The most famous rebellion against Nazi fascism was hatched here – German World War II hero Col. Claus von Stauffenberg planned his doomed bomb plot against Adolf Hitler from his office on the second floor of this building in central Berlin. Outside, he paid the ultimate price and was shot for his efforts.
But sunshine transforms the courtyard off Berlin’s Bendlerstrasse into a pleasant place to linger, and kids on a school trip to learn about the resistance movement in the German armed forces hang around next to the memorial.
None of them know that today’s resistance against far-right extremism in Germany is quietly taking place in a few rooms on the first floor.
It’s there that an internet portal has been set up to offer advice and one-to-one consultations for people worried about a friend, colleague or child, who has shown signs of right-wing extremism.
“We provide the only place on the web where people can get advice about how they might tackle such a problem,” says Martin Ziegenhagen, one of the professional advisors running the site called Online Advice Against Right Extremism. (www.online-beratung-gegen-rechtsextremismus.de)
“Often people simply don’t what to do, when, for example, they start hearing far-right rock music coming from their child’s bedroom, or the local children’s festival is organised by a far right group. We discuss with them what they can do.”
Neo-Nazis have changed their modus operandi in Germany. The drunk skinhead stomping around in big boots, shouting abuse and saluting Hitler, while deeply unpleasant, is no longer the main focus of concern. The greater danger is now coming from the new wave of fascists who have diversified to appeal to the ordinary man – and increasingly woman – on the street.
Now they wear sharp suits and are often considered pillars of the community, involving themselves in local activities, supporting initiatives to improve life for people in deprived or forgotten little towns and villages.
They might attempt to tackle social problems which the mainstream political parties fail to address, offering advice on how to make the most efficient social security claim or best manage debt, organising sports groups for young people or putting on fairs and children’s festivals in places where there is nothing going on.
Some are even elected to town councils – and in three German states far-right extremists even have seats in parliament.
Yet just as this new breed of neo-Nazis have found new ways to appeal to the German public, so those fighting them have had to adapt to new times. Anti-fascists are no longer only the leftist, punk types who clash with police during skinhead demonstrations. Average German professionals have joined the battle, particularly as it is often their children being targeted.
Michael Flood’s experience was instrumental in setting up the internet portal. A middle class lawyer whose teenage son got great marks at school and seemed well balanced and happy, he was appalled to find his boy suddenly spouting fascist propaganda.
“There was nowhere to turn to, nowhere could I get any advice about how to deal with him,” Flood said. “We didn’t know how to deal with it, and couldn’t find anyone to help us. There was plenty of advice on offer had he developed a drug or alcohol problem, but nothing for us.”
Ziegenhagen from the internet portal said they were offering people with such concerns an easy way to make contact in order to talk about what they can do.
“It is not such a big commitment for someone to log in, read the site and send us an email asking for advice. Then we start a correspondence with them, one-to-one, to talk through their concerns, and to work out with them how they might react,” he says, explaining they also offer real-time messaging conversation over the net and possibility for people to meet up chat rooms specifically set up for them.
“They don’t have to leave the house to contact us. No one sees them, as they might do should they visit one of the many support centres around the country. And people can contact us even if they are not sure they are dealing with a problem and we can discuss it with them.”
The need is clearly there – just a month after going online the portal has been looked at more than 100,000 times and dozens of people seeking help via direct contact.
Teachers, for example, are contacting the site after noticing children who seem to have slipped into the far-right scene or seeing suspect leaflets and hearing music on the playground and in the classroom. And parents whose children make new friends and start wearing clothes with Nazi logos or runic numbers, have also been in touch, asking what they can do to prevent their kids drifting into the neo-Nazi crowd.
The site has also proven valuable to employers who notice one of their workers making unpleasant comments about foreigners, and, for example, leaving far-right CDs in the company van. They might be worried about destroying the working atmosphere, but still want to challenge the person concerned.
“Many of those who have contacted us have said how happy and relieved they were to have found what we offer,” said Ziegenhagen.