One of the three young men sported a Hitler-style mustache, albeit blond and wispy. Another had the letters SS, the abbreviation for the Nazi elite military corps, tattooed on his head. Most chilling of all, the three showed little remorse during a week-long trial for having stomped to death Alberto Adriano, a Mozambican who moved to Germany 12 years ago.
Although racially motivated violence is lamentably common in Germany, the death of Adriano in June, in the eastern city of Dessau, touched off a wave of national soul searching about neo-Nazi attacks and the appropriate response. Last week, a court in Halle gave its answer. A judge sentenced Enrico Hilprecht, 24, to life in prison for Adriano's death, while two 16-year-old accomplices, Frank Miethbauer and Christian Richter, were sentenced as juveniles to nine-year prison terms, a year short of the maximum. "It was the latest in a long chain of attacks to which we must put an end," said Judge Albrecht Hennig. The prosecution, seeking the most severe penalties possible, said the three assailants "did not view Alberto Adriano as a human being, rather, they beat him to death because he was a black African."
As the court was delivering its verdict, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder toured the states that comprised the former East Germany and repeatedly spoke out against right-wing violence. With high unemployment, it is in the eastern states that neo-Nazi organizations appear to be the strongest. "We have to be tough and decisive against those who use violence," Schröder said. "We have to give young people perspective for training and jobs, and we have to have more civilian courage."
German officials, including Schröder, have been caught off guard by the spate of racially motivated assaults, which primarily target the 9% of the population who are immigrants. Such attacks have caused 30 deaths over the past decade. And a bomb blast in July in Düsseldorf, which is in western Germany, injured 10 people and was apparently aimed at Jewish immigrants from Russia.
The government is contemplating an outright ban on neo-Nazi organizations, such as the National Democratic Party, considered the most violence-prone of the far-right groups. Far-right parties are already monitored by Germany's domestic security agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Employers' associations have called for "skinheads" to be fired from their jobs, while Germany's post office bank said it would close accounts used by right-wing extremists. Experts have cautioned, however, that repressing far-right groups might backfire and could lead to increased support for them as martyrs to a cause.
No one believes these anti-right wing measures will solve the problem overnight. Although distributing neo-Nazi propaganda is a crime in Germany, neo-Nazi groups have recently turned to the Internet, which is hard to police, to get their message out. Faced with the boredom of unemployment, neo-Nazis consume what the judge in Halle termed "appalling amounts of alcohol," and listen to rock music laced with racial slurs. One sign of the continuing strength of right-wing thugs: Adriano's widow, Angelika, who has three children, received so many death threats during the trial that she didn't appear for the sentencing and has been moved to a secret location. Her abiding fear of neo-Nazis is the saddest commentary of all