Female Neo-Nazis Not Just Hangers-On

The New York Times/February 8, 2012

Berlin -- The image of a far-right extremist in Germany has changed, with shaved heads and steel-toed boots replaced by long, tousled hair, a décolleté decorated with a swastika and wide blue eyes staring out from behind wire-rimmed glasses.

Over recent months, two women, Marisa and Beate, have become Germany's most talked about far-right extremists. Their stories — one fictional, the other linked to a series of crimes — are forcing the nation to rethink the role played by women in its neo-Nazi scene, and prompting federal and state officials to convene special sessions to address whether the authorities are doing enough to stamp out rightist extremism.

"Typically women in the far-right scene are viewed by the general public either as devotees of their neo-Nazi boyfriends, or as being equally violent as the men," said Michaela Glaser, a researcher on far-right extremism with the German Youth Institute in the eastern city of Halle.

While the German authorities keep detailed statistics on politically motivated extremists and the crimes they commit, little data is kept on the women active in the scene, which includes followers of extreme nationalist, racist or anti-Semitic ideologies, who reject the nation's democratic principles.

According to a 2010 estimate by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, there are 25,000 far-right extremists inside the country, but only 11 percent were believed to be women. Although they account for a relatively small number, roughly half of the women who are involved in the scene were recorded as holding leadership positions within nationalist political organizations.

The latest round of voting for the National Democratic Party, known by its German initials, N.P.D., reflected that. In November, three women were voted on to the 35-member executive board of the party. In 2003, the German government tried to ban the N.P.D.

"With this election, the N.P.D. showed that there are many women in its ranks that are anti-feminist, aware of tradition and devoted to their nation," said Ricarda Reifling, the leader of an all-female group in the party called the Ring of National Women. Its motto is "Nationalism is also for women."

Marisa, the 20-something protagonist in the film "Kriegerin," or "Combat Girls," which was released last month, is less political. She wears a T-shirt emblazoned with "Nazibraut," or "Nazi bride," in the opening scene of the film. Yet she is more than just the girlfriend of the gang's neo-Nazi leader, and as the film develops, she runs a pair of immigrants off the road in a fit of anger and refuses to wait on dark-skinned customers in the supermarket where she works.

The film, by a first-time director, David Wnendt, has won several German film awards and has stayed in the top 10 at art-house movie theaters since its release in January. Although some critics argue that the storyline is weak and fails to explore the motivations behind what drives Marisa and another young woman to join the scene, Mr. Wnendt has been praised for the level of detail used in the film, like the neat white bandage Marisa wears over her swastika when she is in public. Germany bans the overt display of any symbols associated with Hitler or the Nazis, and showing them is grounds for arrest.

Yet not every extremist overtly displays their ideology.

Beate Zschäpe, 37, who turned herself into the police in November, has been described by several witnesses as "a normal, nice and polite person who never uttered an extremist thought," her lawyer, Wolfgang Heer, said in a statement to journalists in December.

Although photos have since emerged of her taking part in neo-Nazi demonstrations in the late 1990s, she was not under suspicion of any crimes then. In another image, which has been reprinted widely in the German press, Ms. Zschäpe, is pictured staring into the camera through her tousled brown hair in pink pajamas beside Uwe Böhnardt, one of the two men with whom she would later form the National Socialist Union, the terrorist ring that the German police say was responsible for the killings of nine businessmen of Turkish and Greek extraction, and for carrying out two bombings and more than a dozen bank robberies over the better part of a decade.

The authorities say they have no information linking Ms. Zschäpe — who has been jailed in Cologne since Nov. 4 — directly to the murders, carried out by the group from 2000 to 2007. But the police say evidence has shown that she played an active support role for the ring, renting more than a dozen apartments, and is believed to have taken care of its finances.

It is not uncommon for women to take on such roles, as they are seen as coming across to the general public as less threatening and suspicious, said Ms. Glaser, the researcher. But despite the growing role of women, she said, they are still a minority in what is a male-dominated scene.

"At the same time, viewing women only as girlfriends is overlooking a potential danger," Ms. Glaser said.

Ms. Zschäpe has refused to speak with investigators since her arrest. Mr. Heer, her lawyer, has petitioned the court to have her released pending formal charges, though he said on Wednesday that no progress had been made.

She remains in detention under suspicion of founding the terrorist ring with Mr. Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, who died in an apparent murder-suicide on Nov. 4. Later that day, the apartment that Ms. Zschäpe had shared with the men in the eastern city of Zwickau exploded in flames. Hours later, she turned herself into the police.

Since November, police have arrested six other Germans on suspicion of having supported the trio, including procuring weapons, renting vehicles and helping to create false identities for the members.

The case has shaken this nation, which has struggled with the legacy of its World War II history for decades and the violent supporters that Nazi ideology still attracts. The most pressing question remains how such a violent group could have gone unnoticed by police and intelligence officials.

A parliamentary committee was set up last month, and on Wednesday a similar committee with representatives of the country's 16 states convened an expert commission for the first time.

"This crime shocked us all," Uwe Schünemann, the interior minister for Lower Saxony, said Wednesday. "While the parliamentary committee is important, we need to research the lines of communication in every state, and to improve lines of communication where needed to prevent anything like this from happening again."

The government has also provided psychological and other support to the families of the victims, many of whom were themselves the object of police investigations in the immediate aftermath of the killings. Preparations are also under way for a memorial service to be held this month for the families of the victims.

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