After a series of vandalism attacks on mountaintop crosses in Bavaria, a shadowy nativist group may have mounted a response. It's a story that has people throughout alpine Germany thoroughly baffled.
Thousands of crosses mark nearly all the summits of mountain peaks in southern Bavaria. Many people find them picturesque, but someone obviously objects to their presence. Three of them have been attacked by an unidentified ax-wielding vandal over the course of the past few months.
The vandal cut down the first of the crosses on the Dudl Alm peak in May before felling the cross on the Prinzenkopf peak in late July and damaging the cross on the Scharfeiter peak in late August so badly that the 250 kilogram object had to be taken down.
On Sunday, a makeshift cross was erected as a replacement - according to a report in Munich's "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper by a group of young men who may be followers of the shadowy, radical right-wing, racist identitarian movement.
"We interviewed a witness who we deemed credible and who had photographic evidence, although not of any far-right symbols on the cross itself," Christian Sebald, the journalist who broke the story, told DW. "The witness told me that while on a hike with a friend he saw the men carry a wooden cross, unlike a summit cross in size and construction, up to the peak and erect it. They identified themselves to the witness and his friend as members of the identitarian movement and were wearing the lamba t-shirts associated with the group."
Identitarians believe that certain European ethno-cultural groups are under threat from migrants, and oppose immigration.
So, have the summit crosses become a focal point for a clash of cultures between someone hostile to religion and an obscure far-right group? Perhaps the answer lies in the significance of the crosses themselves.
An evolving high-altitude symbol
People put crosses on Alpine peaks as early as the 1400s, but it was in the 19th century, with the rise of hiking and mountain climbing as pastimes, that the practice became widespread. Religion was the initial driving force.
"The origins are obviously religious," Thomas Bucher, the spokesman of the German Alpine Association (DAV) told DW. "Churches commissioned all the summit crosses put up in the 19th century, so they were Christian symbols. Why summits? Because that's where people felt closest to heaven. Today, the significance of the crosses has evolved in a number of directions. For some they still are religious symbols, but for others they're just indications of the highest points of elevation. All mountain climbers want a photo of themselves with the cross - as proof that they made it to the very top. They're part of today's mountain inventory."
Perhaps the cross vandal intends the defacement as an anti-religious statement. Or perhaps he's angry at local communities. Andreas Steppan is a reporter for the regional "Tölzer Kurier" newspaper who has been following the story.
"Summit crosses have traditionally being erected on the tops of mountain peaks by groups of private citizens such as community associations," Steppan told DW. "Obviously they are symbols of Christianity. They are signs that hikers have reached the very tops of mountains. And they're also concrete manifestations of community."
The problem is that no one in any of the communities knows who the vandal is or what his motivation might be.
"People in the communities near the vandalized crosses are shocked and baffled," Steppan said. "They can't understand why someone would want to do something like this."
A little Bavarian mystery
Authorities have been trying to track down the vandal, but they've made little progress - in part because of conflicting information from the few potential witnesses.
"We know very little about the identity of the vandal," Steppan said. "There are two eyewitnesses but their descriptions of the possible culprit are very general, just a man around 1.8 meters [5'11"] tall who was wearing headphones and said hello with what sounded like an English accent."
While the vast majority of Bavarians treat the crosses as part of their cultural heritage, some people don't think it's appropriate for religious symbols to be installed in natural, public places.
"Summit crosses are powerful symbols in Bavaria and particularly [across the border] in Tyrolia in Austria," Sebald said. "Upper Bavaria and Tyrolia are strongly Catholic, and the cross is the preeminent symbol of Catholicism. There are crosses everywhere in Bavaria. They're all elements of the cultural landscape, as is the summit cross. There are people who don't like them, and people who see them very positively."
And what of the men who allegedly put up the replacement cross on the Scharfeiter peak? The DAV's spokesman says he has no idea whether they are part of some identitarian attempt to defend Bavarian culture or Christianity against the vandal. The makeshift cross will, however, be taken down because it is too small and flimsy to fit in the concrete and iron holding mount atop the summit. A permanent replacement cross will be installed at the latest by October 9.
But that won't solve what Thomas Bucher agrees could be called a "little Bavarian mystery." Nor will it end the discussion about summit crosses in general. Such discussions themselves have become part of modern alpine Bavarian culture.
"Most people are horrified by the vandalism, although there is a very lively debate," Bucher said. "Some people say that there shouldn't be any summit cross or other symbols on the mountain peaks. But the story doesn't leave anyone cold. There's the position: vandalism is awful. And there's the position: Actually we don't need summit crosses. But no one's unaffected. The debate shows how significant summit crosses are."