We Were Like Brothers
Our author was friends with neo-Nazis – and had to run away from them. That paradox was par for the course in 1990s East Germany. And today? Daniel Schulz describes life as a youth in the 90s after reunification in East Germany. The reporter works in the taz for the domestic and weekend departments. He also headed the social department taz2/medien. An essay
By Daniel Schulz
You can get a kick out of your own ugliness. Embrace it, see the horror on the faces of those watching and despising you but afraid to confront you, and feel the power flowing through your veins like an electric current.
Hurtling down the highway at over 100 km/h and pissing on the hood of a BMW behind us, I feel the power. Standing there in the open sunroof with my trousers dangling around my thighs and my dick in my hand, I see the driver's eyes widen with horror and outrage, his big pale face blows up like a balloon, I’d like to stick a needle in it.
I’m nineteen years old, ten metres tall and eight metres wide, invincible.
On 27 August 2018, when men of my cohort, around forty years old, held a "funeral march" in Chemnitz and some of them stuck their naked butts out for the cameras, as you can see on YouTube, I thought about that ride down the highway. Watching as big burly blokes give Nazi salutes and attack people whose skin colour rubs them the wrong way, while the cops don’t do a thing about it, I’m paralyzed, as though something dark were welling back up inside me, something I thought I’d left behind. But I remember that power trip, too, the thrill of making it plain to someone: Rules? What if I don't give a shit about your rules, buddy? What then?
I see Chemnitz and wonder: What have you got to do with me? What have I to do with you?
Winners of the ‘90sOn German Unification Day, some folks will be saying why reunification is such a success. The very word "reunification" is a lie, others will say, pointing out what was lost: companies, self-respect, whole lives. But the yea-sayers come through particularly loud and clear: Come off it and admit what we’ve achieved, we had to build a whole new world for ourselves. Give me a break with your tales of woe and victimhood, they often add. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished, even if we’ve failed.
My parents and grandparents’ generation are telling their stories these days, nearly thirty years after the fall of the Wall. It may not be the first time, but it does seem the right time. The Saxon State Minister for Integration, Petra Köpping, has worked some of these stories into her book Integriert doch erst mal uns! (“Integrate Us First!”) and the house is packed at every reading she gives in Eastern Germany these days.
A lot of it is about lost jobs and – yes, this sounds nice and technical, like an easy problem to solve. But in this Prussian nation of full employment called the German Democratic Republic, where work was the meaning of life and the jobless few were called Assis, i.e. “antisocial” elements, riffraff, that also meant: co-workers, brothers, husbands who hanged themselves; siblings and cousins who slowly drank themselves to death; families that now suddenly seethed as inside a volcano because some now had more than others. And then everything froze into a dead landscape of cold slag. Women who slaved away to keep their husbands, their children and themselves afloat until there was nothing left of them but the will to "make it".
Does anyone still want to hear about the 1990s from the perspective of those who were too old when the Wall came down not to remember the past, but too young to have a say in their future? About the decade in which the angry mob now bellowing and giving Nazi salutes grew up?
"I associate the 1990s with personal experiences that are coming back to me lately," says Manja Präkels. "And when I travel around Germany, I often see the same AfD people who consider themselves the winners of the battles of the ‘90s.”
Manja Präkels has written a book called Als ich mit Hitler Schnapskirschen as ("When I Ate Brandied Cherries with Hitler") about the final days of the GDR and the decade of barbarity that eastern Germany experienced afterwards. The author was born in 1974 and grew up in Zehdenick, a town north of Berlin. After Christian Bangel’s Oder Florida, Präkels’ is the second autobiographical novel to come out last year about eastern Germany in the ‘90s.
I called her to ask if the images from Chemnitz and Köthen remind her of the old days too. She said that when she’s on a book-signing tour or at conferences, she comes across right-wing extremists who are driven by what they accomplished back then in Rostock-Lichtenhagen and by the many smaller – and mostly unnoticed – fires they managed to start. "They see themselves as the victors of those battles," she says, "because people of colour were evacuated from eastern Germany at the time. In their eyes, that legitimized the violence of those years after the fact.”
So where do I start my story about those dark days? It didn't start in 1989 for me. It started for me in East Germany.
