By the time Kennedy reached the street, his teammates had departed. The skinheads surrounded Kennedy and shoved him around. Knocking him to the ground, they kicked him with their heavy leather boots, severely beating him.
What happened at Oberhof was only one of about 7,000 violent incidents against foreigners that have taken place since East and West Germany reunified in 1990. Up to 30 persons, mostly foreign citizens living in Germany, have been killed. Many others have suffered injuries.
One of the first victims of the anti-foreigner violence was a worker from the African country of Mozambique. Juvenile skinheads killed him by throwing him from a moving streetcar. In the fall of 1991, a mob of skinheads attacked the living quarters of 20 Vietnamese and African workers while their German neighbors applauded. The following year, skinheads rioted in the eastern German city of Rostock. They threw rocks and firebombs at the dwellings of asylum-seeking Gypsies and Vietnamese workers. German onlookers cheered and shouted, "Germany for the Germans!"
Skinheads have particularly targeted workers from Turkey, who make up the largest foreign minority living in Germany. In November 1992, skinheads firebombed a Turkish home in western Germany killing two young children and their grandmother. A few months later, another firebombing of a Turkish home left five people dead.
The recent violence against foreigners has seemingly expanded to include German Jews. (Only 40,000 Jews live in Germany today compared to more than a half-million before the Holocaust.) Vandals have damaged Jewish cemeteries and painted swastikas on synagogues. In March of 1994, the synagogue in Leubeck was firebombed. This marked the first serious attack on a Jewish house of worship since Hitler's Nazis burned hundreds of synagogues in the 1930s. Ignatz Bubis, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said after the Leubeck firebombing, "How is it possible that things have come this far? And how far will it go?"
While some Germans appear to sympathize with the skinhead attacks against foreigners and Jews, many others have expressed their disgust. On several occasions, thousands of Germans have demonstrated and marched against the violence, which reminds many of what happened in Nazi Germany a half-century ago. But what can be done to stop the hate that seems to have infected a small but violent number of German youth?
Who Are the Skinheads?
Today, about 50,000 Germans belong to organized extreme right-wing political parties and groups. Often called "neo-Nazis" (new Nazis) by the press, they pattern their ideas of hate and German superiority after those of Hitler.
Although skinheads often use neo-Nazi words and symbols, they lack organization and interest in politics. They may proudly give the Nazi salute, but they know little about Hitler or his war that crippled Germany. Instead, German skinheads pattern themselves after the British skinhead movement, which began in the 1970s among young working-class males. Just like their British counterparts, they shave their heads and wear leather jackets, black jeans, and steel-toed boots. And they listen to hard-rock white-racist "Oi music."
They also have committed most of the hate crimes that have erupted in Germany over the past few years. In a typical incident, a bunch of skinheads gets drunk and, almost like a sport, goes hunting for foreigners to beat up. As one skinhead put it, "If it solves the foreigner problem, I'm for violence 100 percent."
About 6,000 right-wing skinheads live in Germany—most of them in what was Communist East Germany. Most are under 20; some are as young as 12 ("baby skins"). Many skinheads are unemployed school dropouts, but some hold working-class jobs. They read killer comic books and listen to Oi rock bands like Storkraft (Destructive Force), whose music celebrates violence against non-Germans:
We fight shaved, our fists are hard as steel,
Our heart beats true for the Fatherland.
But, above all, the German skinheads hate Jews, Turks, asylum-seekers, anybody "foreign," even "ethnic Germans" who have been migrating back to Germany from other parts of Europe.
"Germany for the Germans"
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has said that Germany is not an immigrant country. Indeed, Germany does not even have an immigration law. But more than 6 million foreigners now legally live in unified Germany —more than in any other Western European country.
Germany began recruiting foreign "guest workers" in large numbers in the 1960s. Coming from Italy, Spain, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Turkey, these workers have made up for labor shortages in agriculture and service jobs. Although most hold low-paid menial jobs, they have been essential for Germany's economic success.
Today, almost 2 million Turkish guest workers and their families live in Germany. Some have been in the country for 30 years or more. But Germans often consider the Muslim Turks to be "the most foreign of the foreigners."
