This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
A dark-grey sky hangs over the small German town of Themar in the state of Thuringia on the 15th of July, 2017, as 6,000 neo-Nazis gather to attend the country's largest far-right wing concert in a decade. The sun, it seems, has no time for this shit. Photographer Sarah Lehnert and I do – though we're stuck in traffic towards the festival, which moves even less the closer we get to our destination.
On both sides of our car, hundreds of men walk by in shirts bearing snappy slogans celebrating Hitler and Nazism – for instance, "Wer A sagt, muss auch Dolf sagen" ("Whoever says A, must also say Dolf", a play on a the German proverb "Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen"). They're clenching their beer cans and generally do not look very relaxed or ready to party. For the last six miles we've passed one police checkpoint after the other but now there are no officers in sight, just neo-Nazis. The photographer and I roll up the windows as we get closer to the event, called Rock Against Überfremdung ("Uberfremdung" is a peculiar German word that roughly translates to being "swamped by foreigners").
The organisers chose to hold the festival in the state of Thuringia because of its large far-right community. "We didn't receive a single asylum seeker during the refugee crisis," Themar mayor Hubert Böse proudly told Spiegel Online . "Only 2.7 percent of our population are foreigners, and they're all well-integrated."
Today, festivalgoers will be treated to shows by, among others, "Stahlgewitter" (Steel Storm) – a band whose lyrics focus on the glory and might of Hitler's army – and Michael Regener's new group. Regener is the former lead singer of Landser, Germany's most famous neo-Nazi band. In 2003, Landser were banned and declared a criminal organisation. Regener was sentenced to three years in prison for inciting violence against the Jewish community.
The list of scheduled speakers features the country's most prominent far-right activists – members of Germany's main nationalist parties (NPD, Die Rechte and Der Dritte Weg) and local right-wing organisations like Thügida. Even Russian martial arts organisation White Rex, which teaches nationalists how to fight, will make an appearance on stage.
Honestly, seeing this many neo-Nazis in one place terrifies me. At Rock für Deutschland (Rock for Germany), a similar event held in the nearby city of Gera, about 800 neo-Nazi's showed up. Today, though, around 6,000 of them have come from all over the country to celebrate their beliefs to the tunes of the country's most fascist rock bands.
We stop the car and get out to take a little stroll. All festivalgoers seem to have gotten the memo on the dress code – a shaved head, jeans and black T-shirt with some old Germanic writing on it. The men try their best to look as intimidating as possible, walking around so stiffly it's like they're clenching their bum to contain all the hate inside.
Before getting to the site, many festivalgoers stop by the Golden Lion pub, a well-known neo-Nazi hangout in the area. It's owned by the event's organiser, Tommy Frenck, an NPD politician famous for founding a "citizen's defence" group and organising torchlit marches through his hometown of Schleusingen, about six miles away.
On Frenck's website, you can buy crossbows and machetes, as well as "I love HTLR" stickers. "Using the word Hitler on a shirt can be illegal," Frenck told a local broadcaster, "but HTLR means Home, Tradition, Loyalty and Respect, why should anyone ban that?" His business is doing well, if the big black Hummer parked in front of the pub is anything to go by. On Hitler's birthday, the 20th of April, the pub sold schnitzel for €8,88 – 88 being code for the Nazi-salute "Heil Hitler". The demand was so high, Frenck had to take reservations.
Standing in Themar's town centre, you wouldn't know that the event was even happening. The police have closed the main road in an attempt to keep the neo-Nazis away from the majority of the town's 3,000 residents. But the town feels deserted nonetheless – most front doors are shut and curtains are drawn. The supermarket is closed for the day and the weekly local flea market has been been cancelled.
Closer to the festival site, a man is mowing his lawn. He met his wife 30 years ago in the pub that's now full of fascists. He tells me that although he doesn't go to the pub anymore, he's gotten used to all the nationalists in the area. "They're people like you and me," he says. Elsewhere, down a side street, a man in his slippers can't hide his frustration. "The far-right should go somewhere else," he said. "Most people in the area just want life to go back to normal after the weekend."
Prior to Hitler's rise to power, Themar was home to a large Jewish population. Throughout the town, you can find Stolpersteines – memorials that mark the last known homes of Jews killed during the Holocaust. Some local residents I speak with think that more should have been done to stop Themar from turning into a meeting place for racists. The county council had tried to stop Bodo Dressel – a former member of the right-wing political party AfD – from lending his field to the concert's organisers, but the court ruled the event was legal and couldn't be banned.
As the festival kicks off, a group of vocal protesters have assembled near the site after having taken their counter-demonstration through the streets of Themar. It's not the only sign of protest – throughout the town, anti-Nazi banners and signs hang from street lamps.
Around 20 journalists stand on either side of the main road that links the car park to the entrance of the festival. The people going in have come from all over Europe – a few are wearing the insignia of Blood & Honour, a British neo-Nazi organisation outlawed in Germany. Some have covered their tattoos of illegal signs with stickers. As they walk past, a few pose for the cameras like they're on a red carpet. Others are less friendly: "Bastards," one of them shouts at us. "I'll kill you," another threatens, and some just give us the finger.
Their anger seems particularly directed towards women. Regular shouts of "slut" and "I'll fuck you," ring out. A female photographer is spat on, while another woman in a headscarf is threatened and called a "cleaning lady". The continual stream of Nazis continues well into the late afternoon – the numbers surprise even the organisers, who have to rearrange the protective barriers at the edge of the terrain to make more space for visitors.
Those black barriers are an attempt to block part of our view of the festival, too – though we can't miss all the flags associated with the Third Reich hanging above the barriers. At the entrance to the big white tent covering the stage, all guests are searched for weapons by one of the hundreds of police officers that have been called in from all over Germany. There's even a water cannon in case a riot breaks out. The cost of this additional security is covered by Thuringia's taxpayers – while with 6,000 visitors paying €35 per ticket, the festival's organisers will make over €200,000 in ticket sales alone.
From where we're standing on the street, it's difficult to make out the music from the concert, but we can hear periodic chants in support of Hitler's deputy Rudolph Hess, and the slogan "Frei, Sozial und National!" (Free, Social and Nationalist). At one point, one of the few women attending the event climbs over the barrier and charges at a photographer, but police intervene. "I have two children, I want my privacy," she shouts as the officers pull her away.
In his small garden, on the other side of the street, a man barks that us journalists should just leave the neo-Nazis alone. "At the end of the day, what can we do about it?" That seems the general feeling among many people in the area. A lot of locals think that as long as they don't get as violent as the G20 protesters in Hamburg, they should just have their day – everything will go back to normal tomorrow.
But it's not that simple – the hate will not stop, when this festival is over. This coming Saturday, on the 29th of July, they'll be back for Rock for Identity, a similar event at the same location that last year attracted 3,500 people. One of the bands, Frontalkraft, will be there to sing: " Black is the night, in which we attack / White are the men, who will win for Germany / Red is the blood on the concrete."
By the end of the festival, police have arrested 46 people for crimes like bodily harm, criminal damage, carrying an unlicensed weapon and displaying forbidden symbols – one of which being the Nazi salute performed on stage by one of the performers.
Germany in 2017 isn't just a place where gay marriage and cannabis have been legalised, but also where events like this take place. In the evening, we drive away – speeding at 105mph along the Autobahn, leaving behind thousands of people in a big, white tent in Themar, right arms raised in Hitler salutes, shouting "Heil! Heil! Heil!" into the night.