A swastika on the school deskIn second grade, Ricardo drew a swastika on his desk with his pencil. That was nothing unusual in and of itself. I’d done that too one day in June 1987, whilst scrawling in my copybook, "Our mother comes home late today. We want to help." Drawing swastikas was the most forbidden thing I could imagine. Every time I did it, a little beast inside me roared for joy at not having got caught. The trick is to turn the swastika into a little window before anyone sees it.
But Ricardo was too slow that day, or maybe he’d just forgotten to connect up the lines. I saw it, two friends of ours saw it, so we had a word with him while the teacher was out of the classroom. We couldn’t tell her: telling on someone was the worst thing you could do. We had to settle the matter between ourselves.
"You know that was wrong?" I said.
He was snivelling. He was heavier and taller than I, but he didn’t try anything with two other classmates standing right beside him. "Take off your glasses," I said. Ricardo snivelled some more, pleading with his wide eyes. Yeah, sure, we lived on the same block, and yeah, we were going to meet up at the sandbox in front of the building that afternoon as usual, but first we had to settle the matter at hand.
Tijan Sila, a writer born in socialist Yugoslavia, describes this boyhood behaviour in Tierchen Unlimited (Little Beasts, Unlimited) as follows:
The development of elementary school children was supposed to mirror the ethos of the party, which to me at the time meant only contradictions: above, a cold, lurking Apollonian face that demanded virtue, sobriety, forbearance, and below, a libidinous, demonic torso that favored cruelty, battle, rivalry, and sacrifice.
(Translated by Tim Mohr)
Perhaps this torso was left when the head passed away with East Germany.
Neo-Nazi violence played down as apolitical hooliganismFighting was writ large in the German Democratic Republic. The greatest fighters were the ones who were no longer around: Communist antifascists who’d died in the camps so we’d be better off. Brawny white men gazed back at us from school murals and from our illustrated textbooks. All our teachers told us about the Jews was that the National Socialists had killed them off. At any rate, they hadn't put up a fight.
On the way home from school we’d tell jokes about Jews. Four or five of us would walk home together over cobblestones and black sand, past the cemetery and the bar, to the four blocks of new buildings on the outskirts of the village.
One guy says, "What's the jackpot in the concentration camp lottery?"
I say, "I’ve heard that one before: free tickets to the gas chamber."
Later on I found our jokes again in Das hat’s bei uns nicht gegeben! ("That Didn't Happen Here!"), a book published a few years ago by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which was named after an Angolan contract labourer who in 1990 got beaten so badly and for so long by a bunch of youths in Eberswalde that he fell into a coma and eventually died.
Where we got our jokes from I don't recall. There weren’t supposed to be any to begin with. The GDR constitution said that fascism had been defeated. And being defeated, it wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. The State Security service, it says in the foundation’s book as well as in the Stasi’s own reports, described swastikas at Jewish cemeteries and neo-Nazi assaults as “Rowdytum”, i.e. "hooliganism", as though they had no political dimension. The secret service and police persecuted punks, on the other hand, and anyone who looked different from the Socialist establishment’s image of the upstanding citizen, as outgrowths of a decadence that could only emanate from the West.
And the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, Alternative for Germany) are taking up that mindset today. More than other party, the AfD bank on fostering and celebrating an East German identity. In election campaigns and speeches, their politicians woo voters by stressing how nice and German things still are in eastern Germany, how little has changed there. And to this day many police officers buy the story about apolitical hooliganism.
An alarming investigation gets buriedWere things better in West Germany? This is a perennial question that always comes up when writing about East Germany. Well, at least public debate was possible in West Germany. A series like Holocaust couldn’t be shown on East German TV, people couldn't discuss it, get upset or cry about it afterwards at home, in a bar, on the bus. And it’s understandable that we don’t want West Germans interpreting our lives for us anymore, but what’s more important: to salvage a whitewashed memory of East Germany or to give some thought to why our own kids are being terrorized by Nazis – or terrorizing others themselves?
After neo-Nazis attacked a punk concert at Zionskirche, a church in East Berlin, in 1987, the Central Committee of the SED (Socialist Unity Party) decided to investigate neo-Nazi activities after all. In 1988, investigators counted as many as five hundred offences per month committed by the right-wing extremist milieu. The powers that be were so alarmed by the findings that they “buried” the file. And the leading investigator in the case, a high-ranking police officer, was subsequently kept under Stasi surveillance.
