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Heil Hipster: The Young Neo-Nazis Trying to Put a Stylish Face on Hate

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In their latest 2013 report, the Bundesverfassungschutz concluded that there are approximately 22,000 members of the extreme right in Germany, including 9,600 who are "willing to engage in violence." According to official statistics,they committed 473 violent crimes against foreigners last year — a shocking 20 percent rise over the previous year.

In September, for example, three suspected neo-Nazis brutally beat a 15-year-old in Saxony, allegedly because the boy was half Taiwanese. The same month, a Turkish immigrant was nearly beaten to death by a group of nine alleged neo-Nazis in a train station in Saxony-Anhalt and this February, a group of more than a dozen neo-Nazis walked into a community center in the town of Ballstaedt, in the state of Thuringia, and began assaulting the attendees at a party, sending two of them to the hospital.

NPD
Right wing activists of the NPD demonstrate against mass immigration in Berlin, Germany.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Despite its shrinking status, the NPD remains the most important manifestation of the German neo-Nazi scene. The party — which was founded in 1964 by Hitler loyalists, and which the government has tried to ban, unsuccessfully — is the public face of the movement, which is otherwise composed of various loose, small organizations spread across the country. But it has never managed to attain the five percent of the popular vote necessary for a political party to hold seats in the German federal parliament and only holds a few seats in the state parliaments of two German states.

The NPD's main platform is anti-immigration: A 2009 document sent out by the Berlin party head, for example, advocates banning "foreigners" from owning property in Germany. A 2012 investigation by Spiegel, Germany's leading news magazine, found — surprise — widespread anti-Semitism within the party. In 2011, a Vice reporter photographed a barbecue stamped with "Happy Holocaust" outside an NPD office, and the same year, one NPD campaign poster featured a candidate on a motorcycle above the words "Give gas." It was posted, among many other places, in front of Berlin's Jewish Museum.

Although the extreme right has existed in Germany, in various forms, since World War II, the neo-Nazi scene as it exists today largely took shape in the 1980s, and spread dramatically after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Especially in the post-reunification East, where young people were suddenly robbed of the Communist strictures and institutions they had grown up with, extreme-right politics provided an easy outside explanation for their economic and cultural alienation: multiculturalism, asylum seekers, American "imperialism," Israel and global big business.

In the 1990s, the skinhead became the embodiment of the neo-Nazi ethos — masculine, angry, violence-prone — and the news was awash with images of bullish, shaved-headed men with steel-toed combat boots and bomber jackets. During the neo-Nazi crime-waves of that decade, the German public learned to watch out for the brands favored by the extreme right: Fred Perry, which was worn because of its laurel wreath-logo, New Balance, chosen because "N" could stand for "Nazi" and, most prominently Lonsdale, the British sportswear brand. Although Lonsdale had always been popular in the left-wing British skinhead scene, it also offered German neo-Nazis the option of spelling out most of "NSDAP," the German acronym for the Nazi party, under a half-open bomber jacket. 

Today, Lonsdale is a popular sporting label in the United States, but in Germany it is still, despite its best efforts, widely seen as a Nazi brand. Geurt Schotsman, the politically-progressive owner of the brand's German license, has been trying to rid himself of the neo-Nazi association for over a decade — with a campaign called "Lonsdale Loves All Colours," a sponsorship of the Cologne Gay Pride parade and, this spring, official support of two left-wing German football clubs, Leipzig Roter Stern and SV Babelsberg. "If we had a huge budget, we would make a billboard campaign, and maybe that would solve the problem," Schotsman says, "but we don't have a huge budget." In 1999, Schotsman underwent the drastic measure of blacklisting stores with extreme-right associations, causing Lonsdale's German business to drop 35 percent — a tumble from which it is still recovering.

Around the turn of the 21st century, the skinhead look waned and the scene underwent another philosophical and aesthetic transformation. "Society had started to react against the extreme right, and it became less attractive for young people to stigmatize themselves," says Simone Rafael, the editor-in-chief of Netz Gegen Nazis, a blog that monitors the extreme right. As a result, a new extreme-right group, the Autonomous Nationalists (AN), began aping the look of the extreme left — black hoodies, black pants and even Che Guevara T-shirts (with the words "Not only Che would be with us") — and incorporating traditionally progressive issues like environmentalism and animal rights  into neo-Nazi ideology. "Once [neo-Nazi leaders] saw it was successful, it was taken up by the scene," says Rafael.

Almost simultaneously, in 2002, a Brandenburg-based clothing brand called Thor Steinar began to sell stylish-looking clothes, reminiscent of Aeropostale, with Germanic runes and emblazoned with provocative, ambiguously extreme-right slogans, like "Ski Heil." Thor Steinar was brought to court for its logo, which looked like a banned neo-Nazi symbol, but it later rebranded and in 2009 was sold to a company based in Dubai. It has registered its trademark in the United States — this spring it opened up its first British store in the North Finchley neighborhood in London — and in recent years, a slew of imitator brands have popped up, with names like Erik And Sons and Ansgar Aryan (the latter currently employs Patrick Schroeder in the sales department), allowing members of the extreme-right to surreptitiously identify each other in public.

These developments helped spur the notion, now championed by Knape and Schroeder, that young neo-Nazis should be allowed to dress however they want, as long as they have the "right" anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic ideas. This newly relaxed approach allows neo-Nazi leaders to attract young people from different subcultures and makes neo-Nazis more difficult for their opponents to identify. "Now the neo-Nazi youth culture is really broad," says Christoph Schulze, one of several left-wing activists who assemble the annual Versteckspiel ("Hide and seek"), a glossary of symbols used by members of the extreme-right to surreptitiously identify one another.

