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Hang Up Your Boots

Jamel, a tiny village in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a Nazi fairy-tale hamlet.

A barbecue bearing the inscription “Happy Holocaust” in the backyard of Thinghaus. It was guarded by two Caucasian Shepherds. Jamel, a tiny village in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, is a Nazi fairy-tale hamlet. It has attracted far-right residents since the 1990 unification of Germany, and its most famous resident is Sven Krüger, an entrepreneur and right-wing politician recently arrested for handling stolen goods and possessing an unlicensed gun. Krüger has done his best to expel from Jamel those who weren’t into measuring the distance to Hitler’s birthplace (a signpost, since removed, informed residents that it was 855 kilometers to the Austrian town of Braunau am Inn), and has provided office space for the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), now locally headquartered at his company premises in nearby Grevesmühlen. When he decorated the headquarters with the prewar German flag and displayed his company logo of a construction worker smashing a Star of David, any remaining doubts about his extremist beliefs evaporated. Rumors of children greeting strangers with “Heil Hitler” catapulted Jamel into the media spotlight, which frequently—and rightly—pointed out that far-right ideologies in Germany are not a ghost from the past, but are still thriving, especially in the former East Germany. When I visited the alleged “Nazi village” of Jamel, I was disappointed. It’s a tiny settlement of eight houses built along a semi-paved road that takes a few minutes to walk through. If I hadn’t known that more than half of Jamel’s 37 residents enjoy painting murals verging on the unconstitutional (it is illegal in Germany to display symbols associated with or celebrating the Nazi regime) and have been accused of participation in acts of ultra-right violence, the village would have seemed idyllic and peaceful. Uwe Wandel, the mayor of Grevesmühlen, toured the small settlement with me. When I inquired about any actual cases of violence in Jamel, he mentioned the early 90s, when a house of non-fascist residents was set on fire by arsonists. Lately, the worst crime the town has seen is pollution from Krüger’s demolition company’s alleged illegal dumping of waste. According to Wandel, the villagers know who’s responsible for the dumping, though all have claimed ignorance. And without witnesses, no one can be charged. Wandel doesn’t have a problem with the existence of fascists, only their illegal activities. “You won’t be able to solve the far-right problem from one day to the next. There will always be people who believe in these ideologies,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that. It’s freedom of opinion. Why should only my freedom count? As long as they don’t break the law, they can do whatever they want. And if they do, the public and the state have to act.” This mural has become Jamel’s trademark in the ongoing media coverage. It displays the far-right “ideal family” with three children and the village motto: “liberated—social—national.” Jamel, with its small size and remote location, seemed like the perfect place to establish a community of the likeminded fascists. According to Wandel, the new residents had a simple—and sinister—agenda: “Abolish the German state and resurrect the Third Reich.” Browse the homepage of MUPInfo, a local NPD-affiliated website whose editor is based in Krüger’s Grevesmühlen office, and one can find all sorts of “racial hatred like in 1933,” he added. We went over to Grevesmühlen to visit Krüger’s “Thinghaus,” which roughly translates as “house for the community.” (According to MUPInfo, Thinghaus is a “haven of freedom,” but according to the newspaper Hamburger Morgenpost, it resembles a “concentration camp.”) The next two hours were the closest I’ve ever been to actual white supremacists. I mumbled my surname during introductions, relieved no one noticed my Polish origins. Talking to David Petereit, who runs MUPinfo, and Stefan Köster, the local head of NPD, was almost as shocking as catching sight of a babrecue bearing the inscription, in English, “Happy Holocaust.” Petereit was superficially friendly, trying to bond with me because we’re both “in media.” Köster, on the other hand, reminded me of an evil version of the painter Sigmar Polke, an impression reinforced when he told of his conviction for assaulting a left-wing woman. She was, he argued chivalrously, masked and “not recognizable as a woman.” Both Köster and Petereit see a huge demographic catastrophe on the horizon, with immigrants crowding out the good (Aryan) German people. Who were they directing all this hatred toward, considering only 2 percent of the population in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is foreign born? “Leipzig has a foreigner population of 8 percent and that happened within just a few years,” Köster responded. “These are developments that will eventually come here as well. We don’t want that. It’s not about us hating foreigners. It’s just that if you look at the bigger cities, their social structure is totally messed up. I don’t want young people being stabbed in train stations. That happens almost daily in Hamburg. We are just very forward-looking.” Stefan Köster, head of NPD in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and David Petereit, editor of far-right platform MUPInfo, in front of Thinghaus in Grevesmühlen. Their “forward-looking” anticrime stance is one of the features that makes the NPD attractive to voters who don’t consider themselves fascists. The party helps unemployed seniors and state-benefit recipients with their paperwork and legal issues, and invests heavily in youth recruitment, distributing everything from brochures featuring cute nationalist cartoon fish to schoolyard CDs of far-right music. The latter have recently been banned, a prohibition to which Petereit objects. It’s far-fetched, he says, to argue that lyrics about “boots echoing through Berlin” refer to the SS—they might allude to Napoleon, the Soviets, or the contemporary German army. After my conversation with Köster and Petereit, the tiny enclave of Jamel, whose residents seemed to disregard the rest of the world, seemed fairly unthreatening. I left Thinghaus to meet up with Gabriele Hünmörder, a local youth-club manager who has worked with adolescents since before the reunification. She’s seen it all, from the rise of neo-Nazism in the early 90s, to fascist kids growing up, settling down, starting families, and eventually losing interest in the far-right scene. She claims that Krüger is an example of personal frustration turning into a political crusade. “Sven got more beatings than warm meals as a kid. It’s always about a family or surrogate family,” Hünmörder said. While we sat in Hünmörder’s office, plastered with Native American art, two of her “kids,” now young adults, arrived. The older one, she whispered, used to belong to the Wiking-Jugend, an extremist youth organization. During his days in Wiking-Jugend, he traveled with a group of disciples following him around, carrying his bags, and standing at attention, reinforcing the view that many of these kids were looking for someone to tell them what to do in the chaotic years after the reunification. When he finally broke with the group, he got a fractured jaw in return. “It’s like a sect. They have their strategies to ensnare the kids,” she said. To her surprise, the far-right scene has become more sophisticated and refined over the past few years, leaving behind the combat boots and skinhead aesthetic, and instead incorporating figures like Che Guevara and Dolores Ibárruri into their propaganda, which is more attractive to adolescents than muttering about Hitler. While Jamel has been a magnet for the media in the past year, the extreme right is active beyond its borders. And, as demonstrated by recent regional elections in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the NPD won 6 percent of the vote, the party knows how to attract voters, advocating harsher punishments for pedophiles and the abolition of the euro. But even if a German court demands Krüger practice his extremist politics from a jail cell, his spirit—and ideology—will definitely live on. The sign above the entrance to Thinghaus displays the runic letter Algiz, which stands for defense, as well as the saying “Rather dead than a slave” in Proto-Germanic. Krüger’s company logo on the door depicts a construction worker smashing a Star of David. A barbed wire fence, watchtower, and the old German flag shield the “Happy Holocaust” barbecue from anyone walking behind Thinghaus. This police car replica constitutes one of two playtime opportunities for the ten children living in Jamel. None of the kids gave a “Heil Hitler” salute, by the way. Neither the residents nor the mayor dare to speak out about the link between Krüger’s demolition company and an illegal dump full of building rubble and detritus that is polluting Jamel.