We read Pavel in fourth grade. With the green textbook in front of us on our desks, we took turns reading a few lines aloud in class. A Wehrmacht lieutenant sitting on the outskirts of a Soviet village is watching it burn. He sees a boy playing outside and thinks to himself, "What's the difference between this kid and a German kid?" As a sergeant’s car comes speeding towards the boy, the Nazi soldier saves him in the nick of time, and they flee together to join the Soviet soldiers. The lieutenant returns to Germany later on – now fighting for the Red Army. The Nazi’s transformation into a Communist takes only five and a half pages, and this abridged version for child readers does a pretty good job of encapsulating East Germany’s antifascist myth. The state had to punish a few instigators; then, without lingering on the past, it could enlist the vast majority of the remaining population to build the new state.
We didn’t know much about foreigners. We didn't even know our supposed brothers. "We show our ties of friendship with the Soviet people," I wrote on 8 May, V-E Day, in my social studies binder. But we hardly saw any of them, although there were plenty of barracks not so very far away at all. Sometimes a contingent carrying Kalashnikovs on their backs would march past our kindergarten, and we’d press up against the fence to gaze after them. "Fucking Russians," said a boy next to me one time. When I asked why, he explained, "If stupid Hitler hadn't wrecked our army, the Russians wouldn't be here now." At least that’s what his father told him.
We didn't know who the Jews were. We didn't know who the Russians were either. But we knew who the Nazis were: a Nazi was someone from the West. Capitalism was deemed a preliminary stage of fascism, and there were enough old high-ranking Nazis still holding powerful positions in West Germany to prove the point. When in 1960 the Stasi drew up a list of over fifty sites in the district of Rostock defaced with swastikas, the head of the district administration called them "provocation from West Germany". In Käuzchenkuhle, one of the most widely read books for youngsters in East Germany, a band of schoolboys solve a case in which a "stranger", a former SS officer from West Germany, returns to recover Nazi plunder, some looted art he’d buried in a nearby lake. As recently as 2006, the SPD (Social Democrat) interior minister of an eastern German state told me before an interview that the Nazi problem came from the West and, no, this sort of thing didn’t happen back in the GDR.
The fall of the Wall broke my heart. I was afraid of the West, of the fascists, that everything I knew might fall apart.
I wanted warThe grown-ups didn't lift a finger. They sat in front of the tube watching the protests. They went on teaching us at school as if everything was perfectly normal. It was clear to me – and to every kid who knew where Matchbox cars came from – that we didn’t stand a chance economically. But my father was a lieutenant-colonel in the goddamn National People's Army, he once commanded thirty tanks: so where were they now?
I wanted a Chinese solution, I wanted Tiananmen Square in Berlin and Leipzig. When my father, the coward, didn't go out to stop the lunatics out there, I started thinking about how to steal his Makarov army pistol. My plan was to shoot a couple people in West Berlin and start a war. Because I was sure we'd win that one.
We used our Begrüssungsgeld (“welcome money” gifted by the West German government to East German visitors from 1970 to 1989) to drive to Berlin-Spandau. I bought myself a video game at Karstadt, a little blue computer to play ice hockey on. At each new level, the puck got faster and harder to reach. It started with “beep… beep… beep”, then sped up to “beep-beep… beep-beep… beep-beep” and finally to “beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep”. Mesmerized, I’d stare at the little flashing disc until the world around me only came through in muffled sounds as if through cotton wool. The grown-ups had sold out on me, and I’d sold out myself for a computer game. I was furious, but I had no idea at whom.
"You were in Hitler Youth mode," a friend of mine recounted two decades later, "like the boys in the Volkssturm” (a national militia raised by the Nazis in the last months of WWII). And he’d seen enough boys in the Yugoslav wars who’d died for anger, fear and helplessness similar to mine.
A friend-foe guided missileIn second grade we used to sing:
Und wenn wir gross sind, wollen wir Soldat sein so wie sie.
(“Soldiers marched by, the whole company.
And when we grow up, we want to be soldiers like them.")
Though there were songs in our music book about peace in the world and “Ein Männlein steht im Walde ganz still und stumm” ("A little man stands stock-still and silent in the forest"). And
und stolz darf ich es sagen:
Mein Bruder schützt den Staat.
("My brother is a soldier in a big armoured car,
and I can say it with pride:
My brother protects the state.")
It was clear who that big brother was protecting us against: the West. But no one was protecting me now. I wanted to fight, but against whom? What is the target of a missile with a friend-or-foe guidance system when your own parents have joined sides with the enemy?
Was I the only one feeling this way? I don't know, I never talked to friends about it.
