by Christoph Rehage

I thought about whether I thought it was okay to punch a nazi or not. You know, with the things going on in Berkeley and all. My conclusion: it might be okay to punch a nazi, it might even feel desirable, but it’s detrimental to the cause. And that’s why I don’t like the Antifa.

Or let me clarify this: I don’t like the Antifa when they are being violent. I used to like them and support them for punching nazis here in Germany, but I changed my mind. All it took was learning about something that was happening in my home town Bad Nenndorf.

You might not know this, but Bad Nenndorf is home to one of the largest nazi rallies in all of Germany. How come?

Well, for most of Germany’s post war history, Bad Nenndorf wasn’t even on the nazis’ radar. They would gather once a year at Spandau Prison near Berlin, the place where German war criminals were incarcerated, many of them for life. The highest-ranking of these prisoners was Rudolf Hess, who had been Deputy Führer at one point, and the nazis would come once a year to celebrate his birthday (and I think to just celebrate the general fact that they were being nazis).

When Hess died and the prison got demolished in the 1980s (he had been the last prisoner), the nazis were looking for a new place to go. Some of them went to his grave in a small town called Wunsiedel, but that apparently didn’t do it for them, especially since his family had him exhumed and cremated at some point just so they would stop coming.

And that’s where Bad Nenndorf comes into play. What many people didn’t know (or didn’t want to know) was the fact that British occupying forces had used a sanatorium in the center of Bad Nenndorf to extract information from German prisoners of war. And by “extract information”, I mean torture. And by “prisoners of war”, I mean nazis. It was all very messy. Some people apparently died under torture, and it seems as though some of them turned out later to be innocent. It seems understandable that most people would just want to forget about this chapter in British-German history.

Until the media started picking up on it in the early 2000s. Articles were written, and at least one documentary was made (you can find it on YouTube).

I can only imagine how happy the nazis were when they heard about this. They immediately filed an application which would grant them the right to hold a yearly rally to commemorate the “victims of the Allied torture camp” – for almost thirty years. Germany is a democracy that values freedom of expression, and the official message of the rally seemed to adhere to the principles of German law, so their application passed. In the summer of 2006, the nazis came to Bad Nenndorf to hold their first rally. Their message, though not explicitly expressed, was loud and clear: World War II had seen many war crimes, some committed by the Axis and some by the Allies, and it was all just the same. The Holocaust was just another war crime, nothing special.

It was terrible.

Ever since that first rally in 2006, every year on a Sunday in August, a group of a few hundred nazis would come to Bad Nenndorf to hold their rally. A group of several thousand Antifa, mostly young people with backpacks, hoodies and face masks would also come to Bad Nenndorf to prevent the nazis from holding their rally. And an innumerable amount of policewomen and policemen with cars, trucks, and horses would come to Bad Nenndorf to make sure the place didn’t end up in total chaos.

And the people of Bad Nenndorf? They didn’t seem to want any of this. Not the police with their barriers, not the Antifa with their yelling and their rampaging, and certainly not the nazis with, you know, them being nazis.

A typical rally went like this: the local administration designated a route for the rally, the police then blocked it off with barriers, creating a corridor around the rally route. Local people could move freely within that corridor if they could prove that they lived in Bad Nenndorf, but non-residents (i.e. the Antifa) could not. The Antifa were kept outside of the corridor, far away from the nazis, because the police had no intentions of allowing both groups to clash.

So it basically looked like this:

[Antifa] [COPS] [corridor] [COPS] [nazi rally] [COPS] [corridor] [COPS] [Antifa]

(And of course some more police in the vicinity, just in case.)

Needless to say that these rallies were annoying as hell. And it seemed as though if anyone ever wanted to put an end to them, then the nazis had to be stopped. Naturally, there were many attempts to make that happen, yet none of them succeeded:

The legal route? – No avail. Nazis are nazis, but they should still have the right to express themselves, as long as they are within the law.

Violence? – Big clashes between the Antifa and the nazis were apparently always prevented by the police, but it never seemed as though the nazis were particularly worried about it anyway. After all, they liked to think of themselves as fighters, so why not prove their worth in a clash with the Antifa!

Blockades? – Some citizens of Bad Nenndorf tried this by tying themselves to the ground in a place where the nazis were supposed to march. They had to be removed by the police. The nazis didn’t mind.

Sabotage? – The Antifa once succeeded in blocking a train that was going to take the nazis to Bad Nenndorf from the next town, which is about 5 kilometers away. The nazis took on the challenge and marched. And if we know one thing about nazis it’s that they really like marching.

But there was one thing that apparently worked somehow. How do we know that it worked? Well, because the nazi numbers have been dwindling ever since, and they even cancelled their rally last year, in August 2016.

So, what was this secret method, this anti-nazi repellent that made them go away?

It was mockery.

There is a German initiative called EXIT that aims to help nazis quit the scene and stop being nazis. Apart from providing help and counseling, they also try to actively reach out to nazis. One way they do it is through humor.

One time they made black t-shirts with some sort of German nationalistic imagery on the front. A skull with the word “national rebels” or whatever. They passed these out for free at nazi rock concerts. But the nazis who took their new shirts home and washed them had to witness them losing their color and their artwork and turning out white with a logo that said: “if your shirt can change, so can you.” They were trojan shirts.

There are several initiatives like this in Germany.

Bad Nenndorf teamed up with an initiative called Rechts Gegen Rechts (right vs right), and they came up with a plan that had worked well before in Wunsiedel, the place that had seen the nazi rallies to the grave of Rudolf Hess.

The idea was simple: the nazis were to rally against themselves.

