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Face Paint, Balloons and ‘White Power’: German Neo-Nazis Put On a Pretty Face

Category: Europe,World

LEINEFELDE, Germany — The children came colorfully dressed to the family festival. They tumbled around an inflatable bounce house and in neon-colored sacks, wearing face paint and bright smiles.

Scattered amid the children’s games and guitar-strumming folk singers, though, were unwelcoming messages. “Stop the asylum flood” on a brochure. “Asylum traitors not welcome” on a T-shirt. “White Power” on an album.

This was the eighth annual Eichsfeld Day, a gathering of the National Democratic Party, which is a political party of avowed neo-Nazis better known as the NPD.

Recent violent demonstrations in the eastern German city of Chemnitz drew worldwide attention. In Germany, they set off a new round of soul-searching over identity, immigration and an emboldened far right.

But the festival here in Leinefelde, in the center of the country, is telling of the quieter inroads being made by right-wing enthusiasts who preach an anti-immigrant, pro-white gospel.

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As Germany has taken in more than a million refugees since 2015, German right-wing extremists are holding more open-air events, mostly rock concerts, in small towns throughout the country. They hope to spread their message, recruit supporters and show their power.

“It’s spreading an ideological message through music and speeches,” said Katharina König-Preuss, a left-wing member of the parliament in Thuringia, the German state that contains Leinefelde and that has seen most of the events. “At the very least, the music and the speeches indirectly encourage hate and contempt for certain people.”

As a black man, I would be among those people.

Covering race for The New York Times, I was curious what the far-right events were trying to accomplish and what the openness with which they were occurring might tell us about German society.

Leinefelde, with 9,000 residents who saw better days before the local textile factory shut down after the reunification of East and West Germany, has been torn over how to handle the festival.

Some people avoid it.

“I’m just scared,” said Margit, a 68-year-old resident, explaining that she wanted nothing to do with the festival because of the seeming menace of a gathering of Nazi sympathizers in her small community. She declined to give her last name for that very reason.

But, furrowing her brows, she also seemed particularly concerned about me.

“Yeah, I don’t know about you going there tomorrow,” she said.

Swarms of police officers descended on Leinefelde for the festival, erecting barricades around the site, a grassy, fenced-in sports field on the southern edge of town.

The police strictly controlled access to the area, which, to the delight of city officials, was away from the town center with its quaint shops selling ice cream, clothing and baked goods.

A gaggle of photographers snapped photos outside the festival entrance, as festival goers offered pleasantries in the form of middle fingers and insults.

“This can end very, very badly,” yelled a woman pushing a stroller, warning them not to photograph her children.

In past years, Eichsfeld Day, named after the district where it takes place, attracted as many as 800 people.

This year, only about 200 came, in part because many far-right sympathizers instead went to a huge demonstration in Chemnitz on the same day. And unlike previous years, there was no rock concert this time, just a family festival.

“We wanted to be closer to the people,” said Rene Schneemann, the deputy head of the NPD in Eichsfeld. “The people don’t necessarily like this far-right rock music. So it is better to do something that appeals to families.”

Mr. Schneemann stood behind a table of leaflets. One of them argued that most asylum seekers brought crime and wanted to live off taxpayer money, an argument heard frequently around Germany.

Closer in, you could find more radical views.

The police, as is customary, briefly escorted reporters around the festival. Walking around, I felt like a zoo animal. All eyes on me. Smirks, whispers and gawks through cellphone cameras.

Amid the albums by neo-Nazi bands for sale was one with a cover depicting a cartoon of a black man with his arms around a white woman, and three white men glaring menacingly. “Guess who’s staying for breakfast,” it read.

Then I spotted a man wearing a Confederate battle flag T-shirt. Why the flag, I asked.

“That’s to show our solidarity with the American South,” he said.

Supporting the Confederacy is about standing in unity with the South’s desire for independence, said another man at the record stand, who gave only his first name, Stephan.

“Not that we are all against” black people, he said, using an anti-black slur. “That was also a free state that was invaded by the North.”

But, in fact, Stephan, 37, later told me that he thought negatively of black people.

“Whenever someone says to me, ‘You are racist,’ I say, ‘Yeah, I am racist,’ ” he said. “Do I have something against black people? At the moment, yes, I have to unfortunately say, even though you are black.”

Racism was not about the individual person, said Stephan, who withheld his last name for fear of the consequences that come with his beliefs. It stemmed, rather, from letting refugees into the country.

“Right now, it’s like this for me: When I drive through the city, I see black people and immediately — pooh,” he said, spitting on the ground. “I’m filled with hate because there’s always more and more coming. I am not at home when everyone looks different than me.”

There were at least 289 far-right events in Germany last year, the most since 2005, and a continuation of a steady increase since 2014, according to an analysis of government data by the newsmagazine Der Spiegel.

Germans seem in general agreement that people are entitled to radical opinions. But what causes those opinions, and what to do in response, is a point of contention.

“As a foreigner, I would say that we can’t let ourselves be provoked,” said Yasar Gunduz, 39, a Turkish immigrant, from the kebab restaurant he owns a few hundred yards from where the festival was held.

Organizers of far-right events typically register them as political gatherings, making it almost impossible for public officials to prevent them because of Germany’s laws on freedom of assembly.

Werner Henning, the Eichsfeld district administrator, lamented complaints that his office, which is responsible for issuing the permits for the NPD event, should do more to stop it.

Politicians, he said, needed to worry more about solving the public’s root concerns — things like integrating refugees into schools, housing and the labor market.

“People’s anger will only grow when politicians do not try to understand the concerns of the common man and dismiss people as right-wing extremists,” said Mr. Henning, a member of the center-right Christian Democrat party.

Some of the people drawn to the NPD event, he added, were there “through pure coincidence” and they “feel accepted there because other groups have not accepted them.”

Yet to Georg Maier, Thuringia’s domestic minister, local officials should use every tool available, including noise ordinances and child protection regulations, to try to stop far-right events.

“Much more important is that there are protests, that the German people stand up, resist and say, ‘We do not want this,’ ” said Mr. Maier, a member of the center-left Social Democrat party, as he marched with counterprotesters during the NPD event.

Mr. Maier’s vision of Germany stood in stark contrast to the one espoused by Michael Regener, a popular neo-Nazi singer who goes by the name Lunikoff.

During his set here, he asked festival goers if they had seen the reporter from The Times. He smiled brightly as everyone laughed, then pulled back an unbuttoned shirt to show off a T-shirt with a KKK symbol and the words “White Power.”

“You have to make yourself stylish,” he said, giggling, before launching into his song “The KKK Ballad.”

“In the good old South,” he growled, strumming his guitar, “crosses burned in the night and riders in white robes kept watch on the hill.”

John Eligon is a national correspondent who covers race for The Times and is currently on assignment in Germany as an Arthur F. Burns fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @jeligon


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