The meltdown begins on TV. I saw people crying, stiff, grey, mostly in front of smokestacks, factory gates, and something was always closing down. Then the men in the village started falling apart. On my way home from school, I’d see them sitting by their garages. They used to drive cranes, big Russian tractors and combine harvesters. Now they’d joke about their wives, who were trying to keep the families afloat with some cleaning job or other, or some job creation scheme. They’d say, "The old lady gets on my nerves." Then they'd drink another schnapps. But often they didn’t say a word.
The message we read, saw and heard in the papers and on radio and TV was: East Germans are too dumb to cope with the new world. East Germans are lazy. East Germans are drunk. First, I felt ashamed, then I felt amused watching the shit fly that was being thrown at us, later on I felt proud that "we" were tougher than the squeamish Wessis, who can map their whole life story to causal connections in which there’s a good reason for everything and no blind spots. It can be liberating, in a demonic way, to know that only the worst is expected of you and those around you. But at 12 or 13, I didn’t see that yet. All I saw was the men in their garages – what the future held in store for me.
The police backed downMy father didn’t drink in the garage. He was taken on by the West German army. In the spring of 1992, they were fired at while inspecting a Soviet base. My father left the army and later sold insurance, like many other men from the police force, the Ministry of State Security and the National People's Army. It was a step down, but it wasn't so hard.
On TV you could see buildings burning that housed Vietnamese contract workers. You could men throwing flagstones at people. I saw how the cops stood there helpless in the face of the angry mob. I saw how they backed down.
"Apparently it is not clear to many in Western Germany that there are two generational cohorts in Eastern Germany whose collective political experience is based on having overthrown a political system and subsequently forced the new state to back down before their racist will in Hoyerswerda and Rostock.” This is what David Begrich, an expert on right-wing extremism, wrote after the Chemnitz marches in an article widely shared on Facebook. Begrich was there in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, he was one of the people the raucous men were throwing flagstones at.
This new state was receding – in small towns and villages – until the late 1990s. A lot of people my age didn’t count on it anymore. We all saw the same thing: no police coming to the rescue when thirty skinheads showed up at a youth club and started beating people up, or only two cops would drive up and stay in the car. What were they to do? Get thrashed themselves? That actually did happen sometimes.
The great power of the People's Police is now broken, so is that of our teachers. Back in the days of East Germany, these authorities could single-handedly derail your whole career – you get to go to college and you don’t. Now we laugh in their faces. We laugh till they cry. They’re afraid of Germany’s new, free youth.
You could get killed, easyNowadays I often travel to East European countries that used to be socialist too. When I talk to people my age there about how things fell apart in the ’90s, about the barbarity, the collapse of social constraints, which they often describe in harsher and more hellacious terms because it was harsher and more hellacious there than in Germany, I find they relate to the police much as I did back in the day: with a mix of fear and contempt.
The ‘90s are over and the new state has since got its act together. But even now, when, as in Chemnitz, there still aren’t enough police on the scene, when officials in Köthen merely record a fanatical right-wing speaker sharing her fantasies of gassing and murdering people, instead of immediately intervening in the rally, that sort of thing merely confirms what both the Nazis and their adversaries have learned: the state does back off.
I learned something else in the years after the Berlin Wall came down, as the list of casualties grew longer and longer: you could get killed, easy. All it takes is a single psycho among a horde of Nazis, just one who doesn't like the looks of you and then can't help himself, then you're a goner. Some blokes I knew thought they were safe because they’re white. They thought they could hide. But you don’t get to decide who's different and who isn't, the Nazis do. Mahmud Azhar and Farid Guendoul were killed, but so were Wolfgang Auch and Horst Hennersdorf.
I was 11 or 12 years old when I first encountered hatred in person. My mother was still working as an agrochemist, calculating how much fertilizer the yellow crop duster was to drop on the fields around our village. One day the plane’s pilot was sitting in a brown upholstered armchair in our living room, waiting for my mother, and – because I liked him, I thought he was cool, I mean he was a pilot and all – at any rate, I asked him what was going to happen with him. He talking about "Wall Street Jews" being to blame for all this, he got louder, stirred up, turning beet-red – first his neck, then his face. I remember it so well because "Wall Street" didn’t mean a thing to me and as for Jews, I didn’t think there were any left in Germany. The man spewed his rage all over me, but I didn’t know its cause or its object.
