A Neo-Nazi’s Political Rise Exposes a German City’s Ethnic Tensions


A Neo-Nazi’s Political Rise Exposes a German City’s Ethnic TensionsBy ALISON SMALEJUNE 24, 2014


DORTMUND, Germany — He is known here as SS-Siggi, and with his bulky frame and “Germania” tattoos, he certainly looks the part. For 30 years, which have included several brushes with the law, Siegfried Borchardt — a.k.a. SS-Siggi and who can bear a passing resemblance to Hulk Hogan — has been involved in the far right in this bleak city of 600,000, working from the political fringe. This month, to the horror of the political establishment and many residents, he took his seat on the 94-member City Council.


His ascent has punctured Germany’s image of itself as a country allergic to the nationalism and populism gaining ground elsewhere in Europe. That Germany — in Bavaria, in the southwest, around Frankfurt — is Europe’s economic powerhouse, with low unemployment, booming exports and gleaming stores oozing prosperity.


Dortmund is another Germany: a run-down former coal and steel hub in the industrial Ruhr heartland, with a scruffy north side, few jobs, higher than average crime in some districts, and a large center for registering asylum seekers, and where almost one in three inhabitants are of foreign descent.

Mr. Borchardt’s election in May both shocked and divided residents, and it has helped lay bare a host of tensions — not just between native Germans and more recent immigrants, but also among the city’s many immigrant groups themselves — that have arisen from the city’s profound demographic changes.

When Mr. Borchardt and about two dozen neo-Nazis tried to gain entry to a postelection party in May, it set off a brawl on the steps of City Hall. “Foreigners out!” one group screamed; “Nazis out!” the other yelled.


Amid a mist of pepper spray, 10 people were wounded, including Christian Gebel, 38, a computer graphics designer and City Council member for the Pirate Party, who still bears the small scar above his right eyebrow where a flying beer bottle struck him.

When Mr. Borchardt took his seat on the City Council last week, accompanied to City Hall by 15 of his friends, the police were taking no chances. “More police than politicians,” the local newspaper, the Ruhr Nachrichten, concluded on its live blog, as Mr. Borchardt and his cohort were greeted by 200 anti-Nazi protesters who had gathered to jeer him.


Ever since Mr. Borchardt was first active in the Borussenfront fan club for the local soccer club, Borussia Dortmund, in the 1980s, Dortmund has had a reputation as a center for some of the 9,600 people currently estimated by Germany’s domestic intelligence as active right-wing extremists.

An annual report presented last week by Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière sounded a special alarm about a rise in right-wing activity, especially the pestering of foreigners and asylum seekers.


“They are constantly trying to poison the atmosphere,” Mr. de Maizière said of the extremists.

Some neo-Nazi parties have been banned in Germany, but others manage to survive by being careful not to cross the boundaries of the law. The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party of Germany, or N.P.D., won one seat in the recent European parliamentary elections, and neo-Nazis are represented in the parliaments of two of Germany’s 16 states.


In Dortmund, the quantity of the far-right vote was unchanged this year from the last election in 2009, around 4,000. But it had more weight because overall voter turnout declined. The far-right vote was split between the N.P.D. (which also got a City Council member) and Mr. Borchardt and his party, Die Rechte.


Mr. Borchardt ran for a seat pushing the anti-immigration “Germany for Germans” agenda of the far-right, which tends not to campaign very actively, in part mindful of not overstepping the law and facing a potential ban. Similarly, right-wing voters tend to keep their preferences to themselves.

Ilsegret Bonke, 82, a widow who has lived 52 of her years on the dilapidated Schleswiger Strasse in the city’s north, is one of its few remaining native German residents.

On a recent afternoon, she watched with satisfaction as a police patrol drove off with a Roma teenager she said had ripped off her wig on the street three days earlier.


“I recognized him and called the police,” she said. Tallying Roma misdeeds “keeps me young,” she added with a smile.

Cetin Satelmis, 56, has spent 35 years in Dortmund, laboring in textiles and other factories before buying a corner house on the same street, where he runs a kiosk on the ground floor. He is proud of the progress he has made since immigrating from the central Anatolia region of Turkey. Today he is a German citizen and a property owner, and he drives a gleaming black Mercedes.


But he angrily announced that he would hand the building over to his son and leave town for good. “Where am I?” he demanded, as dozens of Roma children, teenagers and young mothers played and yelled yards away. “In Germany, or in Gypsy land?” (Several of the Roma had bought sweets or cigarettes at his kiosk minutes earlier.)


Down the block, Khalid Moummou, 44, a barber originally from Fez, Morocco, was indignant. “We are living in fear,” he said, adding that he had been burglarized twice in recent months and blaming the Roma who have moved in by the score from Bulgaria and Romania, two European Union countries whose citizens can move freely around Europe.


“What do I pay my taxes for?” he asked. “We came here for peace and security — that’s what Germany is. Security is the best thing you can have. But now this is all gone.”


Across the street, Nora Oerter Ribeiro, 32, took a more tolerant view. She was teaching local Turkish women to use a sewing machine, part of a meet-the-neighborhood program devised to get housebound Turkish mothers out of their apartments and into a German-speaking environment.

Glowing with idealism, she expressed hope that her small storefront project would retain state funding and donations beyond this year.

Whether Mr. Borchardt’s presence on the City Council will affect anything like Ms. Ribeiro’s funding remains murky. An email seeking comment or a meeting with Mr. Borchardt or one of his supporters to discuss their politics went unanswered, and attempts to reach them by phone were unsuccessful.


He gave away little to reporters at City Hall, beyond affirming that, to him, Nazi thought is not automatically repulsive. His volubility often varies “with the time of day and the pro-mille level in his blood,” said Alex Völkel, a local journalist and blogger.

Mr. Völkel and other civic activists emphasized that Mr. Borchardt needed just 1 percent of a poor turnout in local elections to get his seat, or about 2,100 votes.


People in Dortmund, they insisted, are much more engaged in anti-Nazi projects, most recently a trip by 45 teenagers to Auschwitz with a Roma woman based in Berlin whose father survived the death camp. Next year, the Berliner and her sister, a well-known singer, are planning an event at a lonely stone memorial in Dortmund that recalls the Nazis’ deportation of Sinti and Roma people from that spot in 1943.


Like many such memorials in Germany, the stone bears advice for the visitor. This stone, set in 1998 on a somewhat forlorn corner of Dortmund’s north side, says the fate of the deported and killed should serve as “a reminder to intervene in time against inhumanity.”