Those aforementioned symbols include everything from number codes (the most obvious: "88" to replace "Heil Hitler" — because "H" is the eighth letter in the alphabet) to logos (an eagle catching a Christian ichthys — a symbol of Germanic strength over "degenerates") to sayings ("14 words," which stands for a quote by American white nationalist David Lane). "The movement is always changing," Schulze says. "One thing goes out of fashion and there's already something new. This year it's the hipster."

Right wing activists of the NPD demonstrate against mass immigration in Berlin, Germany.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images

The nipster came to widespread attention in February of this year, when a photographer snapped a picture of a group of men wearing skinny jeans, unruly beards, plug piercings — and, in one case, a tote bag with the words "don't shove me, I've got a joghurt in my bag" — at an NPD march in Magdeburg. The photo quickly went viral in Germany and bloggers came up with the new portmanteau. Taz, the left-leaning Berlin daily, made a list of other hipster stances the Nazis could adopt ("change your favorite band when they become too mainstream."). 

Daniel Koehler, director of research at the Institute for the Study of Radical Movements in Berlin, says the nipster is less new than many people think — he's been seeing them at extreme-right rallies for the past two or three years. "When we first saw it, it was something weird," he says, "but now it's pretty normal."

"It's a pretty new phenomenon," Rafael says, noting that it marks a departure from the "manly" culture usually favored by the neo-Nazis. "It's a good example of how this kind of thing is used very strategically," she explains, echoing Schroeder. She has also noticed the emergence of a much hipper online neo-Nazi presence: "It's a way of bringing the ideology into other circles, of finding entry points into hipster culture — blogs, selfies, Tumblr and so forth."

She points to neo-Nazi Tumblrs, like Kindstattgross, which post stylized images of Nazi rallies and other heavily filtered extreme-right imagery. "I clicked on one of these Tumblr blogs, and suddenly discovered that there were tons and tons of them, where you wouldn't recognize the message, and they are becoming more subtle and confusing people who aren't part of the extreme right scene," explains Rafael. (It's also worth noting that neo-Nazis have started using the #nipster on Instagram.)

In recent years, a growing number of neo-Nazi groups have staged savvy viral campaigns, including one where they dressed up as the Sesame Street Cookie Monster and distributed pamphlets to schoolchildren, and another involving a man in a bear costume calling himself the "deportation bear" and posing in front of Hanover Turkish shops. "They can easily produce something that has the appearance of looking hip," says Koehler. "These aren't just dumb East German youth — they understand how to package their political ideology." 

Tim and Kevin, two 21-year-old self-proclaimed "nationalists and socialists" ("but anyone who reads this will know we're Nazis") from Hanover — who did not want to give their real names — say they have also noticed more people in the scene dressing like "hipsters," with skinny pants and tote bags. "It's noticeable," Tim says, over the phone, and explains that everything that emerges in German mainstream culture ends up in the [neo-Nazi] scene, just with a delay. "We don't walk around the city center with our eyes closed," he says, "we see what people are wearing on TV." He also agrees that the Nazi Tumblr style has gotten "more youthful" and "looser."

In February, Tim and Kevin started Balaclava Kueche, Germany's first Nazi vegan cooking show. In each episode, the two chatty, fast-talking men wear facemasks and earnestly explain to viewers how to make an array of vegan dishes (the first episode: mixed salad, tofu scramble). "The left-wing doesn't have a prior claim to veganism," says Tim. "Industrial meat production is incompatible with our nationalist and socialist world views."  

Both Tim and Kevin claim to live a straight-edge lifestyle — no alcohol, no drugs — and got involved in the scene in their late teens. "There was an election and I read up on all of the parties, and I wound up getting interested in the NPD," says Kevin. "Hitler isn't part of our era, but he's part of our ideology and that time, in terms of aesthetics and discipline and brotherhood, was a model for today," Tim adds. He also argues that the Allies carry the blame for the outbreak of World War II and that if people are going to dwell on the Holocaust they should also dwell more on Stalin's crimes. 

They started Balaclava Kueche as a fun project, to both encourage other people to stop eating animal products and portray their politics in a fun, sympathetic light. Early on, they attended NPD rallies, but were repelled by what they saw. "I don't think the rallies make much sense," Kevin says. "Most of the people there would scare people away with the way they look, and with their shitty sayings." They see viral campaigns, like the "deportation bear" as a highly effective way of reaching out to people.

And then there are the Identitaeren, a two-year-old group with origins in France that has gotten widespread attention for its use of stylish viral videos to promote anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiment. Although claiming to be anti-Nazi, they, like many members of the extreme right, espouse a concept called ethnopluralism, which argues that ethnic groups should only live in their respective home countries. Nils Altmieks, the movement's boyish, 27-year-old current leader, argues that Europe should be for Europeans — and not, for example, Africans — and cites the United States as an example of the dangers of embracing heterogeneity. "Multiculturalism isn't a contribution to cultural understanding, it's a cornerstone for conflict," he says, over Skype. He becomes wishy-washy when pressed about the exact borders of Europe ("Some might view Russia as European") and can't account for countries, like Canada, with high immigration and low crime.

German extremism researcher Alexander Haeusler has warned that the Identitaeren are insidiously attempting to make "racism modern and hip." Last year, group members filmed themselves disrupting a multiculturalism conference with a blaring boombox and they also have a dedicated video blogger — a stylish-looking young man who often wears thick plastic glasses frames and a hoodie and whose most recent dispatch is about the moral peril of eating ethnic food. In other videos they've dumped rubble in front of the office of a Green Party politician and posed with silly-looking 300-inspired shields in front of the Brandenburg Gate. "We aren't consciously a hipster movement, but today's young people grew up with this background," says Altmieks. "This is part of society." His favorite movie, he says, is Braveheart

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