Features  Nazi chic

On a grey day in Berlin, Chris Urquhart finds herself at a protest decrying a neo-Nazi clothing label

This article was unpublished 29 december 2009 at the request of the author, fearing for the safety of the individuals referenced in the artice. -wv

It’s protest day and I have nothing to wear. We’re late. My flatmate, Ili, is on her cell with half of the left-wing radical scene in Berlin, coordinating meeting points and check-in times. We’re assembling to protest the opening of Tromsø, a swank clothing shop in downtown Friedrichshain. But neither fur nor sweatshop labour are on the chopping block today. Rather, we’re protesting a particular brand of clothing on their shelves – Thor Steinar Clothing, which is gaining popularity among the rising radical right in Berlin for its neo-Nazi associations.

Ili turns off her phone, tucking it in her fanny-pack.

“Just wear black,” she informs me, running a hand across her shaved head.

“Both the left scene and the Nazis – we all wear black.”

Confused as to why we would want to risk being mistaken for neo-Nazis at an anti-Nazi demonstration, I zip up my hoodie wearily. Ili assures me it is only to confuse police, who will be unable to segregate the crowd and stop the protests if things get ugly.

“And bring your passport,” she adds thoughtfully, in her soft Germanic accent, “Or we’ll end up in the police station, which can be really annoying.”

Like the rest of Berlin before 4 p.m., I am hungover but eager. As I scan the crowd, I am confronted by a sea of black: dark toques smothering neon yellow mohawks, black mitts on cherry bomb-throwing hands. There are some exceptions – a rainbow-haired punk girl supporting herself on crutches sucks on a beer, and a boy dressed solely in pink gesticulates at a police lineup. For the most part, though, black is what’s up.

“See!” Ili says, “I told you.”

The group swells to hundreds as we approach Schiesisches Tor U-Bahn Station, a few hundred metres before Tromsø. As Ili and I walk to the front of the crowd a severe police officer, clad in fluorescent yellow riot gear, stops me. She points and spews at me in German.

“Open the bag,” she orders, rifling through my belongings: a camera, a passport, a muesli cereal bar. Harmless.

“Fine,” she concludes, pointing me onward, confident that I am not a Nazi, nor a real radical. I wonder if it’s the muesli bar that gave me away.

At 2:30, the crowd starts to gain speed. I scan the buttons, my eyes met mostly by “Gegen Nazis!” (“Smash Nazis”) signs and slashed swastikas. I breathe a bit easier.

“Nein Nazis! Nein! Nein! Nein!” the crowd shouts, spearheaded by a group of snarling twenty-somethings with bullet-sized piercings.

“God! So macho,” Ili snorts, “But at least they’re on our side.”

As we reach Tromsø, we see it has been barricaded off, shut down for the day, protected by a horde of police officers.

The neo-Nazi scene in Berlin has come a long way from skinheads and swastikas. In terms of political activity, modern neo-Nazi groups have been responsible for hundreds upon hundreds of hate crimes against Jews, Turks, and other minority groups in Germany, from arson and sexual abuse to murder. Active neo-Nazis propagate racially intolerant or anti-Semitic ideals, often under the guise of advocating freedom of speech or pride in one’s race or heritage.

As a result of tightening laws on public displays of anti-Semitic affiliations (it is illegal, for example, to wear a swastika in public), racist radical right groups have crafted more subtle ways to show their support. Thor Steinar clothing has been central in this image makeover, allowing Nazis to be seen in public without fearing arrest or fine.

After having their original logo banned in 2004 for appearing too similar to uniforms worn by SS officers, Thor Steinar Clothing has started to use a series of codes and less direct references on their clothing to show Nazi affiliation. Numbers such as 88 (For “Heil Hitler”) or 18 (for “Adolph Hitler”) are popular as references, as are more typical symbols of Nazi pride (such as eagles and Norwegian flags to symbolize “Nordic origin”). The use of Norwegian symbols has prompted uproar from a number of Norwegian politicians, some of whom are taking Thor Steinar to court for the use of their flag.

In addition to wearing Thor Steinar clothing, German neo-Nazi groups have also appropriated more mainstream clothing, such as New Balance, with ‘N’ standing for National Socialism, as well as Lonsdale (leaving an unzipped sweatshirt on top to show the NSDA for Hitler’s the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or NSDAP). Initially sold almost exclusively online, Thor Steinar has begun to open up shop at central and strategic locations across the country. They sell accessories, men’s and women’s clothing, and even stock kiddie clothes.

“[Neo-Nazis] want to fit in the mainstream,” says Thom Hinum, a scholar of anti-Semitism and radical left activist, “but they still want to spread intimidation and fear wherever they go.”

Despite all the attention the label has been getting from protests and lawsuits, however, Thor Steinar still claims, both on its web sites and in interviews, that it is “just a fashion label.”

After a few hours of chanting and loitering outside Tromsø the protests dwindle. The kids are freezing from the pissing rain, and the punks are in need of more beer. Ili is upset about the weak turnout, so we head to a vegan cupcake shop with some friends. In a strange juxtaposition, it is located down the street from Tromsø.

“I hate this neighbourhood,” Ili says of Friedrichshain, a trendy core of Berlin. “Too many tourists, and too many Nazis.”

Her friends agree, shaking their black-capped heads vigorously.

Clothing brands such as Thor Steinar are sneaking under the radar, making the neo-Nazi presence subtly visible. With thousands of members in Germany and growing, neo-Nazism has become one of the most popular youth subcultures in Germany.

“I really can’t believe it,” Ili sighs. “How stupid can people be?”

As we sit at the counter, we strip off our protest gear. Gloves and toques are strewn across the café table, mixing with our veggie dogs and cakes. Faces fill with ethical food; hands rub together for warmth. The neon yellow icing clashes with Ili’s small black pullover, and I smile at the thought of anyone ever mistaking her for a Nazi.