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German neo-Nazis are trying to go mainstream with MMA and music festivals

“The younger people, they’re attracted to the fighting and the music.”

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Apr 24 2018, 6:01pm

Neo-nazis took over the small town of Ostritz, Germany last weekend to celebrate Hitler's birthday and recruit new members. Roman Kutzowitz for VICE News. 

OSTRITZ, Germany — Their chants could be heard even before they came into view: 40 or so white men, most of them sporting shaved heads, and pumped up on beer, fascism, and a pack mentality. They wore T-shirts that barely coded their radical politics: “Brown, even without the sun,” read one slogan. One man was even more blunt: He had the German word for “racist” tattooed across his cheek.

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“If you don’t love Germany, you should leave Germany,” the neo-Nazis chanted as they advanced on the police force that was brought into the town to maintain the peace.

The troublemakers were among the 1,000 neo-Nazis from across Europe who descended on the German town of Ostritz over the weekend for a far-right festival held to celebrate the birthday of Adolf Hitler. The two-day event turned this picturesque village of some 2,400 people into a tense battlefield, and revealed new strategies used by Europe’s most militant right in their quest for relevance.

Organized by a fringe ultra-nationalist political group, the National Democratic Party (NPD), the “Shield and Sword” festival promised attendees a broad lineup of far-right attractions, including political speeches, a rock concert by extremist bands, an MMA tournament from a far-right promoter, and stalls for popular far-right streetwear brands. Organizers said the event had drawn people from 15 countries, including the U.S., Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary.

The festival highlighted two major strategies being pursued by Europe’s violent far-right as it attempts to broaden its appeal beyond the margins: The movement's concerted efforts to coordinate across international borders and capitalize on the rapidly growing sporting juggernaut of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) to broaden its appeal to young people.

Both far-right experts and festivalgoers say the strategy is bearing fruit, injecting fresh blood into extremist networks; there was an alarming number of young faces at the festival, many wearing the T-shirts of a far-right German MMA promotion, prompting grumbles from some of the grizzled scene veterans about the straight-edge values of their new comrades.

Neo-Nazis and NPD members surged toward police barricades in the town of Ostritz, Germany over the weekend. Tim Hume for VICE News.

“Our goal has been to create an event that unites everything: politics, art, music, and sports,” said festival organizer Thorsten Heise, the NPD’s chair in the neighboring state of Thuringia. While organizers were careful to make no mention of Hitler or Nazi politics — to do so would have been against German law — attendees who spoke to VICE News openly identified as such, and acknowledged that the event was a celebration of Hitler’s birthday.

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“We’re not saying it officially, but of course it is,” said Uwe Meener, a 53-year-old Berlin resident and veteran of Germany’s far-right scene.

Asked if he identified as a Nazi, he said it was a fair label. “If you want to call me that, that’s OK,” he said. “I am for an authoritarian state, with a social basis. I’m an enemy of democracy.”

Competing for relevance

The NPD, an extremist political organization typically described as a neo-Nazi group, is hardly a party on the up. Its membership has nearly halved to about 4,000 in the past decade, with its support eaten away by the stunning rise of the more populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which won 12.6 percent of the vote in last year’s federal elections. Last year, Germany’s Supreme Court rejected a bid to outlaw the NPD, finding that, while it sought to undermine democracy and bring about an authoritarian German ethno-state, it lacked the ability to pose any real threat.

“The younger people, they’re attracted to the fighting and the music.”

But the party has deep roots in a far-right extremist scene that is only rising, and it hopes to tap into these networks to spur a political renaissance, spreading its ideology through the right-wing rock and MMA scenes in a bid to draw new recruits.

“The different wings of the movement, the different streams, are all coming together here,” said Meener, adding that he considered the festival a success.

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In particular, he was buoyed by what he saw as the pendulum swinging in his political direction, in the same global lurch to the right that brought the world President Trump and Brexit — even if his party’s far-right rivals, the AfD, are the prime beneficiaries for now.

“Look at the AfD… they completely paralyzed the system out of nowhere,” he said admiringly. “Or you look at Trump or Brexit… It’s because of migration – that’s what connects us all.”

Modernizing with MMA

Neo-Nazis at the festival, held under the motto “Reconquista Europe,” told VICE News that the new faces were being drawn to far-right politics by two major factors: anxieties over Muslim immigration into Europe, and the scene’s efforts to modernize and broaden its subcultural appeal beyond the skinhead rock scene that defined the far-right in previous decades.

Organizers of “Shield and Sword” Festival sought to fuse extreme right-wing politics with the MMA subculture. Roman Kutzowitz for VICE News.

“We’re trying to connect the cultural and the political worlds,” said Meener. “The younger people, they’re attracted to the fighting and the music.”

Specifically, the concerted push by far-right networks into the sport of MMA — co-opting straight-edge values, a body-conscious outlook, and a “warrior” mentality — was helping to draw more young men into fascism, both the far-right and its opponents say. The Shield and Sword festival featured an MMA tournament by Kampf der Nibelungen, a German MMA promotion affiliated with a network of other explicitly far-right MMA tournaments across Europe, in France, Greece, Italy, and Russia.

