In Germany, Neo-Nazi Murders Surface a Contradiction

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Germans are widely hostile to far-right groups, but opposition to multi-culturalism is on the rise -- and getting violent

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German police stand guard during a neo-Nazi rally in Dortmund in September / Reuters

The murders of about ten Germans between 2000 and 2007 are back in the public eye. That's because police have now found two handguns, as well as the bodies of two suspects, which link the murders to neo-Nazi groups.

The details of the original murders are no less ugly than the recent discovery. The victims were largely of foreign origin, including ethnic Turks, an ethic Greek, and a policewoman. The BBC provides extra background for those who are unfamiliar with the case, but the lingering image is a haunting one: kebab store owners shot in the face in broad daylight.

It's hard to think of a country that would be blasé about neo-Nazi-perpetrated murders. But there are extra reasons for the furor here, in which stories on the murders have quickly shot to the top of the most-read, most-commented, and most-recommended lists on the major German papers' sites: this case treads on very sensitive ground for Germany.

The German far-right is about as marginalized in Germany as it possibly could be. Skinheads are treated with a mixture of scorn and disgust, and though free speech is protected in the country, there are a number of exceptions, including hate speech and Holocaust denial. It is not uncommon in some German cities to see an extremist passing out pamphlets with a disgruntled-looking policeman standing guard. The officer isn't just there to monitor the pamphleteer, I've had several Germans suggest to me on such occasions: he or she is also there to make sure that some passer-by doesn't become so enraged by the sight of a neo-Nazi as to start a fight. In a country where even Scientology, widely ignored in the U.S., is seen by many as a threat to democracy and Tom Cruise's role in Valkyrie is an affront, neo-Nazis provoke a lot of anger. That neo-Nazis could carry out these murders, and that the extent of the perpetrators' network is not yet known, gets people pretty worked up.

The other deeply delicate element of this case involves the victims. Though right-wing extremists get little sympathy in Germany, foreigners -- Muslim immigrants in particular -- haven't been getting much sympathy either, recently. Last fall, debate raged over a book by Thilo Sarrazin, then-director of Germany's central bank, arguing that Muslim immigrants pose an existential threat to the country. Unintegrated, poor, and fertile, so the argument went, the spread of African and Middle Eastern immigrants needs to be combated, ideally by well-educated Germans out-breeding them. Though many found the argument horrendously offensive and dangerous, over 30 percent of survey respondents at the time, the BBC reported, "believed the country was 'overrun by foreigners.'"

That October, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared "multiculturalism" a failure, noting that many immigrants to the country remained unintegrated, arguing that it was time to demand more integration effort from the immigrants themselves. Turkish immigrants in particular can at times be treated with distrust by Germans wary of Muslim extremism -- or those wary of Turkish teenage gangs, one of which had members convicted in 2003 of violence against German classmates.

What Germans are thus finding themselves confronted with right now is a shockingly extremist manifestation of German-immigrant tension, perpetrated by the deeply hated neo-Nazis. They want to know how it happened. "Take the brown threat seriously, now!" exclaims an op-ed in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, arguing that for too long leftist extremists have been seen as "intelligent and dangerous" while right-wing extremists have been seen as moronic, one-off wingnuts. A rash of articles are dedicated to the topic of Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors extremists of many stripes (including Scientologists). Have officials, the articles ask, underestimated right-wing extremists? Is this a new form of right-wing terrorism? To what extent were the three suspects of the cell part of a larger network? And how did they remain undetected for so long?

These are all questions that Germans are raising, and not just in a philosophical post-mortem. The latest annual report from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution shows that, from 2009 to 2010, crimes with a right-wing extremist background fell, neo-Nazi groups gained roughly 600 members, and set a new record for number of demonstrations: 240.

But there's a still more poignant -- and completely unintentional -- illustration of the tensions in this case up on the agency's site. It's the tip box, where the agency encourages readers to click and "Call to act against terrorism and violence!" The tip line instruction is written in three languages for the benefit of potential informers: German, Arabic, and Turkish. Turns out, though, reporting a rogue imam wasn't the worst those kebab store owners had to worry about.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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