Nurseries on guard for neo-Nazis

The National, Abu Dhabi/August 14, 2010

Berlin - A regional government in eastern Germany has ordered the operators of children's day-care centres to pledge allegiance to the constitution following recent cases in which neo-Nazis have attempted to set up kindergartens, work in them or influence their teaching.

The measure is aimed at halting what anti-Nazi campaigners say is a new and disturbing phenomenon: the indoctrination of toddlers by teachers and parents in the former communist east, which has a strong neo-Nazi presence.

In future, anyone who wants to open a nursery in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, one of Germany's 16 states, must sign a declaration that they and their teachers adhere to the democratic values enshrined in the country's Basic Law, the government announced late last month.

"I am concerned that right-wing extremists could become managers of kindergartens," said Manuela Schleswig, the social affairs minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Her decision follows a recent case in which a village in the state almost permitted a father of seven to take over a kindergarten that was about to close due to a shortage of funds.

A background check on the man, who offered to run the kindergarten free of charge, revealed he was a member of the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), and he was not hired.

The NPD is openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic and extols a vision of a Fourth Reich containing only Germans. It is more extreme than other European anti-immigrant parties such as France's Front National, Austria's Freedom Party and the Dutch Party of Freedom.

Eastern Germany has been dogged by right-wing extremism ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Attacks on Jewish property and racist assaults on ethnic minorities are commonplace there.

The violence has been blamed in part on high unemployment that followed the rapid economic collapse in the east in the 1990s and on a lack of education about the Nazi period in schools during the communist regime.

Analysts say that despite a myriad of government initiatives to combat racism and lure people away from the Nazi scene, the far-right is becoming more deeply entrenched because the neo-Nazi youths of the 1990s have had children and are trying to influence the way they are taught in kindergartens and schools.

Nursery teachers and activists say there has been a growing incidence of far-right members either training to be kindergarten workers or seeking to influence nurseries, for example by supplying racist books. There is mounting concern that there may be enough neo-Nazi families in some regions to secure a majority on parent boards.

"There appears to be a strategy within the far-right scene to encourage young women to train for jobs in the teaching and welfare sectors because that offers the opportunity to convey national ideology later on," said Heike Radvan, an educational scientist at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racism group.

A recent editorial in the newspaper of the NPD encouraged members to go into teaching to promote "nationalist education" for young Germans.

"There are cases where right-wing mothers get involved in day-care centres, for example by helping to set up a playground, and in a second step try to bring in their ideology," said Ms Radvan. "For example they bring in a children's book that portrays a racist view of the world."

In one case, a mother who had argued against a school being called "School Against Racism" was found to have published recipes for swastika-shaped cakes on her private website.

The NPD openly espouses Nazi ideology but benefits from Germany's liberal laws on freedom of speech and is a legitimate party, which entitles it to public funding. It has solid support in the east, and is represented in the regional parliaments of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony, another eastern state.

Immigrant groups have labelled parts of the east as no-go areas. Police recorded 891 far-right assaults in Germany last year, of which 382 were categorised as racist or anti-Semitic. There was a total of 18,750 far-right crimes, including offences such as arson, daubing swastikas on headstones in Jewish cemeteries or smashing the windows of restaurants run by immigrants.

In public statements, leaders of the NPD regularly praise the achievements of Hitler's regime and dismiss Germany's crimes during the Nazi era. Hitler salutes are commonplace at closed-door meetings and members talk about sending their opponents off in "freight trains", in reference to the trains that took Jews to the concentration camps, say former NPD members.

The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, named after a contract worker from Angola who was beaten to death by neo-Nazi youths in 1990, has been training kindergarten teachers to spot far-right parents by their clothes and tattoos, and is advising them on how to resist attempts by them to influence teaching.

In some cases far-right parents can be identified by the Nordic names they call their children. "Some parents bring in children and say their child is called ‘Odin' or ‘Heil Odin'. You have to think about how to deal with that," said Ms Radvan.

Critics say forcing Mecklenburg-Vorpommern's kindergarten operators to sign a declaration won't solve the problem. "I think it is nonsense and totally exaggerated to respond by issuing such a declaration," said Bernd Wagner, a leading analyst of the far-right scene. "It won't work because any NPD member would simply sign the pledge."

Mr Wagner said the emphasis should be placed on tackling neo-Nazi parents. "The children aren't infected in kindergartens, they're indoctrinated at home, where they have access to nationalist literature and where you sometimes get relatives greeting each other with Sieg Heil," he said.

"We urgently needed to address the welfare of children who grow up in such families and explore what scope local authorities have to deal with that."

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