How Berlin activists are turning Nazi hate graffiti into art

A ragtag band of Berlin street artists is taking aim at an urban scourge of neo Nazi graffiti, using "love and humour" to turn swastikas into colourful symbols of inclusiveness.

How Berlin activists are turning Nazi hate graffiti into art
Street artist Ibo Omari transforming a swastika into an insect. Photo: DPA.

As authorities report a sharp rise in far-right activity in Germany, including the rampant spread of anti-migrant propaganda, the #PaintBack initiative in Berlin is fighting back.

“We as street artists wanted to send the message: you're abusing graffiti,” said the club's founder Ibo Omari.

“Graffiti's got nothing to do with racism – it's about bright colours and diverse backgrounds.”

Omari, 37, owns a paint shop catering to street artists, and runs “The Cultural Heirs”, a organisation bringing together youth from German and immigrant backgrounds for activities from breakdancing and street art to hip-hop DJing and skateboarding.

“It's a culture that shaped us in a positive way and gives young people a chance to express themselves creatively so they don't end up on the street,” he said.

'Beautify' the swastika

At the headquarters, in a room plastered with classic rap album covers, the teen members practise turning Nazi swastikas, used by the far right to whip up support and intimidate minorities, into new designs.

An owl, a mosquito, a rabbit with its tongue sticking out, a Rubik's cube, two men kissing, a cat in a window – the inspiration for transforming the sharp-edged symbol seems endless.

“It's not hard to come up with ideas,” 17-year-old Klemens Reichelt said.

“I like it because I think swastikas don't belong in Berlin – it's a city open to the world and I want to defend that.”

Omari and a half dozen adult volunteers use the kids' motifs to “beautify” the swastika tags when they're spotted in the neighbourhood.

The project began when a local resident entered Omari's shop looking for paint cans.

“He didn't look like a graffiti artist, so I asked him why he wanted them and he said he needed them to cover up a swastika that had been sprayed on a children's playground,” Omari said.

“We were pretty shocked that someone had done that, especially here in Schöneberg,” a western district of Berlin which is home to middle-class Germans, Turkish and Arab families, and a lively, century-old gay scene.

The appearance of the symbol of hate proved not to be a one-off, however, and swastikas started turning up more and more – in parks, in apartment buildings – apparently fuelled by the influx of more than one million asylum seekers after Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders in 2015.

The domestic intelligence agency this month reported a seven-percent rise in politically motivated crimes in 2016, one-third of which were classified as “propaganda offences”.

SEE ALSO: This is how Germans think the state should deal with political extremism

'Sweet, cheeky images'

Omari, whose own parents fled Lebanon as refugees when they were expecting him, said he turned those feelings of shock and powerlessness into action with the help of local youth who wanted to leave their own mark on the German capital.

“The last swastikas I had seen were more than 20 years ago so this was a new, unpleasant development,” he said.

“Unfortunately the zeitgeist changed in the last few years and we have to explain things to young people that actually weren't that long ago,” referring to the facts of the Nazi era and the Holocaust in the 1930s-40s.

“We thought long and hard about how to react to such ugly sentiments and then we said: we'll answer with humour and love,” he said.

“We chose sweet, cheeky images, most of them drawn by kids so even beginners who aren't graffiti artists could reproduce them.”

Neighbours now report the swastikas they find to the club.

“It doesn't happen that often but once is too many,” he said, estimating that the group has transformed about 20 since May 2016.

It is against the law in Germany to display swastikas and other Nazi-era symbols, but those who take matters into their own hands can also run afoul of the authorities.

READ ALSO: German teacher fined for painting over swastikas

Germany's most famous crusader against far-right graffiti, 71-year-old Irmela Mensah-Schramm, was convicted by a Berlin court last October for spray-painting over an offensive tag.

It took until this month for the veteran of three decades on the city's streets to get the charges dropped.

Omari expresses admiration for her but said he cannot allow his fellow activists to get into trouble with the police.

“It is important to get the permission of the property owner because two wrongs don't make a right and we didn't want to have anyone do anything illegal,” he said.

The collective's work has spread to other cities thanks to a social media campaign.

Images with the hashtag #PaintBack are swapped on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and a video the group made has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube.

By Oceane Laze and Deborah Cole, AFP


German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.