Are Neo-Nazis Terrorists?

BERLIN--Christopher H., as he's called, is a clean-cut boy from Nauen, a Berlin-area town with brownish Prussian houses and chestnut trees. He's also a self-avowed neo-Nazi, and now, according to a verdict last month in a Brandenburg court, a "terrorist."

In 2003 and 2004, Mr. H. led a band of 10 other teenagers from Nauen on a series of arson attacks against snack bars and small restaurants owned by Turks and Vietnamese. The idea was to scare the owners out of Germany. No one died -- Mr. H. and his friends worked mainly at night -- but they did more than a million dollars in damage. The teenagers called themselves the Freikorps, or volunteer army, after the private German armies assembled after World War I to fight Communism, which mutated into Hitler's storm troopers.

"They wanted to drive people out and therefore destroyed their lives," wrote Die Tageszeitung, a German daily, about the Nauen kids. "It's right that these arsonists can finally be called terrorists."

The label "terrorist" has rarely stuck to German neo-Nazis. But after a resurgence of embarrassing activity by the radical right, most of the nation's newspapers have lined up to agree with the Freikorps verdict. "The judgment is a signal to a society in which the boys-will-be-boys lie is too widespread," the left-leaning Tageszeitung went on. "Whenever extreme right-wingers beat up someone they don't like, the simple assessment is always: There have always been fights."

According to the more conservative Die Welt, "Now, no one can so easily say, as apparently the mother of the Freikorps ringleader did when she learned of his plans: 'Don't get caught.'" The law has a new set of teeth, as well as a new mechanism of shame.

Neo-Nazism has been a swelling, embarrassing trend since the far-right National Party, or NPD, won seats in two German state parliaments -- including Brandenburg -- last fall. The NPD, perhaps not surprisingly, disagrees with the Freikorps verdict.

"I want to be clear that the NPD has nothing to do with these teenagers," says Klaus Beier, a spokesman for the party in Brandenburg, "and we think it's right that they should be punished for committing violence. But these were criminal acts, for which the current German system bears ultimate responsibility -- we can talk about that for hours -- and which you can't really compare with terrorism."

What, then, is "terrorism"? Much of Germany's anti-terrorist legislation dates from the 1970s, when groups like the left-radical Baader-Meinhof Gang sought to overturn the government. In those days, young Socialists formed cells to rob banks or blow up "imperialist" targets, like police stations or U.S. military bases.

The Freikorps boys in Nauen had the hateful ambition of scaring some minorities out of town. They were "terrorists" not because they wanted to overturn the government, but because they wanted to instill fear. But they were also well-organized, for an explicitly violent cause. Under legislation drafted for the Baader-Meinhof era, that was enough to label them terrorists.

"The young men built a secretive organization with the aim of 'cleansing' their region of foreigners by carrying out arson attacks," says Justus Leicht, a spokesman for the (socialist) Party for Social Equality in Berlin. "The group had an organized structure, they had elected a leader, a person responsible for finances and a person responsible for the protocol [or written manifesto]."

Socialists have complained for decades that Baader-Meinhof legislation was used selectively against left-radical groups, not against rightist groups. So for Mr. Leicht, the Freikorps verdict "stands in contrast to many others in the last years. ... From a legal standpoint, the case seems solid to us."

But from another standpoint, it's trendy. Since President Bush declared a "War on Terrorism," governments around the world have found a way to slap the T-word on convenient foes. First, the Chechnyan rebels were terrorists, then Irish Republicans. Those groups were at least threats to power in Moscow and London. But a U.S. government study in 2002 also declared radical outfits like Earth First! to be potential terrorist threats. And in 2003, a New York gang member was charged as a "terrorist" under the Patriot Act (for killing a 10-year-old girl).

Finally, a choir of conservative U.S. pundits laid the ultimate insult on the forehead of America's most dangerous cartoon nemesis. Filmmaker Michael Moore, they sang, is a "terrorist."

The Freikorps children might as well join the crowd. The only problem with the "terrorist" label in their case is that it risks making Christopher H. a hero to some other sheltered suburban teenager who loathes the German government, just as some Germans considered members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang martyrs after they died in jail.

Amnesty International, intriguingly, won't take a position on the Freikorps verdict.

"The term 'terrorist' has no worldwide definition, which means that one man's terrorist may be another man's hero," says Wolfgang Grenz, head of Amnesty International's Countries and Asylum section in Berlin. "If there were such a definition, we could make a statement, but I think for just this reason [of political relativism] there will be no universal definition for a very long time."

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