Sons of the Nazi clansNew rules. I'd have liked to have learned them, had I understood them. Better to take the bus where you might get stuck inside with a bunch of skinheads? Or better to walk or bike, in which case you're too slow if they chase you by car? Others tried to figure out the new world too. The county town was right-wing, the villages left. But this neat breakdown immediately crumbled when fifteen, twenty, thirty Nazis showed up to make trouble at a village fair.
A lot of the skinheads were from big families, they grew up with busts of Hitler and imperial war flags in their houses. The sons of the clans whose names were to be feared were four to eight years older than me. They patrolled the town in low-slung VW Golfs or on foot. Only they could have possibly understood the code that decided who they went after and who they spared. If they knew you from GDR schooldays, that might be a good thing. Or especially bad if they didn't like you even then. When they saw dyed hair or long hair, they saw red. But a long-hair from the “county town” – which got downgraded to “small town”, by the way, in the mid-’90s – was okay for one night, they’d go after a rival Nazi gang instead because they were from the next village over and "moving in on our turf".
I only vaguely understood these subtleties in the ‘90s. Much of what I’ve learned is from interviews I conducted for this article. I didn't know any of the important Nazis. I was from the village, far from the centre of power. So I couldn’t distinguish between the ones I might have been able to take on without five guys then coming after me and the ones that really would off me.
Things just happened to me.
One time I'm on the bus, three skins get on without paying. They’re walking past me to the back of the bus, I pretend I'm reading, when suddenly it’s wet on my face. One of them spat in my face. Before I know it, the shortest of the three presses his thumb into my left cheek and rubs it so hard my teeth hurt. "You really gotta clean yourself up," he says in high-pitched voice. "Or does Mummy have to run after you all the way to the bus to do it for you?" I probably look like a deer caught in the headlights, the three of them almost piss themselves laughing. Shorty’s hand reeks of stale tobacco.
Or I’m walking three kilometres home from school, a car pulls up next to me with its tyres squealing. I hightail it straight out into the field. I can hear them laughing behind me. I run across soft spring green, heavy clumps of mud sticking to my shoes and falling off. They drive down the road, smoking and watching me run. About a kilometre before the village they step on the gas and disappear.
The boy who used to dis the "fucking Russians" in the GDR shows me the baseball bat he keeps in his car and where he hides his blank gun under the passenger seat. "I don’t drive anywhere unarmed anymore," he says. "I'm not an idiot."
I see the years from 1991 to 1998 as through the frosted glass panel of a train station toilet. It’s hard for me to remember. And it's not just me. "Sometimes I can’t help wondering if I didn’t just imagine the whole ‘90s," Manja Präkels said to me. "Even friends who were there couldn't or wouldn’t remember."
I am preyI was short and fat as a kid, but during puberty I shot up. Genetically speaking, I’m a Nazi, nearly 1.90 metres tall, blond, with grey-blue eyes. I lift weights. But I lack the thug gene, the lust for blood. I see that bloodthirsty look in the eyes of the Nazi clan sons and their henchmen and I know I am prey. So I try to disappear, I wear grey, I'm a little grey mouse. God, if only I were shorter.
Hadn’t I just been reading about Ernst Thälmann and his comrades – how they died fighting fascism? I didn’t want to die, I just wanted to be left alone. I was ashamed of myself. We were all ashamed. "The ‘90s is a big taboo in Eastern Germany," says Manja Präkels. "That period is heavily fraught with shame.” We each had our reasons. One guy got fired, never found a job again. Another guy stood behind a curtain secretly rejoicing at the sight of the refugee hostel burning down. And as for me, I was simply a coward.
Otherwise I’d have turned out differently. There were some upstanding antifascists, the punks: I knew about them, but never saw them in the street. Some women I went to school with and later interviewed for this article told me they weren’t afraid. One of them said skinheads from her village usually tried to impress her, adding that she’s not sure Nazis were really the worst thugs. It wasn’t and still isn’t easy to draw a dividing line between those who wanted to bash some heads in and looked to Mein Kampf for justification, on the one hand, and those who bashed heads in because they found it politically in order, on the other. Violence was normal, so the Nazis were right at home in this normality like fish in the sea.
I didn't tell my parents a thing. That would be snitching. Boys used to work things out between themselves and I figured we should do that now, too. Besides, nothing happened to me. No teeth knocked out, all eyes still in their sockets, I wasn't dead either. Others told their fathers and mothers. Manja Präkels writes about that in her book – including what many parents answered: Just don’t provoke them!
