Neo-Nazis can march in Germany, but tough rules keep them in place

Anti-Semitic chants like those heard in Charlottesville, along with shields, helmets and batons carried by Neo-Nazi Americans, are barred in Germany

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 4:46am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 August, 2017, 5:20am

Given Germany’s grim history as the home of National Socialism and the efforts it has made since then to atone for its genocidal past, it might seem surprising that far-right extremists who glorify a dead Nazi official are allowed to march in his honour this weekend.

Police in Berlin have given far-right extremists permission to hold a 500-person strong rally commemorating the death of Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess in the city’s western district of Spandau.

But there’s a catch.

Police have told organisers they can march, but they’re not allowed to glorify Hess, who died at Spandau prison 30 years ago. The neo-Nazis are allowed to bring banners: but only one for every 50 participants. And military music is strictly forbidden, unless a court overturns that rule before Saturday’s march.

Such restrictions are common in Germany and rooted in the experience of the pre-war Weimar Republic, when opposing political groups would try to forcibly interrupt their rivals’ rallies, resulting in frequent bloody street violence, said Sven Richwin, a Berlin lawyer.

The exact rules differ according to the circumstances, but police in Germany generally try to balance protesters’ rights to free speech and free assembly against the rights of counter-demonstrators and residents, he said.

“Anything intimidating is ‘verboten,’” Richwin said on Friday.

The rules mean that shields, helmets and batons carried by far-right and Neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville last weekend wouldn’t be allowed in Germany. Openly anti-Semitic chants would prompt German police to intervene, although efforts would be made to detain specific individuals rather than to stop an entire rally, said Richwin.

Left-wing groups expect about 1,000 people to attend counter-protests on Saturday in Spandau.

Hess, who received a life sentence at the Nuremberg trials for his role in planning World War II, died on August 17, 1987. Allied authorities ruled his death a suicide, but Nazi sympathisers have long claimed that he was killed and organise annual marches in his honour.

The marches used to take place in the Bavarian town of Wunsiedel, where Hess was buried until authorities removed his remains.

In 2014, residents and former far-right extremists got donors to pledge 10 euros (US$12.50) toward a Nazi rehab programme for every metre that the Hess supporters marched. The stunt and similar ones elsewhere in Germany have since collected tens of thousands of euros to help people leave Germany’s neo-Nazis scene.