A German man admitted Monday to publicly burning a copy of Anne Frank's diary, at the start of a trial against seven suspected right-wing extremists.
The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the best known books on the brutality of the Nazi regime
Lars Konrad said in a statement read by his attorney that he had tossed a copy of the Holocaust victim's diary onto a bonfire at a summer solstice party last June.
But he said he was not making a statement about the Nazis' mass slaughter of 6 million European Jews with his actions.
Another suspect admitted to throwing a US flag into the fire. The other five defendants did not address the court. The suspects, ranging in age from 24 to 29, stand accused of inciting racial hatred and disparaging the dead. They face up to five years in prison if convicted.
Konrad, 25, said in his statement that he had aimed to free himself "from an evil chapter of German history" but had no intention of denying the Nazis' crimes.
"He is very sorry that he was misunderstood," his attorney Thomas Jauch told the court.
But state prosecutor Arnold Murra dismissed Konrad's account, saying that the defendants intended to "glorify" the Nazis with the book-burning.
The infamous book burnings by the Nazis on May 10, 1933 in Berlin
"You ridiculed Anne Frank and with her all the victims of the concentration camps," he said.
The case sparked outrage in Germany and abroad when it came to light, fuelling fears that neo-Nazi ideology is spreading through the economically depressed states of the former East Germany.
The act is reported to have taken place on June 24, 2006 during a Midsummer Night's party in Pretzien, a tiny village near Magdeburg, the capital of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Anne Frank's diary of life hiding from the Nazis is world famous and has sold some 75 million copies worldwide.
The young men, who are suspected to be from the far-right scene, are said to have modeled the destruction of the diary on the infamous Nazi book-burnings in Berlin. Shouting martial slogans and bearing flaming torches, the group is reported to have first tossed a US flag into a bonfire followed by the famous "Diary of Anne Frank."
The state prosecutors' office said in a statement before the trial opened that "by using clear-cut neo-Nazi and Nazi terminology," the men had not just mocked Anne Frank, who died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 15, but also all the other millions of Nazi victims.
"Nobody wants to be a witness"
Eastern Germany faces a particular challenge from right-wing extremists
The court in Magdeburg has invited eight witnesses to the trial, which is expected to draw much media attention around Germany. However media reports say the gathering of evidence and testimonies is not expected to be easy.
Though some 80 inhabitants of the 900-strong village of Pretzien are said to have witnessed the book burning last June, few are expected to come forward and talk about it.
"A huge silence hangs over the place," Andreas Holtz, the local Protestant priest told Berlin-based daily die tageszeitung. "People would rather stay silent than say something wrong. Nobody wants to be a witness."
"No coincidental act by drunken youngsters"
The paper pointed out that the case illustrates the difficulties of small towns and villages -- particularly in former East Germany where statistics show right-wing crimes are on the rise --in tackling the far-right scene and their dissemination of extremist ideology.
The paper said the seven accused were hardly marginal figures in the village; one of them apparently sings in the local male choir while two are involved in the voluntary fire department.
Men belonging to a recognized club in the village also freely sported T-shirts emblazoned with the words, "Wehrmacht Pretzien," without anyone taking exception to it, the paper reported.
Police who dealt with the book-burning case in Pretzien were not familiar with the Diary of Anne Frank
"We need more enlightenment," a local leader Frithjof Meussling told die tageszeitung. He pointed out that though a new group was trying to promote democratization in the village, "not much has happened. We don't have a panacea."
The head of the Berlin-based Anne Frank Center, Thomas Heppener, who will be at the trial, told the same paper that the book-burning was in no way "a coincidental act by drunken youngsters," but rather one that its roots in the organized neo-Nazi scene.
Trial raises questions about police lapses
The trial has also raised serious questions about the role of the police and how they deal with right-wing crimes.
In the case of the burning of Anne Frank's diary in Pretzien, local police apparently first deemed the crime as a mere "disturbance to peace" because they weren't familiar with the book and thus unable to grasp the intensity and political dimension of the act. They only began investigations and raids in earnest ten days after the crime.
"Unfortunately many police officers in Germany need to massively refresh their knowledge of the Nazi-era and the role played at the time by their profession," Detlef von Schwerin, head of a documentation and research group on police history at a police college in the eastern state of Brandenburg told German news agency dpa.
The state of Saxony-Anhalt where the diary of Anne Frank was burned however seems to have drawn some lessons from the crime.
According to Klaus-Peter Knobloch, spokesman of the state's interior ministry, the state has already modified police training programs in response to the crime.
"In seminars and other events, officers have since been increasingly learning about the Nazi-era, the historical context and in particular the current manifestations of the right-wing scene."