Born to parents who grew up during World War II, 67-year-old Gertrud Graf said she’s all too familiar with far-right extremism and the ways to rise against it. She recalled one story often told about her grandmother, who, when ordered to raise her arm in Nazi salute, acted on an impulse of civil disobedience.
“She, as a farmer woman, said ‘drei Liter,’ in English, ‘three liter,’” Graf said. “She didn’t want to say this stupid name together with ‘Heil,’ so I realized a grandmother, which showed…civil courage with humor.”
This past Saturday, Graf took to the streets of Spandau to follow her grandmother’s example. A member of “Omas Gegen Rechts,” or “Grandmas Against the Right,” Graf was among thousands in Berlin protesting a neo-Nazi demonstration.
The demonstration to commemorate the death of Rudolf Heß, a high-ranking official in Hitler’s inner circle, took place last year in Spandau, where Heß was imprisoned for four decades before he was found to have committed suicide in 1987.
The organization behind the neo-Nazi demonstration, “Mord verjährt nicht,” or “Murder is the only crime which does not lapse,” dispute that Heß committed suicide. Ahead of the demonstration, guidelines were given to participants, including on what kind of clothing to wear, how to behave, and the explicit instruction not to give interviews to the media.
The march planned for Spandau this year, however, never got underway. Instead, neo-Nazi demonstrators congregated in Friedrichshain, causing confusion among counter-demonstrators and spreading the nearly 2,300 police officers on duty that day across the city.
22-year-old Julia Damphouse, a member of Die Linke International Working Group, woke up thinking she’d spend her day in Spandau, as she had in 2017 when counter-demonstrators created a blockade that intercepted the neo-Nazis’ planned march route to the site of the former prison where Heß died. Her plans changed when she heard that there was another group of neo-Nazis gathering in Friedrichshain.
“I didn’t think honestly that neo-Nazis would have the audacity to march through the center of Berlin, and I think that’s not a good sign for the future,” said Damphouse.
Found the neonazis again, back to counter demonstrating, now in Friedrichshain pic.twitter.com/fl3tCzlFXc
— Julia🤝 (@remarksist) August 18, 2018
The neo-Nazi demonstrators marched from the Platz der Vereinten Nationen down Landsberger Allee with a banner that read “Ich bereue nichts. National Sozialisten Berlin,” or in English “I regret nothing. National Socialists Berlin.” Many among the approximately 700 demonstrators wore white shirts and black pants, waving flags with the colors of the German Reich.
According to a press release from the Berlin police, six police officers were injured, 29 people were temporarily arrested, and 45 investigations were launched as a result of the day’s demonstrations.
On Friday afternoon, ahead of the march, the Berlin police tweeted out information concerning the right to freedom of assembly, with hashtags like #Meinungsfreiheit, #Neutralität, #Dialog, #Deeskalation, or in English, freedom of opinion, neutrality, dialogue, and de-escalation.
Was sie schon immer über unsere Rolle bei Demos wissen wollten/sollten, haben wir hier für Sie zusammengefasst:https://t.co/ykvL7b40bU#b1808#Versammlungsfreiheit #Meinungsfreiheit #Grundrechte #Neutralität #Dialog #Deeskalation #Differenzierung #Demokratie #Exekutive
— Polizei Berlin Einsatz (@PolizeiBerlin_E) August 17, 2018
In explaining their role in demonstrations on their website, the Berlin police touched on areas like neutrality, with the note that neutrality means “protection of freedom of assembly and not of topic.”
But some counter-demonstrators like Damphouse said she was frustrated by the part the police played in allowing the neo-Nazi march to go forward, as opposed to allowing the counter-demonstrators to block their movement like in the previous year. She said it felt like the police were choosing a side.
“The police could very easily just still put up their fences, still do the job of separating the two sides, but essentially allow the blockade to happen. I think they should have done that,” said Damphouse. “In the end they’re orchestrating the entire thing, to a certain extent.”
Though many like Damphouse traveled across the city to pursue the main demonstration, others like 26-year-old Alice, who agreed to speak with KCRW Berlin if she gave her first name only, decided to stay put in Spandau and support the local community.
“For me, this ticks all the boxes as something that the German state shouldn’t tolerate, as something that communities shouldn’t tolerate, and anyone who’s openly against fascism shouldn’t tolerate,” Alice said, as she sat on the green at Wilhemstraße 23, where the “Festival of Democracy” took place.
Of the six parties in the Abgeordnetenhaus of Berlin, the Berlin state parliament, all had a presence at the festival except the Alternative for Germany, or the AfD. Bettina Jarasch, a Green politician in the Berlin state parliament, spoke on stage at the event, alongside other politicians including Martina Renner from die Linke, or the Left Party.
Jarasch told KCRW Berlin that although the AfD is the “more harmless and more civilian looking face” of racism and fascism, their policies – in particular those towards minorities – are not all that different from those of the neo-Nazis.
“[The AfD] just wear suits,” said Jarasch.
On the Sunday after the march, a statement on the website for “Mord verjährt nicht” declared the demonstration a success, especially in bringing more attention to the circumstances behind Rudolf Heß’s death. The post read that Berlin, as the seat of Germany’s government, was an ideal place to bring their message and that they would “never stop fighting for what was right.”
But counter-demonstrators in Berlin also seemed prepared to continue to fight. 72-year-old Dieter Arbeiter, who has been active in politics for most of his life, arrived in Spandau dressed head to toe as a “Berliner Bär,” carrying an umbrella covered with anti-Nazi slogans.
Arbeiter said he doesn’t want racism or Nazis – new or old – in Berlin. And as long as right extremists continue to march in the streets, Arbeiter said he will as well.