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Germany's Other Skinheads

Priscilla Layne (win)October 16, 2004

While media attention is focussed on German neo-Nazi skinheads, left-wing, anti-racist skinheads have been largely ignored so far. The lines between the two groups are blurring as far as fashion goes.

Not necessarily a racistImage: AP

On a recent Thursday night, Steph and a few friends were sitting around her apartment in Berlin's Friedrichshain neighborhood. Beer bottles were strewn around the floor while reggae played quietly in the background.

Steph, a 37-year-old single mother, is a skinhead, but she's firmly anti-racist. She said it all started after an encounter in her hometown of Marburg.

"I ran into two skinheads and that was the decisive moment," she said. "It was a dramatic experience. I liked their style. I later got to know them. And then, my fate was sealed."

The movement's origins in the 1960s came out of England and were based largely on British nationalism and the influence of rude boys, West Indian immigrants known for the sharp dress and ska music. It started gaining ground in Germany during the 1980s, when Steph "shaved up." Back then, being a skinhead had more to do with "sharp" clothes and aggressive music than racist beliefs, she said.

"You listened to the music and had your fun," she said, naming the band Skrewdriver as an example. "But no one took the lyrics seriously. No one would go out and grab the first person they saw and beat him up because they didn't like his nose or because he looked different. It was just about the music."

A variety of skins

Skinheads Anti-Racistes Logo
Skinheads against racial prejudice logo

Since then, the skinhead movement in Germany has split off into a variety of factions. The anti-racist skinheads include the Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice, or S.H.A.R.P. skins, and the Red or communist skins. There are also racist and fascist groups, which are often the ones that find their way into television and radio stories.

Those who don't get any coverage include people like Daniel, a 28-year-old man who works for a software company and describes himself as left-wing.

"I'm interested in politics, mainly in local politics and also world-wide -- seeing how globalization is destroying other poor countries in the third world," said Daniel, who has been a skinhead for 13 years.

But some have been paying closer attention to the phenomenon. Klaus Farin is a journalist who has been researching the skinhead scene in Germany since the 1980s and has written several books on the subject. He became interested in the subject when he saw skinheads becoming scapegoats for the larger problem of racism in Germany.

Neo-Nazis get more media attention

Linksradikale gegen Nazis
"Against Nazis" reads the signImage: dpa

"Experts and journalists have started admitting that there are also non-racist skinheads," he said, adding that the focus remains on neo-Nazis without hair. "I don't think that will ever change, not even with academics, because the right-wing faction is far too exciting."

That worries people like Steph, who said the attention right-wing skinheads receive might actually help that group to recruit new members.

"Every night you see them on the screen and at some point you think they're cool," she said. "And that's what's so dangerous about it."

Despite her anti-racist views, she's often verbally attacked on the street.

Trauernde Sharp Skins
Left-wing skins mourn a friend who has been killed by neo-Nazi skinsImage: dpa

"People call me a Nazi and usually they're really intolerant, which really annoys me," she said.

Daniel said he's less concerned about other people. "I simply do not care," he said. "You can't tell all the people all the stories."

There are usually some differences in the appearance of anti-racist and racist skinheads, albeit subtle ones. Anti-racist skinheads tend to dress according to the traditional skinhead look of the 1960s: jeans, boots and Ben Sherman and Fred Perry shirts. They also tend to wear patches of ska and punk bands and sometimes anti-racist slogans.

Right-wing skinheads commonly go for a more military look and wear racist or Nordic symbols. But experts said it's probably not a good idea for the average person to tell the two groups apart.

Camouflage skinheads

Anhaenger der rechtsextremistischen Nationaldemokratischen Partei Deutschlands (NPD) demonstrieren am 8. Maerz 2003 in Greifswald
Neo-Nazis during a demonstration in support of Germany's right-extremist National Party (NPD)Image: AP

"It's just too dangerous for people who may become victims of right-wing extremist violence, because by the time they get up close enough to read what the button says, they might get a hit in the face," said Katerina Schmalstieg, who works for the anti-fascist educational group Mobile Counseling Against Right Wing Extremism.

Such differentiation may become even more difficult in the future, she added. "The stereotype of the baseball bat carrying laced boot bald skinhead has vanished in the reality of right-wing extremism," she said, adding that neo-Nazi skinheads are increasingly using symbols of the left, such as Che Guevara stickers or Palestinian scarves, to disguise themselves.

But that's not preventing Steph and Daniel from continuing to live their lives according to the decades-long skin tradition, with a bit of their own style and politics mixed in.

"I have my own politics, so to speak," Steph said. "That consists of simply living with others in peace."