Early one Thursday morning in late February, shortly after two, Claudia von Gélieu looked out of her first-floor bedroom window and wondered what that bright flickering was. It was her car, it turned out. And it was on fire.
A couple of days later, the only evidence left of the arson attack was a rust spot in the driveway and a pile of scrap parts, all that remained of the car’s air conditioning and bumpers.
The insurance assessor told the von Gélieus they had been lucky. The flames could have easily spread to the house. Indeed, the von Gélieus are upset that in a press release about the incident, the local police wrote that no people were in danger. “We feel abandoned by them,” Ms. von Gélieu’s husband, Christian, said.
The couple’s townhouse is in the south of Rudow, part of Berlin’s Neukölln district. The border to Brandenburg is just over 400 yards away. She is a political scientist, he a judge. The attack on their car was part of a series of incidents in the district suspected to have been perpetrated by right-wing extremists.
Since last summer, there have been more than 80 assaults, threats of assault and smashed windows in the area.
You won’t see them on the street during the day. They don’t have shaved heads or combat boots. They leave no messages.
And, over and over again, the arson attacks. The Berliner Register, an organization formed to document right-wing criminal acts, sees a “major increase since last year” and a wave of intimidation unlike that in any other district in the German capital.
This is incomprehensible to outsiders. Why is this happening in Neukölln of all places, a neighborhood that has traditionally tended toward the political left? The district that has been governed for 16 years by Germany’s centrist-left Social Democrats and which has always had a low-income and immigrant-heavy population, the place many Germans seeking a more multi-cultural environment long to move to? Here the locals worry about rising rents and gentrification, unemployment, maybe even criminal mafias. But right-wing extremists?
If they are here, you won’t see them on the street during the day. They don’t have shaved heads or combat boots. They leave no messages claiming responsibility at the scene of the crime. Nevertheless, investigators believe somebody is very intent and focused on what they are doing.
The attacks are directed at book dealers, politicians and private individuals. And the one thing the targets all have in common is many years of involvement in work against the far right.
The von Gélieus do voluntary work in the Olga Benario Gallery, which is not far from the Karl-Marx-Strasse subway station. It was founded in the mid-1980s by the Association of Victims of Nazi Persecution and of Anti-Fascists. They organize exhibitions about Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism, migration and human rights.
The gallery’s windows have been smashed a number of times, the door damaged and there has been abuse on the internet. That has an impact, Ms. von Gélieu said. The intimidation works. She asks herself before every exhibition: Can I still justify the risk? Take responsibility for it?
And not only the risk to herself but also to the people living in apartments above the gallery. The police have advised them to keep the gallery windows shuttered during the day. Unfortunately, that meant that passers-by didn’t even know the gallery was still there. “So to some extent, the Nazis have achieved their objective,” Mr. von Gélieu said.
Since the arson attack on his car, he feels uncomfortable on the street at night. The couple now wants to build a garage and install a surveillance camera. They haven’t heard from the police since the attack.
“What kind of an investigation is this, when not even the neighbors are questioned about whether anyone has seen anything unusual?” Mr. von Gélieu said.
One neighbor noticed a black SUV shortly before the attack parked on the street with the motor running. Another wondered about a man who was reading all the names on the mailboxes. The police say that the case is certainly being investigated. However, the questioning of witnesses is only a small part of the investigation, they note, the greater portion isn’t seen by the general public.
The victims of the attacks have various theories as to why right-wing violence is on the increase in Neukölln. One is the absence of local authorities. By this, they are referring to a team of investigators, consisting of three officers from the city’s Police Section 65, based in Neukölln.
The men had an overview of the district’s far right scene, paid visits to those with previous convictions, attended marches and knew the places local Nazis used to meet, like at the snack bar at Rudow subway station. Their message was clear: We are watching you.
In 2016, the team was moved on, thanks to cost cutting measures. Big mistake, critics said. When they knew they were no longer being observed, the Nazis felt free to come out of hiding, they say.
The second possible reason is a local man known as Sebastian T. A Neukölln neo-Nazi with multiple convictions, who has attacked people in the past, punched a policeman in the face and later threatened him, Mr. T. was sent to prison for grievous bodily harm. Shortly after his release, the new wave of violence began.
Sebastian T. was once head of the Neukölln chapter of the National Democratic Party of Germany, a far-right, ultra-nationalist political party also known as the NPD. But he is also associated with the local branch of the so-called Freien Kräfte – in English, the Free Forces.
The group’s stated aim is to “cleanse” the district of “fatherland haters.” They have published the addresses of possible targets for attack on the internet, of Jewish-owned establishments, political parties and left-wing associations. “So that everyone knows where the enemy lives,” it says beneath their map. Local politician Mirjam Blumenthal of the Social Democratic Party is considered one such enemy; she has been given police protection since her car was torched.
The office of the Green Party in Neukölln is also marked on the map. Its manager, Carola Scheibe-Köster, has been receiving abusive phone calls for months. The voice changes, she says, and there are also women calling. The callers threaten to cut her throat or hang her from a tree. One caller wished for her to be “raped by Neukölln Kanaks,” a derogatory word for foreigners. There are days when the 56-year-old no longer answers the phone. Ms. Scheibe-Köster was also advised to pull down her shutters during the day, something she is extremely reluctant to do.