Which is the real story?The grown-ups couldn’t fathom that the dear little Ricardos, Michaels and Kais from school had morphed into fighting machines. I couldn't have explained it to them either. So they conjured up a parallel world. There is no problem of right-wing extremism, the mayors said when another person got clobbered or killed. I wondered: who’s nuts here, them or me?
"Catastrophe struck the parents, who had to struggle to survive," said Präkels, "and often lost track of the kids in the process." And a new normality emerged amid constant denials, constant assurances that it’s normal for fans to sing the Nazi anthem at varsity football matches.
And now? A Saxon minister-president who begins by insisting that what happened in Chemnitz wasn’t quite that bad. An intelligence service chief tells the tabloids that a video of an attack was posted in order to distract from a murder. Which is the real story? Most people believe the chief executive of a German state more than a man of colour telling the story of how he was attacked.
I started secondary school in seventh grade, in the autumn of 1991. I rarely hung out with my village buddies anymore, I was a cut above them now, at least that’s how they saw it or how I thought they saw it. I secluded myself. I’d always liked reading, so I spent even more time reading. Shortly before the Wall came down, we moved to another block. I had my own room and didn’t have to share a bed with my father and mother anymore. That made it easier to hide. When I turned 16, my parents bought a computer and I played ice hockey manager on it. These game worlds are untouched by the outside world and controllable. I went out once in a while, resurfacing like a submarine after a long voyage. For years, the news at the surface was always the same: either there was trouble or someone told you about trouble.
"He forced his girlfriend to walk the streets and then strangled her with a wire."
"The other day they nearly wasted a guy by the Havel River."
"They walked into the youth club with an axe. The girl behind the door got it bad straight off. Only two cops showed up again."
My new friends were skins
I didn’t have many friends. I was an idiot from a village. Sure, my mother bought me Levis after I’d kept begging her, but on my fat ass the jeans looked like someone had tried to knead my butt into two skinny sausages. I had to wear them all the same, that was an expensive pair of pants. They laughed at me on the school bus. I was often by myself, which made me a target, so I went out even less.
After three years in secondary school, I made other friends.
One of them was a short skinny fellow who smiled a lot and drove me home when it got late. He said, "My father was already a rightist. That got him into trouble with the fucking communists.”
Another guy in our clique was often scowling, but he’d give you a tickle all over when you had a rotten day at school. He was for the (neo-Nazi) NPD party and had contacts to a fascist clan in a bigger village nearby.
Plus, there was a copper’s son, who was always loud, always horsing around, shared generously with everyone and couldn’t stand the sight of wogs.
And one guy who was always quite calm, though his mother was always at him, going on about how he mustn’t drop off in his schoolwork, mustn’t fail, mustn’t go under in this new world. At home he listened to CDs by bands like Zyklon B and Zillertaler Türkenjäger (literally “Tyrolean Turk-hunters”). He had the word "Euthanasie" emblazoned in black letter on the rear window of his car: the band were actually called "Oithanasie", but he found it a funny play on words to write the name that way.
We cruised across the country in convoy. To the next McDonald's on the highway or all the way to the Baltic Sea, Czech Republic, Denmark. The bigger our convoy, the wider our map got.
Two cars are good, four cars are better. Our swarm scares people off. I discovered how rad it can be to scare others shitless instead of being scared shitless yourself. So, I pissed on a Wessi car behind us on the highway.
Böhse Onkelz soundtrack"Right-wing" and "left-wing" are a matter of clothes, hairstyle and "inner attitude", as we used to call it. Hardcore Nazi fashion seeped into secondary school, where many donned green bomber jackets with orange lining. I had long hair and had "nothing against foreigners", I thought chasing and roughing them up was fucked up. I’d say that out loud sometimes, and then we’d have a row. I had to run away from Nazis. So, I was a leftie.
We weren’t very high up on the food chain of youth gangs. When the musclemen emerged from the gym, those tattooed hulks with martial arts or jail time under their belt, and none of the other guys had any connection to someone who knew someone, then we’d keep a low profile or make ourselves scarce.
But of course there was still trouble. One time we wanted to go to a lake on Father’s Day. Two of the boys were hell bent on biking there. That’s a stupid fucking idea, we said, you'll never make it by yourselves. But they went through with it. We picked them up later bleeding by the roadside and laughed at them.
