At first glance, Jamel, a hamlet in rural northeastern Germany, looks idyllic. The settlement is surrounded by fields and gently rolling hills, the area is pockmarked with pristine lakes, and the Baltic coast is a short drive away.
But the lush setting in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Germany’s poorest state, camouflages a darker side. Jamel, a village of 37 souls, has earned notoriety for being a neo-Nazi colony.
All of which makes it an interesting location for an annual anti-fascist rock festival run by two villagers who have had enough of their neighbors. Birgit and Horst Lohmeyer belong to the dwindling minority of residents who don’t sympathize with the far right. When they moved to Jamel from Hamburg nearly 15 years ago, the artists simply wanted to fulfill their dream of living in the countryside.
But things quickly went downhill. With the help of a local leader of the NPD, Germany’s infamous neo-Nazi party, far-right supporters purchased the houses around them, one by one. They now own at least seven of Jamel’s 10 houses. On the side of one, a mural reminiscent of Third Reich aesthetics chillingly proclaims in Gothic script that Jamel is “free, social, national.” Further down the street, a wooden sign points to Braunau am Inn, Adolf Hitler’s birthplace in Austria — 855 kilometers (530 miles) away — and refers to Austria as “Ostmark,” its name during the Third Reich. The sign also points to cities that Germany lost in 1945, including Königsberg and Breslau, now Kaliningrad, Russia, and Wroclaw, Poland.
After their new neighbors made it clear they were not welcome, the Lohmeyers had few options left. Should they move away, like the others before them, or just try to ignore the gatherings glorifying the Third Reich on their doorstep?
They did neither, instead opting to take a public stand against their neighbors’ ideology by throwing a music festival, Jamel Rockt den Förster (Rocks the Forester), which takes place every year in late August, explicitly promoting “democracy and tolerance.” The 12th edition of the two-day rock fest is due to begin this Friday.
Famous German bands such as Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte and Kraftklub have performed at Jamel. Big names will grace the stage this year too, but as usual the Lohmeyers are keeping mum about the lineup. “That’s because our festival is not-for-profit,” Mr. Lohmeyer told local media. “And the main point is to speak out for democracy and against radical right-wing extremism and populism.”
Up to 1,200 visitors will attend the anti-Nazi shindig this year, with tickets having sold out in February. “This time, we’ll also have many more information stands and political workshops,” said Ms. Lohmeyer, an award-winning novelist. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania’s state premier, Manuela Schwesig, who left Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cabinet last year to take on the job, will also attend as a sponsor.
Jamel Rockt den Förster has gained quite a following over the years, and organizations have showered the Lohmeyers with accolades. In 2011, the Central Council of Jews in Germany awarded them the Paul Spiegel Prize for Civil Courage, for example, and regional papers voted them “Heroes of the North” the same year.
Twelve years of success have come with a heavy price for the Lohmeyers. Three years ago, the barn on their property burned to the ground in the dead of night, a few weeks before the ninth edition of the rock fest. Their overnight guests — a family with three young children — escaped unharmed. They also saw someone fleeing. Despite evidence that this was an arson attack, the police investigation failed to find the culprit. “That was the worst day of our lives,” said Ms. Lohmeyer.
And despite the recognition it has earned, the festival has yet to make a lasting change in Jamel. “At first, we naively believed that the festival would bring us closer together,” a disillusioned Mr. Lohmeyer said of his right-wing neighbors. “We had no idea how indoctrinated they were — they’re really hardcore Nazis.”
The situation has been the same for years. “We’ve given up on Jamel,” grumbled Uwe Wandel, the mayor of Gägelow, the rural municipality that encompasses Jamel, in a 2007 interview with news magazine Der Spiegel. He went on to complain that not one local bank would fund anything in the notorious right-wing stronghold. Development plans for Jamel have been consigned to a drawer for years, the mayor said.
Today, the status quo prevails. In neighboring towns and villages, too, the neo-Nazi scene is slowly becoming more visible and more brazen. Last month, residents of Schönberg, a half-hour drive from Jamel, were horrified after a swastika appeared at the site of a fatal road accident where a 9-year old Syrian refugee died. Next to it, the score line “1-0” celebrated the boy’s death. “I’m livid,” Schönberg Mayor Lutz Götzke said. “There’s a danger that this Nazi wave, so to speak, will rise again. We want to combat this.” But some locals also said it was an isolated incident that people blew out of proportion.
It doesn’t help that Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, as many regions of eastern Germany, has seen a revival of far-right ideas. In the latest state election, two years ago, the disgraced NPD failed to get into the state parliament for the first time in 10 years. But electoral gains by the populist Alternative for Germany, or AfD, more than made up for the neo-Nazis’ losses. The AfD became the state’s second-biggest party with 21 percent of votes.
The Lohmeyers are staying put regardless. They are as determined as ever to reclaim their village. And for the next two days, it will look as though they’ve succeeded. Hundreds of people will be singing, dancing or practicing yoga in Jamel, all in the name of inclusion and tolerance. “The idea is quite simple, really: We want to show the Nazis that this is not their village,” said Mr. Lohmeyer. “We’re offering them a bit of culture, and it’s gonna be loud.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: email@example.com.