On May 1 the northern German port city of Hamburg experienced the worst violence it has seen in years. A group of neo-Nazis attacked police and far-left demonstrators; the mob erected road blocks, set cars on fire and hurled bottles and stones at police. The police later said there would have been fatalities if it wasn't for the water cannons and the riot gear with which the officers broke up the two groups. Nevertheless, dozens of people, including several police officers, were severely injured.
May 1 has always been a traditional day of protests in Germany, always dominated, however, by far-left violence. For the first time, the street clashes in Hamburg shed light on a group of neo-Nazis who are purposefully pursuing violence. They dress in black hooded sweaters and wear black sunglasses and hats, making them look almost like their far-left rivals. Calling themselves "Autonomous Nationalists," these young neo-Nazis don't believe in political work -- they believe in violence only.
"This group wants to be excessively violent," Hajo Funke, one of Germany's leading experts on far-right extremism, told United Press International in a telephone interview. "And the problem is that more young extremists are joining them, fueled also by activities like the one in Hamburg."
The estimated total manpower of the Autonomous Nationalists over the past year has doubled to 440.
While officials downplayed the importance of the black-clad mob in 2007, there seems to be no reason to do so today: Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble last week in Berlin said the violent neo-Nazis stood for a "new quality" of far-right violence. Heinz Fromm, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a domestic intelligence agency, said his agents would "very carefully" monitor the development of the group.
Germany's strongest far-right group, the National Democratic Party, which over the past years won seats in two state parliaments in eastern Germany, likely will do the same. When it comes to dealing with the Autonomous Nationalists, the NPD seems to be torn between a desire to welcome those young comrades and fears of alienating right-wing conservatives. For years, the NPD has pursued the strategy of cloaking itself as a normal democratic party, which of course it isn't, Funke said.
"Some of the NPD cadres are just as violence-prone as the Autonomous Nationalists," he said. "Because of their common ideology, they are all designed to be wild."
Over the past years, however, the NPD has tried to look as tame as possible: In eastern German regions rattled by unemployment, the NPD founded grassroots organizations like sports and cultural clubs used to disseminate neo-Nazi propaganda. This development has government officials worried.
By organizing social events and even extra tuition for schoolchildren, right-wing extremists are trying to "nest in the middle of society," Schaeuble, the interior minister, said, adding that Germany had to make sure that this plan fails.
It won't do so by outlawing the party, however, at least not in the short run. Schaeuble said the prospects that such a ban would succeed were rather low.
Germany's highest court in 2003 already threw out such an attempt after it surfaced that the government was using witnesses who had been working for Berlin as secret informants from inside the NPD.
Maybe the government is hoping that the NPD will disappear for other reasons: The party has had to battle severe financial problems over the past years and could face difficulties competing effectively in future state elections.
At the end of this month the NPD will hold its annual party congress in the Bavarian town of Bamberg. Observers are bracing for violence, mainly because of the Autonomous Nationalists.
"We may see the entire violence potential there, and it may explode and target third parties, such as political opponents or even journalists," Funke said. "Everything is possible in Bamberg."