Wielding just nail-polish remover, a camera and an “Against Nazis” bag, Irmela Mensah-Schramm is a one-of-a-kind fighter against Germany’s increasingly threatening far-right scene.
Walking the streets of the depressed east Berlin district of Lichtenberg on the hunt for racist and pro-fascist graffiti, 66-year-old Mensah-Schramm’s diminutive frame belies a crusader’s iron will.
“I’m removing Nazi stickers!” the grey-haired, bespectacled pensioner calls almost playfully to a young skinhead sporting a black Thor Steinar sweatshirt, popular among neo-Nazis, and walking two menacing dogs on leashes.
The man mutters an inaudible reply and crosses to the other side of the street.
Mensah-Schramm, a retired special-needs teacher originally from Stuttgart, has spent the last 25 years eliminating an estimated 90,000 graffiti and stickers used by the far right to whip up support and intimidate minorities.
She works alone but is one of a growing number of grassroots activists stepping in to what they say is the gulf left by the authorities.
Their cause was highlighted by the bombshell revelation in November that a neo-Nazi gang was behind the unsolved murders of 10 people, mainly shopkeepers of Turkish origin, between 2000 and 2007.
Mensah-Schramm said she was one of the few people not surprised that the far right was behind the murders.
“It confirms the impression I had about the threat from the scene,” she says.
Mensah-Schramm estimates she spends 34 hours a week and about €300 euros a month on her “Hate Destroys” campaign which she has also taken to Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Poland.
“I was at the Warsaw ghetto memorial and found a Nazi swastika sprayed on the wall right next to it,” she said. “Can you imagine?”
While the extreme right has made no inroads in German national politics and its rallies draw far more counter-demonstrators than supporters, campaigners say the authorities have turned a blind eye to the real threat.
Chancellor Angela Merkel devoted her weekly video podcast before Christmas to activists like Mensah-Schramm; former neo-Nazis recruiting others to leave the scene; pupils fighting the far right in their schools; and football fans who challenge racist slurs in the stands.
“These are the many, many people who stand up to all extremist tendencies with courage,” Merkel said.
Hajo Funke, an expert on the far right at Berlin’s Free University, calls Mensah-Schramm’s work “encouraging” but notes that unless private initiatives are joined by concerted state action, both are doomed to failure.
“These kinds of campaigns are crucial to turn the atmosphere of intimidation around,” said Funke, who calls German neo-Nazis the most dangerous in western Europe.
“But at the same time it is not enough if the authorities sweep the problem under the carpet or are incompetent. You need both.”
“Unbelievable,” Mensah-Schramm says, cursing under her breath as she sprays paint over swastikas daubed on a wall near the local light-rail station.
“Freedom of expression has a limit and that is where hatred and contempt for other people begin.”
The “muck”, as she calls the graffiti, uses a clutch of hateful slogans: “Foreigners out”, “Germany for the Germans”, even “Gas the Turks”.
Mensah-Schramm says she has never been attacked by skinheads but they frequently harass, taunt and threaten her while she is working, and on extremist websites or in hate mail sent to her home.
One young man said she belonged in a “gas chamber”. Some passers-by cheer her on as she goes about her Sisyphean task, others call her “crazy” or complain she is defacing property.
One overzealous security guard put her in the hospital a few years ago.
Back at her flat, filled with books about Nelson Mandela and other resistance heroes, she has hundreds of pictures of hate propaganda which she has used to stage exhibitions and educational workshops across Germany and abroad.
She says her most rewarding work is with children, whom she encourages to report racist and anti-Semitic graffiti, rather than taking out scrapers and spray cans themselves.
“They could get in trouble for damaging property,” she says. “It is a risk I’m only willing to take myself.”