Small German Town Simultaneously Hosts Peaceful Festival, Anti-Fascist Concert, and Neo-Nazi Hitler Birthday Celebrations

Ostritz, a sleepy German town on the Polish border with a population lower than 2500, transformed into a tense and heavily policed platform for political expression over the weekend when it played host to three very different events. The right-wing, ultranationalist National Democratic Party of Germany, organized a two-day festival called “Shield and Sword,” or SS, to mark the 129th anniversary of Hitler’s birthday. The event was comprised of political speeches, music performances, and a tattoo convention all of which was held at Neisseblick Hotel. While freedom of assembly under the German constitution allowed the event to run, the local city council and local anti-fascists responded by organizing separate events to protest its occurrence. The council, dominated by the Christian Democratic Union, organized a Peace Festival in the Ostritz main square, which involved live music, family entertainment, and stalls serving food and alcohol. Members of the local left, organized a concert dubbed “right does not rock” on a field in the town centre. This event featured anti-fascist music and stalls, as well as food tents. A significant police presence, comprised of German and Polish officers closely monitored the town throughout the period.

As reported by Al Jazeera, Michael Schlitt a co-organizer of the Peace Festival stated, “We want to show that protest against neo-Nazism and right-wing extremism is not only something for small left-wing groups, but that we do it across parties, across churches, with different associations, clubs, charities, NGOs, and citizens.” The SS festival drew strong criticism, with 40 German mayors signing a declaration opposing the event in the days leading up to April 20. Nevertheless, as highlighted by Al Jazeera, it is important to recognize that events like this festival provide right-wing extremists with an opportunity to network and find new supporters.

Germany has developed strict laws and consequences associated with political extremism. Displaying or producing symbols related to the Nazi era is illegal, as is the denial of the Holocaust. Making a Hitler salute is also illegal, which resulted in the arrest of a 31-year-old man attending the SS festival. Despite these legal provisions, attendees were able to wear and distribute shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “I (heart) HTLR”, “Aryan Brotherhood” and “Germany for Us, Germans.”  Sascha Elver, the organizer of the anti-fascist concert commented that, “If neo-Nazis are able to gather and celebrate Hitler’s birthday without any interruptions, there is something fundamentally wrong.” Alternative for Germany (AfD), a right-wing, nationalist party which has been accused of xenophobic and racist tendencies linked to Neo-Nazism, has recently become the third largest party in the German political sphere after securing 12.6% of the vote in the latest federal election. It is time for Germany to re-evaluate the legal framework safeguarding its population from the racism and hatred which defined the country during the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Clearly, the regulations protecting Germany from Neo-Nazism are no longer sufficient and must be re-examined. Looking to the future, it is necessary that school curriculums include a strong focus on the value of cultural, religious and linguistic diversity. It must also have the legal restrictions in place to prevent the spread of Neo-Nazism evaluated to ensure they remain valid and comprehensive. Germany has spent decades trying to reconstruct itself as a nation which will never again commit atrocities akin to those in its past, and yet the values underlying contemporary German society are threatened by the ability of Neo-Nazis to publicly commemorate and celebrate Hitler’s birthday. No one living in Germany today should experience fear of persecution, or be faced with the vitriolic message conveyed by the simple slogan “I (heart) HTLR”.

While it is extremely worrying and problematic that neo-Nazis were able to host the SS festival, it is reassuring that the counter events drew greater crowds and support. Police blocked off a road leading to Poland to make it more difficult for SS festival attendees to access the event, and the city imposed a ban on alcohol at the premises of the Neisseblick Hotel. The voice of protest was loud and defiant in Ostritz, carrying the clear message: there is no place for Neo-Nazism in Germany.

Catherina Pagani