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Standing up to the far-right

September 4, 2020

As the German government's special committee on far-right extremism meets, civil society groups hope to receive help and funding to cope with — and fight — the neo-Nazis they confront every day.

A mural in Frankfurt showing people killed in an act of far-right terrorism in Hanau
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

Dorothea Schneider lives in a part of Germany that could be lifted from the pages of a fairytale, replete with rolling green hills and brightly colored fields. A little farther east, near the Polish border, lies Görlitz, which attracts tourists from all over the world to its historic city center adorned with splendid Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque era architectural jewels.

But not every corner of the countryside is this bucolic, much of it lies under the dark shadow of Germany's far-right — a phenomenon that is impossible to miss here — and Schneider is a reviled enemy to those who have bought into their worldview.

The mother of four has refused to accept their presence, fighting against neo-Nazis, the so-called Reichsbürger, or citizens of the Reich, and anyone who sympathizes with them. Schneider chairs and helps organize groups that unite more people to fight against the influence of the far-right in the region.

Recently, Schneider helped organize a convoy of colorful vehicle on a state highway where people have protested against government measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus by standing along the road waving German flags as well as imperial flags that have become symbols associated with the far-right.

Read more: Opinion: Open-minded Germans must speak up to counter rightward drift

Dorothea Schneider
Schneider said she wants to be a colorful bird rather than a brown imperial eagleImage: DW/M. Fürstenau

Racist attack spurs government into action

When 10 people were killed in a racist attack in the western German city of Hanau this February, Chancellor Angela Merkel formed a Cabinet committee on right-wing extremism. Now, the federal government wants to help people like Schneider.

On Wednesday, the committee, headed by Merkel, met for the second time. Schneider and other experts on preventing right-wing extremism were on hand along with representatives from civil rights groups like the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, and others representing immigrants, to offer advice to the committee.

Read more: Germany and right-wing extremism: The new dimension of terrorism

Protection against right-wing attacks one of the most important ways the government can offer support to citizens, said Jutta Weduwen, head of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a group that works to prevent right-wing extremism in Germany.

Weduwen also called on the government to commit to permanently funding groups like hers so that they "do not have to reapply for funding every couple of years." She fears that if the government does not change the way it operates, it will lose valuable input from experts.

Individuals like Schneider are also hoping for more help from the government for people who do not live in urban areas. She said people on the countryside have always been more accepting of right-wing ideologies but argues that tendency "is growing." The caravan of vehicles she helped organized was met with Nazi salutes and pelted with eggs and she said swastikas were painted on a friend's house.

Read more: Chemnitz, Saxony and Germany grapple with far-right

Former mayor still fighting neo-Nazis

Markus Nierth also has first-hand experience dealing with threats from the far-right. Nierth resigned as mayor of the eastern German town of Tröglitz in 2015 following repeated violent threats against him and his family after he advocated for housing refugees in the town.

Asked about his home region — where he still lives despite continued animosity toward him — Nierth said the right-wing "strategy of territorial conquest" is working and, quite literally, gaining ground. He said that makes it important to maintain networks that can "push back against the growing influence of the far right."

Markus Nierth
Nierth resigned as mayor after receiving threats for his view on accepting refugeesImage: DW/M. Fürstenau

Though Nierth knows all too well how difficult, even futile, such endeavors can be, he has no intention of giving up.

In that, he has a lot in common with Dorothea Schneider, who says, "It can be very disheartening to see how right-wing structures continue to grow and grow."

Asked why she continues to fight, Schneider said: "You have to take a stand when things get uncomfortable around you. And I want to be a role model for my children."

Adapted from German by Jon Shelton

Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.
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