The district’s mayor says the Nazis must be confronted. At stake is nothing less than who owns the streets.
While Ms. Scheibe-Köster was planning to set up a booth for local election campaigning this summer, the Free Forces of Neukölln posted her photo online, along with the timing and location for the booth and exhortations to “unleash your anger on the traitor of the people.”
Next to her name was the hashtag, #death penalty. Ms. Scheibe-Köster filed a complaint. The police refused to investigate though because they said that while the message “had a threatening character, it did not represent conclusive evidence of criminal intent.”
There have been arson attacks by the far right for years now in the south of Neukölln, around the working-class neighborhoods of Rudow and Britz. But now the north of the district is also under attack.
Apartment house stairwells have been graffitied with slogans like “Leftist rat” or “red bitch.” Nazis beat a local man with baseball bats; he didn’t want to speak to the media. An attack on a left-wing café only failed because the incendiary charge failed.
Those who have been attacked, like the von Gélieus or Ms. Scheibe-Köster, call the Neukölln attacks “terrorism.” The district’s mayor, Franziska Giffey, who is also a member of the social democrats, says the Nazis must be confronted. At stake, she says, is nothing less than who owns the streets. There is a broad consensus in the district council that something must be done quickly.
But of course, then there is also the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, known as the AfD, who are anti-immigration and anti-E.U.
Wednesday evening, in the Neukölln city hall. The increasing numbers of what appear to be neo-Nazi or far right attacks are on the agenda.
The eight AfD representatives are eating chocolate eggs. One of them says it isn’t really clear whether the perpetrators are actually from the far right. Burning cars, he says, is a well-known specialty of the extreme left too. His colleagues say they refuse to discuss right-wing violence if there isn’t a warning given about Islamist terrorism at the same time.
One of the local politicians belonging to the local Left party steps up to the podium to talk about how she has also had death threats. The AfD’s faction leader laughs out loud.
Ms. Scheibe-Köster, of the Green party, is following the meeting and she’s outraged. Of course, the AfD are not the same as the neo-Nazis, she concedes. But the two influence each other. One is changing the political culture, breaking taboos about what is and is not acceptable in a political discussion; the neo-Nazis are taking advantage of that change in cultural climate. It is the same kind of criticism that is being made in the U.S. about President Donald Trump and his connections to the far right in America.
“The AfD polarizes people and that is pushing the Nazis to try and show that they are the real Germans,” she explains.
AfD politician, Andreas Wild, will be campaigning to be Neukölln’s candidate in the German national parliament. A beefy chap with slicked back hair, he says he doesn’t want house refugees in cities. He’d prefer to put them up out in the countryside but only after giving them some lumber, hammer and nails.
Mr. Wild makes appearances at events held by the anti-immigrant group, PEGIDA – the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West – where he talks about “Umvolkung,” a term made popular during Adolf Hitler’s time, which would see Germans lose touch with their own German culture. He has also said he would like to see Germans sing the first part of the national anthem again: This talks about Germany above all others, and was banned as a symbol of Nazi rule after World War II.
Walking along Sonnenallee, the central Neukölln street that is dominated by Arab shops and stores, he comments about how much it looks like the Middle East and how that is wrong and should change. But as it turns out, Mr. Wild doesn’t even live in Neukölln. He lives in Steglitz, generally wealthier district. It doesn’t matter though, Mr. Wild says. Neukölln interests him most as a constituency, because it’s the worst place in the city.
Since December last year, Berlin has had a new senator of the interior, Andreas Geisel, a member of the Social Democrats. Reacting to the far right attacks, Mr. Geisel has set up a new investigative unit in Berlin’s police department, officially tasked with looking into far right crime in Neukölln. In early March the Neukölln team that used to monitor far right activities in the district has also been back in action. And the senator’s office says it doesn’t want to comment on any decisions made by predecessors in this area.
Now it’s Saturday afternoon in the neighborhood of Alt Rudow, in deepest Neukölln. Four hundred people have gathered in a shopping street here to demonstrate that those affected by this series of attacks are not alone.
Small children twirl rattles, a man waves a rainbow flag. The von Gélieus, whose car was set ablaze last week, are also here.
They stand on a stage in an empty lot, between a flower shop and a mobile phone seller and talk about what it is like to suddenly, unexpectedly, become a victim. “And then, shit, it happened to us,” Mr. von Gélieu says
Neukölln mayor, Ms. Giffey, says she worries that they will have to come together again soon, to keep supporting one another in the face of these kinds of attacks.
A few feet away stand two young men. They linger in front of a restaurant and then take pictures of the demonstrators. Then they move on. Maybe they’re just curious passers-by. Maybe they are lost tourists. Or – given the current climate – maybe the pictures they took will soon appear in some dubious online spot, together with the words: Some folks in Neukölln who “deserve a visit.”
This article first appeared in Berlin daily, Der Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org