BURG, Germany — Two teachers in eastern Germany have been trying to combat far-right student activities at their small-town high school. They counsel bullies who threaten to beat up immigrant classmates. They gave more lessons about their country’s fascist past. They invited a Black rapper to talk about mutual respect.
None of them helped. In desperation, Laura Nickel and Max Teske wrote a public letter in which they described the threatening atmosphere at Mina Witkojc School in Burg. They reported that students greeted each other in a Nazi salute, scratched swastikas on desks, and played music with racist lyrics in the hallways.
“Teachers and students openly fight against far-right students and teachers fear for their safety,” the two wrote in a letter to local newspapers. “The problem must be recognized and openly fought. Schools must be fearless, open and safe for everyone and cannot be a haven for the enemies of democracy.”
Even so, Nickel, who taught English and history in high school, and Teske, a math and geography teacher, were unprepared for the backlash their calls to action generated. A letter from an anonymous group of parents asking for their dismissal. Stickers with their pictures and the caption “Biss off to Berlin” affixed to light poles near the campus. On social networks, someone declared a desire to “hunt them down”.
More frustrated with what they said was a lack of support from colleagues, principals and local administrators, Nickel and Teske announced at the end of the school year two weeks ago that they would be leaving the school and town 116 kilometers (72 miles) southeast of Berlin.
Nickel, 34, who has worked at Mina Witkojc for four years, told The Associated Press in a joint interview with Teske, 31, who taught there for three years.
Neither the school nor the local school authority responded to the AP’s request for comment on the teacher’s resignation.
But the experience of Teske and Nickel has raised concerns in the German capital that the far right has gained a stronger foothold in some parts of the former East Germany than many thought. Experts say that especially in the southern state of Brandenburg, where Burg is located, the entire network of tattoo parlors, nightclubs, youth groups and fan clubs of the FC Energie Cottbus football team has spread the message of the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
Earlier this month, Brandenburg state’s domestic intelligence agency declared Young Alternative for Germany, the AfD’s wing for supporters 14 and older, to be particularly extremist and placed it under official scrutiny as a “proven far-right” group.
The state Department of Education, which has been criticized for not adequately supporting teachers, announced last week that it had identified a teenager suspected of being the one who initially posted “hunting them down” on Instagram.
Timo Reinfrank, CEO of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, whose organization promotes human rights while working against right-wing extremism, racism and anti-Semitism in Germany, told the AP that the southern state of Brandenburg had become “a scary area that the Nazis claimed was their home region.”
That shouldn’t really come as a surprise to those familiar with the region, says Reinfrank, where the far right was active even before the AfD was founded a decade ago. The organization he leads is named after an Angolan contract worker who was beaten to death in 1990 when a group of about 50 young men with baseball bats went looking for Blacks to attack in the Eberswalde town of Brandenburg.
The AfD was founded in 2013 and first entered the German parliament four years later after campaigning on an anti-migrant platform. Recent polls show the party has a record nationwide support of around 20%.
There are many reasons for its particular appeal in eastern Germany. East Germany was a communist dictatorship until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and many people there lost their jobs after German reunification in 1990. Residents still talk about feeling like second-class citizens compared to Germans in the west of the country.
Experts say the AfD has used the coronavirus pandemic and the influx of 1.2 million Ukrainians since Russia invaded Ukraine as an opportunity to promote the “us versus them” narrative and provide seemingly simple answers to complex issues.
Many think the AfD could become the strongest party when Brandenburg and the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia hold elections next year. In Thuringia, the AfD candidate last month won the position of district administrator in Sonneberg, the first time since Nazi Germany a far-right party has won first place at the district level.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Olaf Scholz’s centre-left ruling coalition with the pro-business Green Party and pro-business Liberal Democratic Party is notorious for infighting and facing major obstacles over immigration, an environmental plan to replace millions of home heating systems and still-high inflation.
For the likes of Nickel and Teske, standing up against right-wing populists comes at a heavy price. After the teachers announced their withdrawal from Burg, the head of the AfD division in Cottbus, the second largest city in Brandenburg state, cheered on Twitter that Teske, whom he called a “radical leftist informant” and his “accomplices” had gone.
Police are investigating threats against teachers, and officers regularly patrol their homes. When Teske goes out, he often looks over his shoulder to see if someone is watching him. Recently, a man approached him in a grocery store from behind and whispered in his ear, “Get out of here.”
However, he refuses to consider his decision to leave town a failure. By pointing out the dire conditions in schools, he and Nickel said, sparking a much-needed national debate about the rise of the far right in Germany.
“We will continue to raise our voices, we will continue to make political impact and will not let the far right win,” he said.
Germany, where the Nazi party was elected to power 90 years ago and led the country into World War II and the Holocaust, has a special responsibility to combat far-right populism, Nickel added.
“History repeats itself and I believe we must do something now to stop anti-democratic parties in Germany,” she said.