Berlin Police Block Neo-Nazi Protest Rally

Police stand guard between far-right demonstrators, top, and anti-fascist opponents outside Munich's town hall.
Police stand guard between far-right demonstrators, top, and anti-fascist opponents outside Munich's town hall. (By Alexandra Winkler -- Reuters)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 9, 2005

BERLIN, May 8 -- German authorities on Sunday averted the spectacle of thousands of neo-Nazis marching past the capital's most visible monuments, including a new Holocaust memorial, as police and counter-demonstrators bottled up a rally by skinheads and other extremists on the 60th anniversary of the country's surrender in World War II.

About 3,000 neo-Nazis gathered in a plaza in the center of Berlin to protest what many of them derided as "German guilt" over the crimes of the Third Reich and to portray German civilians who suffered or died at the hands of the Allies as overlooked victims of the war. It was the latest in a series of public rallies by neo-Nazi groups, which have taken advantage of record unemployment and other factors to attract new followers.

The demonstrators had vowed to march through the historic heart of the city, past the Brandenburg Gate and the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. But authorities relied on a new law passed by Parliament and other tactics to prevent them from going anywhere. After several hours of speeches, the neo-Nazis dispersed peacefully and were escorted beyond the city limits by police.

An estimated 10,000 police officers, many outfitted in riot gear, fanned out across Berlin and closed down several city blocks near the site of the neo-Nazi rally, which was organized by the National Democratic Party, a legal political group that has recently won seats in regional German legislatures. Police spent most of the day separating the neo-Nazis from about 6,000 counter-demonstrators, who packed major intersections in an attempt to keep them away from the city's main boulevard, Unter den Linden.

Meantime, thousands of Germans assembled at the Brandenburg Gate and near the Parliament building, the Reichstag, for a pro-democracy rally and to commemorate the end of the war in a different fashion. In a speech to Parliament, President Horst Koehler said Germans would always "look back with horror and shame" on the Third Reich and the Holocaust. "We have a responsibility to keep alive the memory of the suffering and its causes," he said. "And we must ensure that it never happens again."

Many German lawmakers have expressed concern about a limited but noticeable increase in the number of neo-Nazi sympathizers in the country. In February, about 5,000 members and supporters of the National Democratic Party marched through Dresden to protest what they called the "bombing holocaust" of that city 60 years earlier, when 35,000 civilians were killed in Allied bombing raids.

In March, a court classified a neo-Nazi group in the state of Brandenburg a terrorist organization after 12 members were convicted on charges that they set fire to restaurants owned by immigrants. And last week, members of another neo-Nazi group in the state of Bavaria were imprisoned after they were convicted of plotting to bomb a new Jewish community center in Munich in 2003.

In Berlin on Sunday, the neo-Nazi crowd consisted mainly of young men dressed in black, with cleanshaven or closely cropped heads. They chanted "Germany for the Germans" and carried dozens of flags and banners, including one that showed the British, Soviet and U.S. flags and the words "The Murderers of Yesterday are the Liars of Today."

Udo Voigt, the leader of the National Democratic Party, urged the demonstrators not to feel guilty about the country's history and asked for a moment of silence to express "deep sorrow for the millions of German victims, the victims of the Allied bombing terror."

Special correspondent Shannon Smiley contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company