Böhse Onkelz provided the soundtrack for that period. I hated the band. Their whining songs about guys killed in action reminded me of the men boozing in their garages. But one Onkelz song sticks in my head to this day:
Wir waren mehr als Freunde
Wir war’n wie Brüder
Viele Jahre sangen wir
Die gleichen Lieder
(We were more than friends
We were like brothers
We sang the same songs
For many years.)
It's called Nur die Besten sterben jung, "Only the Best Die Young", and I liked it, maybe because I missed the damn Young Pioneers (children’s section of Communist youth organization), the days we preferred picking up littered papers and bottles to making each other's lives hell, and because I thought to myself: Yes, you really might get killed.
My made-up Turkish palI still didn’t feel safe. One evening I happened to drive to the parking lot at the Netto supermarket, where we always met up. Only a few of us were there and we were sitting ducks for a bigger bunch of bruisers from a neighbouring village. One of us took quite a beating. He drove home on his moped all the same, but his head was so swollen from the kicks and blows that he couldn’t get it out of his helmet. He ended up in intensive care.
Some memories stick like splinters and still hurt years later. The Turkish friend I made up was one such splinter. The last time we got together, we went to Hungary. We chilled by Lake Balaton and played soccer. We flung open the doors to our toilets and took pictures of each other crapping, we shaved each other's chest hair. And then we’re sitting in a café, I’m reading the paper, I might have read something about an attack, I can’t remember. A friend says something about "bloody wogs", that they had it coming, and I immediately go ballistic, shouting that I have a Turkish friend and he's in hospital in Berlin "because of people like you". It was a brief outburst, just a few seconds, and I immediately felt lousy.
Because I lied, I didn't have any Turkish friends, not even friends with Turkish names, where would I find them anyway? There was only one boy at our school who wasn’t white, his father was an engineer from Angola or Mozambique. Even the ladies I knew from the kebab joint were born in town or in one of our villages. I was also ashamed because I knew there were people who really did get burnt or kicked to death. And there I was making one up. And yet at the same time I was afraid our friendship was over.
"Oh, shit, is he hurt bad?" my friend asks. I murmur something like “not too bad”: I keep lying, once you start you can't just stop. "I'm sorry," he says, “I didn't mean it that way.”
That was another truth about those years: many people knew skinheads, right-wing radicals, neo-Nazis – and not just from a distance. We were friends with them, we liked some of them, we benefited from their protection. In Manja Präkels' book, the chief Nazi might have actually saved the heroine’s life. "The fact that the Nazis were often old friends of ours from school, our brothers, our cousins, made it so difficult to deal with at the time," says Manja Präkels. "And that still makes it difficult today."
She also says she sometimes had the feeling someone was holding a protective hand over her. "Maybe from tender childhood memories of each other. But we didn’t have such tenderness for foreigners, for people of colour."
Nowadays East Germans aren’t the only ones facing this dilemma: the AfD are gaining ground in the West, too. And if you have to argue with your brother or a friend, then you can’t outsource the Nazi problem to Saxony, you’ve got a German identity crisis on your hands. So, says Präkels, the question is: "Would we rather sit down with a right-wing extremist we know and pretend everything’s normal, or call him –and ourselves – into question by standing up for people who are strangers to us?”
I went to Berlin for my community service (in lieu of military service). I started college in Leipzig in 1999. I got lucky and met some good people from the West and the East. If I stuck to the right parts of town, I didn’t run into any skinheads. Only once in a while I heard echoes from the past. In the early 2000s, a friend of mine found a hole in the rear window of his car, the upstairs neighbours’ kid had thrown a vase out the window. The kid’s dad, a skinhead with skinhead chums, didn’t feel like paying for the damage and made that clear to my friend. I considered calling my people in Brandenburg, but the Nazi was from Leipzig and wouldn’t need to drive 200 kilometres to strike back with more manpower.
Today, in the small town where I went to school, there are women in headscarves who holler after their sons in Russian to wait for them. There are people serving in bars and cafés whose parents are from Vietnam or Turkey. The friend who once had "Euthanasie" on his rear window and who I met up with again for this article now says he’s friends with “Kurds, Turks, Russians, Vietnamese”. But he thinks we ought to understand people who’d rather not live alongside so many foreigners. When I ask him if he’s one of those people, he says, "I really don't know."
I didn't fight, let alone win. I just left.
Daniel Schulz, 1 October 2018