Democracy, Saxony style

16 January 2013 could go down as yet another day when the German justice system revealed with breathtaking irony exactly how ‘just’ it is. In a criminal justice system weighted towards the criminalisation of protest and the protection of the most reactionary political elements in society, perhaps it came as no great surprise. In fact, it has caught everyone’s attention, and well it should.

On that day, a local court in Dresden in the German state of Saxony handed down two sentences. In one, a group of Nazis by the name of Sturm 34 were tried for a range of violent criminal actions including attacks on left-wing and migrant community shopfronts, physical violence, intimidation and racially motivated hate speech, distributing placards bearing slogans like ‘Criminal foreigners out!’. For these actions they received an assortment of suspended short sentences and fines.

In the second case, a man known as Tim H was sentenced to 22 months in prison without probation for his alleged role as ‘ring-leader’ at a major anti-Nazi protest in Dresden in February 2011. Tim is said to have incited other protesters to break through police lines at the protest, during which four police officers sustained mild injuries. He was charged with a particularly serious breach of the peace (which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison), aggravated battery and assault.

Unlike the first case of Sturm 34, which revolved around identified members of a well-known group outlawed since 2007, in Tim’s case, no positive identification of him could be made in court. The star prosecution witness was unable to identify him with any certainty. Resorting to a police video of the event, the presiding judge said they could see ‘a man [not his face] whose stature matches that of the accused’ yelling ‘Everybody move forward’ into a megaphone. These words are a far cry from the directive to ‘break through police lines’ of which he was accused.

Even police witnesses themselves were unable to identify Tim as the man who had caused the breach. And yet, to justify his extraordinary sentence in the face of such obvious uncertainty, Judge Hans-Joachim Hlava opined that Tim’s political ‘CV’ showed that he would have been there, and in the end, Tim would simply ‘have to take responsibility for the actions of others’.

The blatantly political timing of the sentence has been lost on no-one. The demonstration at which these actions allegedly took place, was part of a mass-mobilisation organised around 13 February each year by the broad anti-fascist alliance Dresden Nazi-free. This date has become an annual rallying point for German and other neo-Nazis to commemorate and mourn the bombing of Dresden by allied forces in 1945. In recent years, it has become the event on the far-right’s political calendar, and the next one is fast approaching.

In response, since 2010, Dresden Nazi-free has been able to organise mass blockades from across hundreds of progressive political parties, collectives and groups. Over the past three years these mass protests have succeeded in partially destroying far-right organisational networks, severely impeding their ability to mobilise at all.

In 2010, 7000 Nazis were prevented from marching from their gathering spot, kettled in on all sides by over 12000 protesters, and separated by a wide ring of up to 15000 police. In 2011, their numbers had been reduced to 3000, and by 2012, they were barely able to scrounge 1000 fascists together, while anti-fascist numbers had swelled to over 20000.

Yet according to judge Hlava, the good citizens of Dresden are fed up with the likes of Tim, saying that this anniversary was being ‘exploited by both sides’. Hlava made no secret of the fact that he intended this to be an example case to deter other anti-fascists from demonstrating in 2013.

In order to understand the foreboding gravity of this judgement for the German, and indeed European left, it is important to bear in mind the context of the National Socialist Underground scandal, which dominated German public discourse throughout 2012. The existence of the NSU entered public consciousness with a bang, following the accidental detonation of a homemade bomb at their headquarters in the Saxon town of Zwickau.

Within weeks, it became known that this terrorist cell had murdered nine people of Turkish and Greek backgrounds between 2000 and 2006, plus potentially a policewoman in 2007, whose weapon was found at the scene.

The killings were shamefully referred to by a racially biased media as the Döner Murders, but it was within state agencies that the deepest rot was exposed. Domestic security had codenamed the series as ‘Operation Bosphorus’ under the false presumption that they were being carried out by foreign nationals from Turkey as part of an external political dispute. Then it became known that confidential informants, potentially on the payroll of the state, had been involved with the NSU for several years, and even been present for at least one of the murders.

Yet nothing had been done to stop them. One of the informants, known to hold openly right-wing views, was nicknamed ‘Little Adolf’ in his hometown.

The NSU case has led to a gradual exposure of corruption in the highest security levels across the country. In July 2012 it was revealed that staff of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution – Germany’s MI5 – had shredded files relating to the case in late 2011, following a request from the Federal Criminal Police to hand over all relevant documentation. It has been named the biggest domestic security scandal in German history and has already forced the resignations of several security chiefs, including Federal Chief Heinz Fromm and the head of Saxony’s state intelligence agency. Meanwhile, the state continues its program of surveillance against members of the Left Party, exposed just two months after the NSU scandal broke.

