One of my friends is studying in Berlin this year. Recently, he went to a neo-Nazi protest (and counter-protest) in Dresden and wrote up his experience. I left out the context (which can be found in the full article here), but here is the meat of the story:

Because the anti-fascist groups nearly always outnumber the neo-Nazis, this was a recipe for an inevitable clash between the police and the left. [The] day was defined by how “the left” and the police clashed. I use quotations now, because contrary to the flags and signs I had seen earlier, it was no longer easy to distinguish who this “left” was. Several young kids sported red and black flags while wearing all black clothing, a universal symbol of anarchists. Though in the chaos of a protest it isn’t at all clear that these people are also “anti-fascist.” Often the only way you could tell someone was an “anti-fascist” and not a neo-Nazi, was by [their hair]. Most of these demonstrators were just a bunch of kids, ready for a riot, and looking for some violence and they were what the media focused on, facing off against police behind burning barricades.

Contrary to the German media’s coverage of these events, ideology had less of a role in the events of the day than internal politics did. Some of these anti-fascist groups actually receive funding from the government. Organizations like “Die Linke” (The Left), which is a legitimate political party with seats in the Bundestag (the federal German parliament), receive federal government money but are not always able to control all of their rank and file. Sometimes members of the party get out of hand and join in the violence. The German news reported that the police raided the offices of “Die Linke” in Dresden, but did so without orders from their superiors and without a clear intention or purpose. The government, and more specifically the police, wanted to be seen as being tough on these leftists. But the consequences of these actions are frustrating for everyone. No side is able to leave the demonstration feeling satisfied; nothing seemed accomplished and neither side made a clear statement.

Amongst this confusion lies a circular problem for the German government. The government wants to allow free speech and the right to protest, but it also funds specific organizations, with certain agendas, which can run counter to these objectives. After years of police brutality against the right-wingers, the protest was seen an opportunity for the police to assert control over the extreme left, an opportunity that they seized with gusto.

Obviously our German friends have something to learn about the unintended consequences of government spending on political organizations as well as the importance of true freedom of speech. But beyond all that, there was something else that left me feeling slightly disgusted as I left Dresden on Saturday. The prospect of radical right-wingers on the European continent is not an imaginary one. In Germany, the radical right will always be on the margins of society. However, in other countries, like Poland and Austria, they have a growing and very real presence. There is even the prospect of these groups forming parts of coalition governments in the near future.

In the face of this threat, these broad based anti-fascists need to get their act together and send a real message. The message must be that they stand against extremism and not for fighting with the police. Otherwise, these anti-fascists lose credibility with the public and undermine the one objective that unites them. While I do not sympathize with the politics of the anti-fascist demonstrators, which tend to disregard individual liberty, they can still have an effective role in fighting the propaganda and lies of neo-Nazis. I hope at a future protest, this large tent of anti-fascists can manage to silence the neo-Nazis, without becoming the story themselves.

… and we think our political system is screwed up.

(My favorite line? “As I tried to get through one checkpoint and walk over a bridge, a clean-cut man confronted my professor and told him, in German, that the police were allowing people to cross the bridge only if they had “Jewish noses.” Neither my professor nor I knew quite what to make of that comment. But we concluded that, perhaps being an anti-fascist does not necessarily make one less anti-Semitic.”)
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