Music sings of extreme divide in Germany | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 02.02.2015
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Music sings of extreme divide in Germany

The PEGIDA rallies in Germany put the international spotlight on the country's deep social divisions. However, those following the country's music scene have long been tuned into the political tensions.

In 2011 German rapper MaKss Damage - the pseudonym for musician Julian Fritsch - made an unexpected announcement: He was changing political tracts.

Having spent his burgeoning career as a radical socialist (he would name his first demo "Red Alert" and 2009 follow-up EP "Stalin's Way") and performing shows organized by anti-fascist groups in Berlin, he was now taking a sharp turn - re-launching himself as what some music commentators have called one of the country's first serious mainstream neo-Nazi rappers.

In a country still reconciling with the brutality of its nationalistic past, his radical defection should have been a "red alert," but in truth MaKss Damage was joining the ranks of a swelling, albeit loosely collected, group of artists publically sympathizing with the nationalistic tendencies promoted by the NPD, Germany's controversial nationalist political party.

Anti Pegida Demonstrations in Berlin, Copyright: REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Germany has witnessed a strong public reaction against Pegida over the past few weeks

Neo-Nazi sympathies are, of course, nothing new in German music. Many fringe bands and artists in both the hard rock and hardcore punk scenes (such as Weisse Wölfe, Blitzkrieg, Hauptkampflinie and Stahlgewitter) have openly proselytized common nationalistic themes - including anti-immigration, a key concern for PEGIDA - and built up audiences sympathetic to their battle-cries of German patriotism.

However, increasingly over the last two decades, these artists have been spilling into the mainstream (and news headlines), with perhaps the most notorious example being stadium hard rockers Böhse Onkelz. The band's debut album was indexed - Germany's list of music considered inappropriate for sale to under 18-year-olds - for its extreme right-wing and provocative themes and, while the band would later publicly distance itself from the neo-Nazi scene, their infamy saw them retire in 2005 in front of 120,000 euphoric fans at Hockenheimring motor racing circuit. The band will return to the same venue this June after performing to sellout shows in 2014.

The NPD's 'Project Schoolyard' CD, Copyright: Peer Grimm dpa/lbn

The NPD's controversial 'Project Schoolyard' CD wound up on the German 'index'

The power of music

The NPD has long embraced the power of music, associating itself with popular and cult artists to help grow its supporter base. (The party is currently represented in the state legislature in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of the country's most economically challenged regions.) In 2004, the party distributed the first of what have become known as the "Project Schoolyard" CDs - compilations of songs by artists sympathetic to the party's values.

With song titles such as "The Father Land" and "German Mother," the CD was directly targeted to drum up support, and indeed rouse nationalistic fervor, amongst German youth. The 2011 edition (subtitled "German and Heterosexual") would feature MaKss Damage and his song "The God of Iron," clearly a strategic move as German hip-hop crosses over into a wider, more populist audience, following the success of controversial rappers such as Fler and King Bock.

"The idea that popular music belongs to subcultures and is therefore anti-establishment (and thus 'somehow leftist' in the end) is a myth, at least in Germany," musicologist Thorsten Hindrichs of the University of Mainz argues. "German popular music has always dealt with conservative, reactionary and nationalistic subjects, too, but this simply has not been noticed all too much. Thus, what has changed is the visibility or, better, the perception of German popular music."

German rock group Böhse Onkelz, Copyright: imago/STAR-MEDIA

Böhse Onkelz singer Der W has publically distanced himself from neo-Nazi groups

Fight back

Following the PEGIDA marches in January a number of German personalities - amongst them popular musicians Udo Lindenberg (68) and Heino (76) - spoke out in response to PEGIDA with a signed petition in the country's popular "Bild" newspaper.

But with Germany still standing in the shadows of its 20th-century history, this fight back against nationalistic tendencies is hardly a new phenomenon. Countless artists have made it their mission to keep check on a growing sense of nationalism in the country - fueled by EU woes, unemployment and a stagnating economy - countering xenophobic missives with odes to tolerance and promoting diversity.

Alongside punk, hip-hop has played the most visible role in countering the creeping xenophobia in recent years, with popular groups such as Fettes Brot and Antilopen Gang vehemently standing up to racism and bigotry in German society. Fettes Brot would appear on 2014's compilation CD "Kein Bock auf Nazis" (colloquial for "No to Nazis") alongside a range of leading German bands, including stadium rock staples Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte and Beatsteaks.

Germany's major record labels, including global giants Universal, Warner and Sony, also joined forces in 2004 in response to a growing sense of nationalism in popular music with "Loud against Nazis" - and continue to promote a series of live concerts and workshops in economically disadvantaged regions and schools to counter the swelling neo-Nazi influence of initiatives like "Project Schoolyard."

Hip hop outfit Fettes Brot, Copyright: Fettes Brot

Hip hop outfit Fettes Brot are notorious for preaching tolerance, and featured on the "No to Nazis" CD

Blurred lines

However, Hindrichs argues, patriotism and neo-Nazism are too often confused as the same thing. PEGIDA itself argued that it wasn't a racist organization - merely a diverse collective of citizens advocating for more prudent immigration policies. But, Hindrichs adds - as with the case of controversial German-speaking Italian band Frei.Wild, who were removed from the nominations for the ECHO Music Prize (Germany's top music awards) in 2013 for perceived nationalistic sympathies - German artists can hardly claim naivety on such matters.

Rapper Fler, Copyright: dpa

Controversial rapper Fler

"Whoever claims Frei.Wild is a neo-Nazi band has obviously no idea what neo-Nazis sing about," he says. "This way of mixing things up not only scandalizes bands like Frei.Wild in an inappropriate way, but trivializes the neo-Nazi-scene, too. Yet, by now Frei.Wild possibly have recognized that they are 'playing with fire.' (…) Much more alarming are acts like Dee Ex or Kategorie C, who play with the blurred lines between 'patriotism' and neo-Nazism and definitely propagate neo-Nazi ideas."

Berlin-based hip-hop sociologist Jan Kage concludes that while the breakdown of the traditional divide between left and right continues to confuse the political and social landscape, we're bound to see a more concerted response to the PEGIDA movement in the future to counter its growing visibility and the popularity of artists who sympathize with its core demands.

"We will see a rise in the future," he told DW. "There are artists who will react on these developments."

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