The townsfolk of Themar watched anxiously as 6,000 people gathered in a field for a music festival in their quiet rural village in Thuringia, the densely-forested state traditionally known as the “green heart of Germany.”
They had good reason to be wary. While the event bore all the hallmarks of any other event on the summer festival circuit – live music, merch, overpriced beer and food – this had one key difference: the visitors were right-wing extremists, many from the hardcore neo-Nazi scene.
The visitors, outnumbering the population of Themar two-to-one, had gathered to hear bands from the Rechtsrock, or right-wing rock, scene: a German term for music that’s a vehicle for far-right, neo-Nazi ideology. The lineup included notorious acts like Die Lunikoff Verschwörung (The Lunikoff Conspiracy), whose lead singer had previously been jailed when his earlier band, Landser, became the first musical group to be declared a criminal organisation by a German court for spreading hate.
The event was a veritable who’s who of the extreme-right scene, drawing together prominent far-right activists, members of violent white supremacist networks like the Hammerskins, and speakers linked to neo-Nazi micro-parties and the extreme-right mixed martial arts scene. Security was provided by the feared neo-Nazi gang, the Turonen, who played a major role in organising the festival, and whose alleged leader was also reportedly a member of one of the bands on the bill. (The gang, which has reportedly organised more than a dozen neo-Nazi concerts in recent years, would later be targeted in a massive raid involving more than 500 police officers, including special forces, in February this year, as part of an investigation into alleged large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering.)
The festival in Themar was the most dramatic manifestation of a largely underground neo-Nazi music scene that plays a key role in sustaining far-right networks in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While events of that scale aren’t completely unheard of – about 5,000 people attended a neo-Nazi festival in Unterwasser, Switzerland in October 2016 – the scene is comprised mostly of smaller festivals – held across Europe from Ukraine to Italy to Greece – and local underground far-right rock circuits.
Experts say that, besides giving fascists an excuse to hang out and headbang to terrible Nazi rock, the scene performs vital functions for right-wing extremist networks, from networking to scene strengthening to fundraising.
“These events are kind of a self-affirmation for the scene - so you can party with likeminded people,” said Christoph Lammert, a far-right expert for MOBIT. His group works to counter right-wing extremism in Thuringia, whose entrenched neo-fascist underground has led researchers to jokingly refer to it as “the brown heart of Germany” – a reference to the brown shirts worn by the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing.
The concerts provide an important forum for real-world networking between extremists from different corners of the far-right scene – allowing them to get face-to-face, learn and draw inspiration from each other, and potentially plot further action. They’re also a prime opportunity for more radical, militant groups to recruit people who were part of the far-right subculture, but unaffiliated to any specific organisation, into their networks.
“You can establish connections to other persons from the scene, even from abroad, and you can mobilise people who are not involved in the organised structures,” said Lammert.
Nicholas Potter, a researcher at German anti-racist group Amadeu Antonio Foundation, said the concerts served as “spaces in which Nazis can live out their ideology.”
“These are spaces where they can feel safe among their own. They can show the Hitler salute, which is illegal in Germany, and they can loudly voice their hateful ideology,” he said,
The concerts tended to attract the more radicalised core of the far-right scene, he said; it wasn’t uncommon for for attendees to have tattoos of banned Nazi symbols like the swastika, which would often be covered up en route to the venue to avoid issues with the authorities. The content of the music was “very extreme, with lyrics glorifying violent extremism, professing racist ideology and attacking the political enemies of the far-right.
Sometimes the lyrics even contain death threats against specific individuals. The shadowy neo-Nazi band Erschiessungskommando (Firing Squad) – which researchers believe the leader of the Turonen is also a member of – sold a CD at the 2016 Unterwasser festival which featured a track with lyrics outlining a fantasy of murdering Katharina König-Preuss, a left-wing MP in the Thuringian state parliament who has long campaigned against right-wing extremists.
“You will die cruelly, that is not the question,” state the lyrics to the track, which bears König-Preuss’s name, before detailing how the extremists would first kill her father, also a prominent anti-extremism campaigner.
Aside from their ideological component, the festivals are also an important source of income for the far-right. According to an estimate by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the festival in Themar may have generated up to €200,000 (roughly equivalent to £170,000 today) in revenue – money that’s funnelled back into extreme-right networks, including violent criminal groups like the Turonen.
“It's been a very lucrative business at times,” said Potter. That money, he said, can then be used to pay legal expenses for any legal cases, purchase property, and fund weapons, logistics, and other tools for violent extremism.
In a speech at the Themar festival, prominent far-right activist Axel Schlimper, leader of the Thuringian branch of the Holocaust-denying extremist group Europäische Aktion (European Action), explained how the money raised through the event was vital to furthering their political aims.
“Only our commercial success enables us to build up structures that function sustainably, and we have done this here,” he told festival goers, in a speech which was captured on video.
Held typically in remote, rural locations, where they are less likely to attract a major response from protesters or the authorities, the festivals can be a nightmare for locals suddenly faced with thousands of neo-Nazis drinking, partying and generally doing what they wanted in their backyards.
“For the inhabitants of the villages. It's a very bad situation,” said Thorsten Hindrichs, a musicologist at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz who specializes in far-right music subcultures.
“For a couple of days, [life] is more or less shut down. We have lots of police and lots of neo-Nazis, and there's no way to live your usual life.” This show of collective strength, against the authorities and society at large, he said, was another important function of the festivals.
Experts say the far-right rock scene tends to draw an older crowd, with the style of music generally holding scant appeal to a younger audience. To that end, a new generation of right-wing extremists has branched out into far-right rap, attempting to harness a more popular and contemporary musical genre as a vehicle to spread their ideology.
That, in turn, has sparked an ongoing debate within far-right circles over whether it should, or could ever, embrace “Nazi rap.”
“There’s one faction that says… it's a Black tradition. And they don't want to have anything to do with it,” said Hindrichs.
“There's another faction that says, ‘OK, but hip hop is the most popular genre in Europe in the charts for the youth, and so we have to deal with that.’
“It’s half and half, I would say,”
Lammert said that despite remaining a resolutely underground phenomenon, the neo-Nazi rock scene had been steadily growing in recent years prior to the pandemic, with an increasing number of events on the calendar. But while the scene – like the live music industry in general – had been largely brought to a standstill by the pandemic and associated lockdowns, he had no doubt the hatefests would resume as soon as promoters were able to get them up and running again.
“We expect that they’ll turn to these concerts again,” he said. “It's a source of income and they're quite successful in mobilising people.”