Undercover with Europe's dangerous neo-Nazis
Neo-Nazis stand behind a banner during the commemoration of the 1945 Allied bombing of Magdeburg on January 12, 2013, in Magdeburg, Germany. The annual march is among the biggest neo-Nazi marches of the year. German authorities have been accused of turning a blind eye to right-wing violence following revelations last year of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi murder trio, who over the course of some 5 years murdered nine immigrants and one policewoman. / Getty Images
BERLIN This time around, he wore dark glasses, a bushy blond beard and a black beanie pulled down low. It was only his latest disguise, used to greet foreign press at a conference in Berlin.
The man who goes by "Thomas Kuban" must at all costs keep his identity a secret -- after all, Europe's neo-Nazis would kill to get their hands on him.
For 15 years, Kuban, now in his mid-thirties, risked his life secretly filming neo-Nazi rock concerts, events he says are the conspiratorial heart of Europe's diverse and burgeoning neo-Nazi scene.
His camera rolling, Kuban has witnessed hundreds of fanatics venerating the perpetrators of Auschwitz and calling for Jews and foreigners to be murdered. He has watched dumbfounded as crowds of thousands raise their hands in the Hitler salute shouting, "Sieg Heil," or as Austrian police shook hands with neo-Nazis.
"If I had been caught, the neo-Nazis would have beaten and kicked me -- they might well have killed me," he told GlobalPost.
"Mass crimes take place at every event and no one does anything," he added, referring to the Hitler salutes that are illegal in Germany and Austria, and the banned, hate-filled songs sung under the noses of policemen.
"I am shocked at how weakly the security services deal with the neo-Nazis in Germany, allowing them a legal vacuum in which to operate."
A six-year killing spree of foreigners by a small trio of far-right extremists came to light in November 2011. Outrage spread among Germans who felt that law enforcement overlooked far-right suspects.
Since then, Germany has taken steps to increase its monitoring efforts. Officials have set up a database of suspected right-wing threats and, in December, kick-started a renewed attempt to ban the far-right NPD, the National Democratic Party, with a final decision due in the coming months.
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But Kuban is far from satisfied. He says there is no sign of anti-foreigner prejudice dying out in wider German society.
Reunified Germany has struggled to purge itself of violent far-right extremists, who have murdered at least 63 victims since 1990, according to government estimates. The real figure is widely believed to be far higher, says Kuban, and could be closer to 180.
Despite increased state efforts to monitor the scene, the group of potentially violent right-wing extremists continues to grow. In 2012, the German intelligence service identified some 10,100 violent neo-Nazis in the country, up from 9,500 two years ago. Many of these new recruits were drawn in by fascist music, says Kuban.
"The music attracts many young people to the scene, it brings new blood," he said.
Kuban's unusual mission began in the 1990s, after a colleague told him about secret neo-Nazi rock concerts happening nearby. Sneaking along that first time to watch from a safe distance as hundreds of neo-Nazis congregated to sing along in unison to the hate-filled lyrics of driving fascist punk rock, his curiosity was piqued.
That soon hardened into a resolve that would carry him for the next 15 years. "I couldn't believe that hundreds of neo-Nazis crept off to secret concerts that the police either didn't know about or only found out about very late," he said. "I thought to myself: 'OK, there's something new to be uncovered here.' The idea of breaking down those conspiratorial structures awoke my journalistic ambition."
"I think it's terrible for the people of [Germany] if undemocratic movements spread and grow like that. I wanted to give the public insights into this scene," he added.
Kuban began devoting vast amounts of time and his own money to making inroads into the scene. He went to dozens of concerts and searched for hidden online extremist forums.
Given the flurry of activity he was uncovering, he was shocked to discover that the media wasn't interested in his work, even when he offered to risk his life smuggling cameras in to film neo-Nazi underground activities.
"Many of [the German public broadcasters] didn't even reply, others told me they weren't interested," he said, adding that one editor told him he had seen it all before, referring to what Kuban says was worn-out, decade-old library footage.
In 2003, Kuban finally placed some of his work -- German news magazines Spiegel and Stern said they would show his footage on their websites.
The neo-Nazis were outraged because they realized that the times when only 10-year-old material made it out of the scene were over," he said. "This bastion in which the neo-Nazis had felt completely safe at these secret concerts had been broken down."
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