There isn’t a clear playbook for people who suddenly find their hometown filled with neo-Nazis. They can ignore them and hope they go away quickly. They can protest peacefully, and potentially put their lives on the line against armed and dangerous white supremacists. They can attempt to meet force with force, and risk men like Donald Trump blurring the lines between racist and anti-racist protests.
Three years ago, however, a small German town found a fourth option — you can involuntarily conscript Nazis into anti-Nazism.
Wunsiedel, a town of less than 10,000 people, was once the burial site of Nazi leader Rudolf Hess, former top deputy to Adolf Hitler. Though Hess’ body was exhumed in 2011 and the grave was destroyed, dozens of neo-Nazis still made an annual pilgrimage to Wunsiedel, marching through the town wearing black clothes and displaying green flags. (German law bans the display of Nazi iconography such as swastikas.)
In 2014, after enduring the annual Nazi march for over a quarter century, Wunsiedel residents responded with “Germany’s most involuntary charity walk” — a project of the Center for Democratic Culture in Germany (ZDK Deutschland).
The idea of the walk, labeled “Nazis against Nazis,” was to make the neo-Nazis’ march the trigger for an anti-Nazi fundraiser. For every meter the neo-Nazis walked, donors agreed to give €10 to EXIT-Deutschland, an organization that helps neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists escape radicalism and build new lives.
Residents marked the path of the march with milestones thanking the neo-Nazis for how much money they’ve raised so far — including a big banner at the end of the march announcing that the marchers raised a total of €10,000 to fight Nazism. Banners with slogans like “If only the Führer knew!” and “Quick like a greyhound! Tough like leather! And as generous as never before” taunted the neo-Nazis along the way.
While this tactic has not kept Nazis out of towns like Wunsiedel entirely, it appears to have discouraged their presence. After the German town of Remagen deployed a similar tactic, ZDK Deutschland’s Fabian Wichmann told Vice that attendance at that town’s neo-Nazi march was nearly cut in half. “Last year more than 200 people came to Remagen to demonstrate,” Wichmann told the publication in 2015. “This year we started Nazis Against Nazis there and only 100 or 120 people came.”
“I don’t know if Nazis Against Nazis is the reason the group shrank,” Wichmann admitted, “but we see that the neo-Nazis see our actions, discuss them, and think about how to handle it. I think they have no idea how to combat our actions.”
Villanova philosophy professor Yannik Thiem, who grew up close to Wunsiedel before moving to the United States, told ThinkProgress over email that even if Nazis Against Nazis didn’t diminish the number of right-wingers showing up to racist rallies, it did seem to discourage them.
“As I understand from friends in Germany, in 2014 and after the neo-Nazis left town very quickly after doing their march,” Thiem wrote. “There are always about 200 who show up. They no longer hang around and hand out information.”
There’s at least one effort underway to replicate Nazis Against Nazis in the United States.
Following Donald Trump’s election, Stephanie Frank launched a Facebook group called “The Daily Constitutional” to provide group members with “one daily action, meant to protect constitutional government” they could perform. After the events in Charlottesville, she knew she wanted to do something. But she was concerned about the most effective approach to take.
For one, she wanted to push back against neo-Nazi movements without fueling them. “It became very clear to me that the far right was going to be galvanized by what they view as their success in Charlottesville,” Frank told ThinkProgress over the phone. And given her commitment to constitutional values, she also didn’t want to push a solution that could undermine them — Frank said she is “not going to start campaigning against free speech.”
The German Nazis Against Nazis campaign fit right into that sweet spot. It is respectful of free speech rights while dismissive of the Nazis’ message. It humiliates white supremacists and fosters internal divisions within neo-Nazi groups, rather than leaving them feeling triumphant.
To encourage Americans to embrace this anti-Nazi tactic, Frank launched “Operation Make Lemonade” this week. After posting a Google form on Monday soliciting input from people interested in copying Nazis Against Nazis, she said she’s heard from a few other folks with similar ideas — including an Indivisible group based in Laguna Beach, California and an effort based in Maine that arose out of the pro-Hillary Clinton group Pantsuit Nation and that is now aiming to raise funds for anti-racist groups.
Thiem also mentioned other creative tactics anti-racist demonstrators have deployed to prevent racists from delivering their message. “I have participated in other related initiatives, such as brass marching bands and “noise brigades” (vuvuzelas, drums, brass) to drown out fascists’ speeches at their rallies,” said Thiem. “I’ve also participated in counter-protests that were organized as dance parties (again, noise to drown out the chants and disregarding the neo-Nazis, who thrive on the attention and confrontation).”
These participatory protests — and other, more traditional counter-protests — are important, Thiem argued, even if they don’t actively discourage Nazis from rallying.
“When antifascist, antiracist protests are big and have lots of people turn out, it communicates that this is ‘the normal/right way to think’ — it empowers anti-racists to speak up and it marginalizes racists.”