Neo-Nazis behind the Iron Curtain

Neo-Nazis in East Berlin, 1980s. BStU (Stasi Archives)

East Germany, that bygone anti-fascist state of workers and peasants, appears to have left behind an enduring legacy of right-wing violence.

In 1961, the communist regime built itself an “anti-fascist protection barrier”, ostensibly to guard against a looming fascist threat from the West. But in the 1970s and 80s, East Germany witnessed the emergence of homegrown racist mobs and neo-Nazi skinheads right in its own backyard. The regime, embarrassed, covered up what they could at the time, but the secret police left plenty of traces in the archives for later historians to explore. As it now appears, the extent of right-wing violence in the GDR exceeded that of West Germany. This pattern, moreover, persisted after reunification.

That the GDR had a racism problem is hardly news to those with some knowledge of German post-war history. Here’s an excerpt from Paul Hockenos’ Free to Hate: The Rise of the Right in Post-Communist Eastern Europe (Routledge, 1993), whose chapter on East Germany offers a nice primer on the topic:

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While the existence of right-wing extremism in the GDR is well-known, information about the extent of violence has just recently come to light. Much credit for this goes to Harry Waibel, a German historian who has spent years mining the Stasi files, and whose findings have gained some public attention in Germany in the past couple of years. His book, Die braune Saat: Antisemitismus und Neonazismus in der DDR, was published last year.

As noted by Die Welt, Waibel’s forays into the Stasi archives enabled him to document no less than 725 racist attacks committed in the 1970s and 80s. In 200 of those incidents, about a thousand people from 30 countries were injured, at least ten were killed. The victims were contract workers (Vertragsarbeiter) from socialist states in Africa and Asia, Cubans, and, less frequently, Jews.

Major incidents of right-wing violence date back at least to the mid-1970s. In August 1975, for instance, a downright pogrom occurred in Erfurt as a mob of locals armed with sticks attacked Algerian workers, literally chasing them through the streets, shouting “beat the Algerians to death!” The violence, which also targeted police officers, lasted for several days.

In June 1986, a 23-year-old Mozambican working at a sawmill in Dessau was murdered and thrown off a train by a gang of neo-Nazis. Another murder occurred in September 1987, when local youth in Stassfurt attacked Carlos Conceicao, an 18-year-old Mozambican student, and threw him off a bridge. The perpetrators were caught and sentenced, but secretly, so as not to ruin the official story of internationalism and “people’s friendship”.

In the years following reunification, the Federal Republic of Germany experienced a wave of right-wing violence (following the 2015 migration crisis, we might be witnessing a new one in the making). Since 1990, the greatest share of attacks have occurred in the former eastern states. The pattern seems to hold for the most recent years as well, as the following map illustrates, using 2014-2015 data to show the number of anti-refugee events per 100 000 inhabitants by district.

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Source: David Benček & Julia Strasheim, “Refugees welcome? A dataset on anti-refugee violence in Germany”, Research & Politics, 2016

Social and economic turbulence resulting from the transition to a market economy surely helped create conditions for the growth of right-wing extremism in the former GDR. But as Harry Waibel’s research documents, we need to supplement such a generic explanation with a historical one. In other words, much of the post-reunification violence in the former eastern states should be seen as a continuation of what was there before, as manifestations of an enduring legacy of right-wing violence with roots in the authoritarian political culture of the GDR.

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