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“It’s a question of fashion,” festival chair Heise told VICE News. “We’re seeing lots of young people in Europe not interested in drugs, they’re interested in fighting — in the ring, with rules. Especially in the nationalist scene, it’s the style — to be fit, to have a nice body. We love that, and the MMA fighters all love this also.”

But not all within the far-right scene are comfortable with the new dynamics in the movement. Drinking beer with his friends on a footpath outside the festival, Martin, a 31-year-old self-employed painter from near Saxony’s state capital, Dresden, told VICE News he was not a big fan of the influx of foreign extremists at the event, or the young MMA fanatics who were entering the scene.

“They come here even though they are seen as a joke by the other Nazis.”

Martin — who wouldn’t give his last name, citing fear of blowback on his business — is a skinhead who is an 18-year veteran of Saxony’s active far-right scene. He was dismissive of the straight edge lifestyle many of the younger MMA fighters advocated, and said he found their obsession with their physiques narcissistic. “They’re all me, me, me,” he said, complaining that the mentality conflicted with the scene’s value of brotherhood above all.

He was also wary of the festival becoming too cosmopolitan, with the presence of so many foreign neo-Nazis. “I think they come because they envy the strength of what we have in Germany,” he said.

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At a counter-demonstration a short distance away, Mateusz Piątkowski, a left-wing activist from Gdansk, Poland, said he found the involvement of Polish and other foreign skinheads in the event baffling, given the obvious xenophobia of the German neo-Nazis. Polish neo-Nazis had cancelled their own planned celebration of Hitler’s birthday to attend the festival, despite the fact one of the performers on the bill having lyrics in his back catalogue that read: “Since when do Polacks belong to the Aryan race?”

“They come here even though they are seen as a joke by the other Nazis, and some of the bands that are playing claim that Poles are a lower race. It’s absurd for me,” said Piątkowski.

But it seemed these national differences were largely overridden by the shared animosity towards a group seen as an external enemy, he said. “They’re driven by hate, towards Muslims — they see them as the primary enemy and they don’t see anything outside that,” he said. “This is what fuels them.”

New styles, old ways

Saxony’s police responded to the presence of 1,000 neo-Nazis in Ostritz with their largest operation in the state in a decade, effectively locking down the sleepy border village in an attempt to prevent skinheads from attacking locals, antifa or members of the press.

Organizers had registered it as a political event, meaning that journalists legally had the right to enter; earlier in the week, Heise had pledged that journalists would be allowed in, accompanied by police and security, for an hour-long window on Saturday. But, after a German journalist was assaulted entering the venue Friday night, the offer was withdrawn Saturday. Police said that due to their intelligence about the individuals inside, and the heightened threat level they posed, they advised journalists not to try to enter, and would not provide a security escort.

According to far-right monitoring groups at the event, members of Germany’s most dangerous skinhead networks, including those who provided logistical support to the National Socialist Underground, the country’s most notorious far-right terrorist group — were present. Police would not comment on the claims or provide further details on who was inside.

Organizers of the “Shield and Sword” Festival designed an event fusing far-right politics with performance by extremist rock bands and an MMA tournament. The event resembled a traditional music festival, with attendees camping in tents on the festival grounds. Roman Kutzowitz for VICE News

Outside a few isolated skirmishes, more widespread violence never materialized, but the extremists cast a menacing presence over the town, with neo-Nazis stalking the streets in packs. At one point, a skinhead lunged across a barrier and slapped my phone out of my hands as I photographed him. “We’ll see each other later,” he threatened as he was led away by police.

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“When they leave the festival, they feel stronger. When they go to their cars and start to make their way home, that’s the most dangerous time.”

As the beer took hold, the neo-Nazis also became more brazen about flirting with, sometimes steamrolling over, the various red lines created by Germany’s strict hate speech laws. The display of symbols like the swastika or the SS insignia is illegal in Germany and many attendees had sections of their tattoos wrapped in tape to cover such images.

But the laws still leave a lot of wiggle room, and the extremists openly skirted the boundaries. While displaying the swastika is illegal, attendees wore T-shirts with the logo “HKNKRZ” (“hakenkreuz” is German for swastika) with no issues. Others were spotted flirting with the illegal Roman salute, flashing it briefly before repeatedly opening and closing their hand quickly as if they were waving to a child, to stay on the right side of the law.

Other times they couldn’t resist crossing the line. Police in Saxony said they registered about 70 criminal charges over the weekend, the majority of them for displaying “anti-constitutional symbols.” VICE News saw one skinhead detained by the police after giving the Roman salute; on another occasion, a group taunted journalists by pointing their loudspeakers in our direction and blaring a recording of a Hitler speech.

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Such shows of menacing bravado are typical for far-right events, which play an important role in boosting scene morale, experts say. “It raises their morale when they get together and have a lot of people saying ‘Sieg Heil’,” said Michael Nattke, a former neo-Nazi who is now a researcher for Kulturbüro Sachsen, an extremist monitoring group in Saxony.

“When they leave the festival, they feel stronger. When they go to their cars and start to make their way home, that’s the most dangerous time.”

Cover image: Neo-nazis took over the small town of Ostritz, Germany last weekend to celebrate Hitler's birthday and recruit new members. Roman Kutzowitz for VICE News.

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