BERLIN, May 2 (JTA) May Day, a national holiday in Germany, traditionally belongs to the country’s left-wing activists, with workers’ rights groups, Communists and anti-capitalists holding huge rallies, picnics and demonstrations.
But this year, neo-Nazis held demonstrations that were seen by many as a way for the extremists to thumb their noses at the leftists.
Here in Berlin, flanked by a human wall of police officers in riot gear, an estimated 1,200 right-wing extremists from the National Democratic Party rallied Monday.
More than 300 protesters gathered around them, chanting “Nazis, get out” and blowing piercing whistles.
Around 140 people were from both sides were detained, including some left-wing protesters who tried to break through the barricade of heavily armed police.
But a much-feared violent clash between left and right was averted at the midday rally.
The neo-Nazi National Democratic Party also held rallies in other German cities, including Dresden, Ludwigshafen and Furth.
The Berlin rally took place in Hellersdorf, a working-class neighborhood of gray high-rises in the eastern portion of the city.
More than 2,000 police officers were on duty to prevent violence.
Police said they were allowing left-wing protesters near the rally, but stressed that their first priority was to protect the neo-Nazi demonstrators.
“The anti-demonstrators are not being forbidden,” said one police officer.
But many curiosity-seekers were turned away at a barricade about a half-mile away from the rally site. Suspected left-wing protesters were pulled from subway trains for questioning several stops before the one nearest the demonstration.
Asked how they knew who belonged to the right-wing community and could therefore be let in, one police officer smiled and said, “You can tell.”
Dressed in combat boots, bomber jackets and T-shirts with skinhead slogans, the neo-Nazi demonstrators cheered as speakers lashed out at foreigners.
The protesters held signs with such slogans as “Work for Germans First.”
Germany has an unemployment rate of about 10 percent, and many right-wing groups use this statistic when calling for the expulsion of the nation’s immigrant population.
Many of the right-wing extremists at the rally were young men, with a smattering of older men and young women.
Some were waving red, black and white flags with their party’s insignia. Others wore white shoelaces in their combat boots, which is a symbol for white supremacy.
While their protest featured anti-foreigner propaganda, the party was careful not to use Nazi slogans, phrases and propaganda, which are illegal in Germany.
The National Democratic Party is the most extreme of the legal right-wing political groups in Germany.
One of the suspects recently arrested in an attempted synagogue burning in the eastern German city of Erfurt on April 20 the anniversary of Hitler’s birth was carrying a party membership card, and another is believed to be a member of a party splinter group.