Six anonymous death threats were made this week against reporters who cover Dortmund's neo-Nazi scene. They weren't just any kind of death threats, however, and they reflect a growing hostility towards the German press.
Sitting in front of his laptop alone at his home in Dortmund on Monday evening, Felix Huesmann was initially annoyed at what he thought was just another anonymous neo-Nazi threat against journalists, in the form of a link on his Twitter account entitled: "THE HUNT HAS BEGUN."
Annoyance quickly turned to disbelief when he clicked on the link. "Wow - a death certificate with my name on it ... To be honest, I was overwhelmed." Huesmann, a freelance journalist in the western German city of Dortmund, told DW his gut reaction was to take a screenshot and send it to his colleagues. Five other reporters, meanwhile, had also received a similar digital certificate, adorned with a black cross and italicized writings celebrating their deaths.
One of them was Sebastian Weiermann, who like Huesmann has focused his reporting on the far-right scene in Dortmund, a known neo-Nazi stronghold: "I was at a train station on my way to a PEGIDA [anti-Islamization] demonstration in Duisburg. We had just gotten coffee, and there I see on my phone a link to my own death certificate," he said.
"At first I laughed: I was pretty sure I was still alive. And I then called my colleagues to make sure they were alive. They were, too," said Weiermann. "But, when it sinks in, it really does makes you think."
A new dimension
Both Huesmann and Weiermann called the threats further proof of the escalating hostility towards journalists who report on neo-Nazi activity in Germany. And that activity, itself, is also increasing in the country.
"We have never seen anything like this," said Hendrik Zörner, spokesman for Germany's Federation of Journalists. "These death certificates contain death threats - partly open, partly concealed - directed against reporters. We are talking about a new dimension of antagonism," he told DW.
It is not only neo-Nazis, however, who have adopted this hostile stance toward the German press; after the PEGIDA movement took hold in certain cities around the country, in particular in Dresden, the concept of "Lügenpresse" - a slogan chanted at weekly marches that amounts to "the lying press" - has become a socially acceptable way to refer to journalists, he said.
"I actually prefer neo-Nazi antagonism to this new phenomenon of broad animosity," Carolin Hesidenz, a freelance photojournalist who has been covering Germany's far-right scene in western Germany for years, told DW.
"Neo-Nazi marches are always well protected by police," said Hessidenz, who wears a helmet and protective vest when she covers demonstrations. "We are dealing with a new dynamic. Violent attacks against journalists used to be isolated. Now there's an atmosphere that feels like they're out to get everyone."
Historical role models?
Huesmann and Weiermann went to the authorities after receiving the death certificates and filed a criminal complaint. In response, a spokesman for the Dortmund police said the threats were an attempt to create a "climate of fear and intimidation" for any opponents, and in imitation of "historical role models," namely members of Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP).
"To my knowledge, there were no such threats made during the late Weimar Republic or after the Nazi seizure of power in 1933," said Niels Weise, historian and researcher of the Nazi era at the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich. "From that perspective, we cannot say exactly that what happened with the Dortmund journalists is the work of latter-day Nazis," Weise told DW.
"However, that is of course not to say that the press during the Nazi era was anything even closely resembling pluralistic or free. Anybody who wrote critically of the NSDAP was almost certainly persecuted. Let's not forget that journalists belonged to the first victims in Nazi concentration camps," Weise said.
'No horse's head in bed'
Although Huesmann and Weiermann said they felt threatened after receiving the death certificates, both were adamant that they were not intimidated.
"No way!" said Huesmann. "They're going to have to do a lot more than that. Maybe they should watch The Godfather again. The horse's head in bed? Now that's a threat that would make me think twice about what I'm doing."
Huesmann even said he chose to report on the neo-Nazi scene because it is so strong in Dortmund, the origin of the now-banned right-wing "National Resistance" movement and the openly xenophobic party Die Rechte, or The Right. Since 2000, there have been five murders committed by known neo-Nazis in Dortmund, and a litany of other violent attacks against foreigners.
"These threats are a kind of confirmation that our work is having an effect," said Weiermann, when asked whether seeing his own death certificate was a sign that maybe he was doing the wrong thing.
"I'm not going to back down now. No."