Recently, another large group of foreigners has come into Germany, seeking political asylum. Nearly a half-million asylum-seekers entered the country in 1992 —many fleeing the civil war in Bosnia . They continued coming to Germany at a similar rate in 1993 until the government imposed new restrictions on the country's traditionally liberal political asylum law.
Although most asylum-seekers are eventually sent back to their homeland, the investigation process takes many months. In the meantime, the refugees get free government housing, medical care, schooling, and welfare. This has caused many Germans to believe that foreigners are treated better than they are. "Germany for the Germans," they say.
In many ways, Germany is for the Germans. Foreign workers lack many civil rights. They cannot vote or hold civil service jobs. Neither are they protected against discrimination in housing, employment, or higher education.
Prior to the year 2000, German law made it almost impossible for foreigners to become citizens. Until 2000, German citizenship was based on blood or ancestry, not place of birth. The citizenship reform enacted in 2000 supplemented the principle of defining citizenship by inheritance with the principle of defining citizenship by place of birth. In addition, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has announced his support of a "Green Card" system, allowing high-tech specialists to work in Germany for up to five years. However, the foreigners admitted with Green Cards will not be allowed to adjust to permanent residence status.
Germany recently recovered from an economic recession. During the recession, ordinary Germans tended to blame the foreigners living in their midst for the lack of jobs. As a result, both guest workers and refugees became easy targets for German xenophobia (fear or hatred of strangers) and skinhead violence. While the economy has improved, the attitude toward guest workers and refugees has not. Thoughtful Germans worry that these foreign residents are becoming scapegoats much like the Jews in Nazi Germany.
Can the Hate Be Stopped?
At first, the German government ignored the skinheads. It treated their attacks and incidents of arson as common crimes that the local police could handle. But the growing number of hate-crime deaths and injuries has forced the government to crack down on neo-Nazi groups and skinheads.
The post-war German Constitution of 1949 prohibits "incitement to racial hatred." As a result, Nazi propaganda, speeches, salutes, and symbols are outlawed. In 1993, the government put under surveillance, and in some cases banned, several neo-Nazi political parties and organizations. In addition, it created special hate-crime police units, and judges began to hand out tougher sentences to skinheads convicted of anti-foreigner violence.
The government has banned the sale of a long list of skinhead recordings, driving Oi music underground. The police have raided skinhead bands and Oi music distributors, seizing hundreds of recordings calling for violence against foreigners and Jews. One skinhead band was found guilty and fined for playing its song, "Hakenkreuz" ("Swastika"), in public.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the anti-hate campaign of the German government will stop the skinhead attacks. It is also uncertain whether the recent wave of hate crimes is a temporary phenomenon of alienated youth, or the resurfacing of something even more frightening from Germany's dark Nazi past.
For Discussion and Writing
- Describe the German right-wing skinheads. What do they want, and why do they hate?
- Define the words xenophobia, scapegoat, and alienated. Explain how each word relates to the German skinheads.
- What similarities and differences do you see between the current wave of skinhead violence in Germany and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s?
For Further Information
Neo-Nazis/Skinheads: The Anti-Defamation League’s web page containing archived press releases on the subject of the ADL’s response to Neo-Nazi violence.
A C T I V I T Y
Can Hate Be Stopped?
Meet in small groups and try to agree on how to rank the following list of measures to stop hate crimes in Germany. Rank the list from 1–13 with 1 being the best (most effective/most just) and 13 being the worst (least effective/least just).
_____ban neo-Nazi political organizations
_____ban Nazi speeches, symbols, and salutes
_____ban Oi hate music
_____ban skinhead clothing
_____prohibit more than two skinheads gathering together in public places
_____increase penalties for hate crimes
_____expand the civil rights of non-German residents
_____make it easier for guest workers to become citizens
_____expand citizenship to include guest-worker children born in Germany
_____close German borders to those seeking political asylum
_____end government support for asylum-seekers already in the country
_____counsel skinheads and expose them to non-German cultures
_____create job programs for unemployed German youth
After ranking the list, each group should give reasons for its first and last ranked choices.