In this context, it begins to become clear why the Dresden court could possibly commit such a blatant ethical breach in these two judgements. Far from being mystifying, it crystallises just how seriously the left is going to have to fight against its own criminalisation.

On 2 February, 30 000 neo-Nazis gathered in Athens to mourn the deaths of their own ‘fallen heroes’. Squeezed hard by the austerity policies being enforced by Germany at the helm of the EU, Greece has become fertile recruiting ground for fascists, capitalising on people’s desperation and the lack of a clear class opponent.

In the Dresden judgement, anti-fascists everywhere would do well to smell the same foul air that fuels the winds of repression in a crisis-torn Europe. Such repression is itself a hallmark of Nazi politics, whose raison d’etre is the destruction of democracy. Let’s hope that ‘democracy, Saxon style’ does not become a springboard for it.

For more information on Tim’s appeal and the anti-repression campaign, see the Dresden Nazi-free Facebook page. To offer financial support, go to Kommt nach vorne. English translations of both coming soon.


Kate Davison

Kate Davison lives between Melbourne and Berlin and writes on the topics of racism, religion and sexuality in Europe.

More by Kate Davison ›

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  1. The rise of fascistic politics and tendencies across Europe is extremely worrying – and unsurprising, as Giovanni pointed out last week. Hope you’ll keep us posted about what happens at the 13 Feb protests.

    I found this idea really interesting: ‘Far from being mystifying, it crystallises just how seriously the left is going to have to fight against its own criminalisation.’ Indeed. We’re seeing this crackdown on left protest all over the world, but again, it’s not unexpected. The question is, how to fight it?

    I also wondered if you’d come across this LRB review about Mussolini’s era and aftermath, and if you thought this assessment true:

    Dozens, sometimes hundreds of people come to the mausoleum every day and leave comments in the visitors’ book placed in front of the tomb. What they have to say is overwhelmingly positive, their words almost always addressed directly to the Duce himself: ‘Only under your wise guidance did Italy become a “nation”, a nation that was feared, respected, fruitful and envied.’ ‘If you were here, we would not be in this mess.’ Many of the messages are quite personal, even intimate, and religious phrases and sentiments are common: ‘If you could see how low our poor Italy has sunk,’ one visitor wrote in 2007, ‘return, reincarnated in one of us! Now and forever.’

    It’s impossible to imagine Germans openly expressing similar sentiments about Hitler, former Nazis and neo-Nazis joining a present-day German government, German politicians claiming Hitler never killed anyone, someone with the name Hitler being elected to parliament, a former German head of government ‘seeing himself’ in Hitler’s letters to Eva Braun, German crowds chanting Nazi slogans, or German souvenir shops selling Nazi memorabilia.

    I mean, I assume there’d be very few who’d openly sing the praises of Hitler, but is there any romanticising of that period?

  2. Thank you for this very interesting post. I agree with the above respondents, that is, this development is very worrying. It makes me wonder about the situation here in Australia.

  3. (The author lives in Germany):

    @Jacinda re: “romanticising”:

    The law in Germany unlike in the USA (1st Amendment) makes Holocaust denial punishable, as also the display of Nazi symbols. Romanticising is hence risky. Technically, the Italians writing messages in the visitor’s book were not “openly expressing”, ie publishing, as they were anonymous.

    Even though I have seen pro-Nazi messages in a visitor’s book at a historical exhibition in Germany, I do not overrate them. Because as in Aust., the German population, which lost millions of Hitler soldiers in WW2, retains a widespread aversion to war which is a continual annoyance to the German state, which wants Germany to “assume more (military) responsibility”.

    This will be one reason why Aust. FM Carr signed a Strategic German-Aust. Partnership with his German opposite number Westerwelle at end-Jan. in Berlin, see the DFAT website for the full text. The bigger picture here is NATO encirclement of Russia and China. The current ALP govt. sent Australia’s first ambassador to NATO a year ago.

    K. Davison does not mention that in all countries, neo-Nazis are kept in reserve by the State as an insurance policy against Labour getting too effective at resisting Capital. In Germany, the extreme right has been penetrated/run by the intelligence services for years. This was documented when a previous Fed. govt wanted to ban the NPD party: it turned out their membership was to a large extent intelligence agents.

    Hence I would dispute her term “corruption”, as this implies money changing hands in the German security services. I would say rather that the file shredding she describes is what intelligence bodies do so as to cover their tracks. In this case, the tracks will have led back to conservative politicians acting for and with German corporations.
    However, there is currently no smoking gun for this.

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