it is more comfortable for them."

Better than nothing

However, it is the mayor's argument that extremism should be quietly taken care of in order to attract less attention that finds a hold with the National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany's main nationalist party.

"In our experience, the stronger the initiative fights against us, the more followers we gain," said Sven Haverland, the local organizer of the NPD, "particularly when it comes to elections."

When Wanke is asked if he thinks 'Zossen zeigt Gesicht' is actually doing more harm than good, he gets upset.

"It is more dangerous not to do anything," he said without hesitation.

Author: Naomi Conrad, Adi Halfon
Editor: Nicole Goebel