Contributors from Bad Nenndorf made a pledge that for every meter that was being marched by the nazis, they would donate a certain amount of money to initiatives like EXIT.

So for the next nazi march in August that year, the people of Bad Nenndorf decorated their town. They made sure to use lots of colors and especially lots of pink, because they wanted their town to be pretty for the nazis.

There was only one problem: the police had told everyone that it was illegal to hold any sort of counter-demonstrations within the corridor next to the nazi rally. Security concerns. Luckily the people of Bad Nenndorf found a workaround: private parties!

Virtually every house along the route of the nazi parade became the location of a party that just so happened to be on that day. The owner of the house would pass out written invitations to his friends and everyone else who wanted to come and celebrate, and the police would let them pass through. After all, those people weren’t there for any counter-demonstrations, but for private parties. A lot of private parties.

That year, when the nazis came marching into town, they could not believe their eyes. The whole town was decorated, there was loud music and partying going on everywhere, and people seemed happy that they had come. There were markings on the road, indicating how far the nazis had marched in their quest to raise money against themselves. Ten meters. One hundred meters. One thousand meters!

And the people would be cheering the nazis on. “Come on!” they would say, “you can do it, keep going!” There were even rumors of individuals trying to hand out bananas to dumbfounded nazis.

I have only seen the nazi rally once. And while I can hardly relate to the feeling that many people describe as “patriotism”, that day I felt very proud of my home town Bad Nenndorf. On the day of the rally I was walking around within the corridor. There were parties here and there, and in one café I ran into an exchange student from Uganda who was being supplied with endless amounts of cake while some local ladies were explaining to him who those ridiculous nazis were, the ones who were trying to hold a solemn march while everyone else around them was partying.

It was perfect.

The Antifa, however, was not in on the joke. They were outside of the corridor, screaming, heckling, yelling, and everyone could sense that they were ready for violence. I had three encounters with the Antifa.

The first one was when they suspected me of being a nazi because I was walking around with my camera and I had short hair. At first they were aggressive, but once they had realized that I was a local they suddenly became apologetic. “We are only trying to help you guys!” they said. “Do we look like we need your help?” I asked them.

The second encounter was when I mingled with them later. They were shouting one of their slogans that went: “Alerta, alerta, Antifascista!” I could not understand the words of the slogan, so I asked a girl next to me what it was she was shouting. “I’m not sure either”, she said with a smile, “Alada, alada, Antifascista?”

The third time was when the Antifa broke through the police barrier around the corridor. They came rushing through, into the corridor, into our party space, and I could see some local ladies trying to persuade them to stay back. “Nein!” the ladies would scream, “Nein!” They looked very heroic to me, how they were trying to shout back a mob of young men in hoodies and face masks.

But of course they failed, and the Antifa ended up brawling with the police, because the police were determined to not let them break the barrier that led from the corridor to the actual nazi rally. It was all very ugly.

I talked to the police that day. Or rather, I talked to a young officer who was standing around outside of the corridor. He didn’t look like he had much to do. “Hey, how’s it going?” I asked him. He gave me a very dismissive look, and it took a while to convince him that I hadn’t come to annoy him. I was genuinely interested in his perspective on the whole issue.

“I’m not supposed to comment on this”, he finally said, “but here it is: I don’t like those nazis either. I don’t like them, and still I have to protect their stupid rally. It’s my job. So I come here and stand around in the heat for a day, hoping that nothing bad happens, while the Antifa is down there accusing me and my guys of being fascists.” He shook his head. “Well, at least we’re getting paid extra, because today is a Sunday.”

And this brings me back to my initial thought: I really don’t like the Antifa. I can’t say much about their motives, but I will say this: it seems to me that some of them might have only randomly ended up on their end of the political spectrum. Had they been hanging out with different people, their inclination towards violence would have made some fine nazis out of them. But then again it’s hard to pass judgement on what’s in a man’s heart.

One thing we can judge though is the things they are doing. The violence. Do I think that the nazis who are marching through Bad Nenndorf are by no means punchable? No, I don’t. It would give me satisfaction to see them being punched. But what cause would that serve? Would it weaken the nazis’ resolve? Would it prevent anyone else from becoming a nazi? Do blockades and sabotage acts ever make a nazi anything but more determined?

Actually, I think that the nazis aren’t just fine with the Antifa punching them, they actually enjoy it for two reasons: first, it’s part of their identity. I don’t claim to know much about the psychology of the common nazi, but there are a few tropes that seem to be clear: manliness is important, the seriousness of the mission is important, the heroics of standing against adversaries are important.

Being attacked is part of the nazi identity.

Second, any attack on them can be used by them against the rest of society. They can point to their bruises and say: look, you are not better than we are! And this is precisely one of their central storylines: Axis vs Allies, Buchenwald vs Bad Nenndorf, nazis vs Antifa – they want everyone else to think it’s all the same, that there is nothing particularly bad about being a nazi.

And yet there are some things that nazis seem to be unable to cope with. The little town of Bad Nenndorf being all colorful and nicely decorated for them is one of those things. People applauding the march of the nazis, people playing loud music, people toasting with beer and laughing at them is another thing.

The nazis never told us the reason why they cancelled their rally last year. I remember they said it was due to bad weather or something. It doesn’t really matter anyway. It wasn’t because of the weather, it wasn’t because of fatigue, and it wasn’t because of the Antifa. It was because a large number of citizens from Bad Nenndorf came out to mock those nazis and make it very clear to them:

We are all different, and we embrace our differences. We are more than you, and we’re not scared of you. In fact, we’re having a pretty good time, while you’re out there behaving like idiots. Be our guests, cheers.

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