BERLIN, Dec. 3 (JTA) — The Jewish community here is enjoying widespread public support following one of the largest neo-Nazi rallies in postwar Germany. Saturday´s demonstration brought some 3,300 supporters of the extreme-right National Democratic Party of Germany, known by its German initials NPD, within a few blocks of two synagogues and other Jewish venues. The marchers had hoped to pass in front of the city´s largest synagogue, but they were denied that route after the Jewish community vigorously objected. The neo-Nazis were protesting an exhibit on the "Crimes of the Wehrmacht" that opened here Nov. 27. The exhibit, which documents the participation of the ordinary German army in Nazi war crimes, is on display in Berlin until January and then will travel to other venues in Germany. The exhibit is controversial because Germans for years refused to admit that the regular army participated in Nazi war crimes. Most Germans believed such actions were confined to special units like the SS, Hitler´s elite guard of storm troopers. Paul Spiegel, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called the NPD demonstration a "provocation of huge dimensions." His view was reflected by countless mainstream politicians, parties and activist groups. Some made a point of visiting the exhibit, among them Berlin´s new mayor, Klaus Wowereit, and many members of parliament. "The neo-Nazis probably haven´t even seen the exhibit," said Rita Kantemir, 61, who watched the NPD marchers assemble and later shouted insults at them. "They don´t want to confront this history." "It is shameful that they are allowed to march here," said Hans Thomae-Venske, 50, who wanted to "show solidarity with the Jewish community and to show the neo-Nazis that we will have nothing to do with their inhuman ideology." One young member of the neo-Nazi group said he had no interest in speaking to the press. "You will only print nonsense," he said, holding a large NPD flag that flapped in the wind. The man gave his name as "Himmler," eliciting peals of laughter from his companions. Heinrich Himmler was head of the SS. "Thank God there are many more young Himmlers in the world, and we are here to speak our mind as a group," he said. A group that has few actual members — about 6,000 nationwide — and virtually no political clout, the NPD managed as it often does to grab attention by choosing a sensitive route. But the audience along the way consisted mostly of thousands of police and the handful of protesters who managed to slip past the guards. In fact, more police turned out than neo-Nazis. About 4,500 officers were assigned to protect the marchers from angry protesters who had gathered near the Jewish community center and New Synagogue, a few blocks from the march route. Police blocked the street with armored vehicles and water cannons to keep the protesters from rushing the Nazi march. Members of the Jewish community, who would not officially demonstrate on the Sabbath, held their afternoon prayer service outdoors in front of the New Synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse, as helicopters hovered overhead and thousands of protesters milled about. Though the NPD has had no electoral success, the party attracts many thousands of disaffected young Germans by capitalizing on their resentment at being reminded of the Holocaust, and by reflecting their ethnocentrism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hatred of America. The federal government estimates that some 37,000 Germans hold extreme-right-wing beliefs. Most groups just barely avoid crossing the line into illegal activities, which include Holocaust denial and use of Nazi symbolism. The country´s Supreme Court is considering the constitutionality of banning the NPD on grounds that it is anti-democratic. On Saturday, however, the marchers stuck to carefully worded slogans and banners. There were no swastikas to be seen and no Hitler salutes, though there were plenty of raised fists. "There were some really nasty characters and some of them who were like little boys, carrying their posters like toy shields," said Ian Leveson, a member of the Jewish community who took part in the outdoor prayer service and then watched the NPD march. "On another level, the atmosphere was heavy. They were angry," he said. Most of the neo-Nazis reportedly were from Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg, though many carried banners indicating they were from the former East German state of Thuringia. They were surrounded by thousands of police, many of them helmeted and carrying shields. Their banners reflected some of the pet peeves of NPD demonstrators in the past year, including the proposed ban of their party; the planned Holocaust memorial in Berlin; and the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Party leaders always seem to choose sensitive locations for demonstrations, including the Brandenburg Gate and the site of the planned Holocaust memorial. This time, they wanted to march past the synagogue, but that route was denied them. Berlin´s Senator for Interior Affairs, Ehrhart Korting, said later he had waited to reveal the location in order to prevent attacks on the NPD marchers. As a result, there were only a few protesters along the route to hear the chants such as "America is the state of war criminals" and "We are the youth of Germany." "Poor Germany," shouted one young woman, standing on the sidelines. The exhibit first opened in 1994 but closed in 1999 after historians said nine photographs were incorrectly identified. The new exhibit, which opened last week, has less of an emphasis on photography and more on textual sources to make the same point about the Wehrmacht, the wartime German army. Despite the fact that the errors in the original exhibit were corrected, NPD demonstrators carried posters and banners declaring the superiority of Germans and the innocence of their forefathers. One older man held a sign to his chest with the words "Father, I am proud of you," and a photo of a Nazi soldier, with the name "Wolfgang Juchem" in small print. "I am proud because my father did his duty for his country," the man said, his voice trembling. "Everyone did his duty. And it is the same now as it was then — if I refuse to do my duty, I would be punished." Many Germans, however, praise the exhibit for forcing the country to confront its past honestly. "One knows a lot, but not enough, about the crimes of the previous generation," said Wolfgang Schneider, 62, a Berliner who visited the exhibit on Saturday. As a young man he had asked his father, a former Wehrmacht soldier, to talk about his experiences, but he "never answered," Schneider said. "And then I didn´t think about it again. I think there was a collective repression."
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.