Germany: 70-year-old anti-fascist defaces neo-Nazi art

Irmela Mensah-Schramm, who has painted over far-right graffiti for 31 years, is part of a long history of anti-fascism.

Berlin, Germany – A smile stretches across Irmela Mensah-Schramm’s face as she adjusts the brace on her gauze-swaddled right hand and lifts a binder full of photos detailing three decades of work defacing neo-Nazi graffiti and propaganda in public spaces.

The 70-year-old says she has painted over or defaced more than 100,000 manifestations of far-right sentiment over the past 31 years. Her one-person anti-fascist battle has left her with an injured hand, on which she recently had surgery, and landed her in a lengthy legal battle.

“I can’t stand this,” the retired teacher says of her hand injury. “It is a catastrophe for me.”

Sitting in her second-storey flat on the outskirts of Berlin, she flips through the pages of the binder, boasting of painting over and reconfiguring neo-Nazi and anti-refugee slogans on walls in cities, towns and villages across Germany and, to a lesser extent, in neighbouring countries such as the Czech Republic and Austria.

In court last year, a judge tried to get her to admit to vandalism charges and to promise to stop defacing public property. “I just said I’d keep doing it,” she recalls with a voracious chuckle. She was given a fine, which she vows never to pay.

Germany’s far-right is a broad umbrella that includes mainstream populist parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), anti-Muslim groups and neo-Nazi organisations. In recent years, other far-right groups have focused the bulk of their energy on anti-refugee advocacy.

In 2016, there were at least 3,533 documented attacks on refugees or refugee accommodation across the country, the Funke Media Group reported in February. Those attacks injured at least 560 people, including 43 children, according to the Interior Ministry. Another 217 refugee groups and volunteers were targeted.

Mensah-Schramm uses nail polish remover to erase anti-refugee graffiti [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Mensah-Schramm uses nail polish remover to erase anti-refugee graffiti [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

‘Nazis out!’

Mensah-Schramm recalls the first time she defaced neo-Nazi graffiti. It was 1986 and she was on a bus when she noticed a pro-Hitler sticker on a lamp post. She quickly slapped the stop button and jumped off the bus. Within minutes, she had peeled the sticker away. She was scolded for arriving late to work that day, but she was never again able to leave far-right graffiti, stickers or posters intact.

For the past three decades, threatening letters and voicemail messages, physical attacks and police warnings to stop provoking far-rightists have failed to deter her.

“Ladies first,” she giggles, pouring herself some steaming tea from a blackened kettle before filling the other glasses. She gulps down her tea and then another, before slipping on her sandals and heading to the bus stop across from her home.

On the bus, she sits with folded hands, still smiling, as she heads for an anti-fascist (Antifa) counterprotest that aims to challenge a far-right rally against the German government’s migration policies. She opens her bag to make sure she has brought her scraper for any stickers she may encounter while there and a small bottle of white-out in case she needs to paint over any graffiti. When she doesn’t have paint handy, she explains, she uses nail polish remover to erase the messages.

READ MORE: The rise of Germany’s anti-refugee right

She disembarks at a railway station and boards a train to the city centre. Along the way, she flashes some before-and-after images of her latest work on her phone. In one, she has transformed black Nazi symbols into bright red hearts.

Mensah-Schramm keeps an updated map of all the cities and towns where she has defaced neo-Nazi propaganda [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]
Mensah-Schramm keeps an updated map of all the cities and towns where she has defaced neo-Nazi propaganda [Patrick Strickland/Al Jazeera]

Although she used primarily to encounter anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi messages on walls, trains and lamp posts, she says there has been a huge increase in Islamophobic and anti-refugee graffiti in recent years – since the rise of several far-right groups and the beginning of the refugee crisis.

As the train grinds to a halt at Mensah-Schramm’s stop, she escapes through the sliding doors. She spots a group of far-right activists with shaved heads and arms covered in white supremacist tattoos and confronts them. “Nazis out!” she scowls repeatedly, raising her middle finger just a few centimetres from one man’s face, taunting him. “Against racists!”

Outside, she stops for a moment to survey the far-right demonstration – dubbed “Merkel Must Go”, in reference to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – and crosses the square to a group of Antifa counterprotesters.

‘Deportations, deportations!’

Organisers stand on a stage and address the few hundred far-right demonstrators who have assembled behind the train station. The crowd hoots and hollers jubilantly as anti-refugee and anti-Muslim declarations are bellowed through the loud speakers.

“We are not the ones to blame, we are not the bad ones. It’s her fault,” a woman bellows of Merkel from the stage.

Whipped into a frenzy, her audience chants at a fever pitch: “Deportations, deportations!”

A man in a black suit and crimson tie sports a mask of US President Donald Trump‘s face. The sky is punctuated with a host of fluttering banners, pro-Trump placards and German and Russian flags, among others. The audience swells. There are shaved heads and scraggy beards alongside aside clean-cut, middle-aged men in football jerseys and women in Sunday dresses.

Far-right demonstrators held flags for US President Donald Trump at an anti-refugee rally in Berlin [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Far-right demonstrators held flags for US President Donald Trump at an anti-refugee rally in Berlin [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“Islamists not welcome,” reads a vast black flag depicting the silhouette of a lance-wielding man on horseback, chasing a fleeing family. It is an image intended to mock refugee solidarity posters that feature the silhouette of a refugee family.

“Stop Islam,” says a banner brandished with the logo of Pegida, a far-right, Islamophobic group that operates in several European countries.

“Africa is big enough,” declares one placard in the middle of the crowd. A gang of chanters in the audience wear hoodies that say “National Socialism”.

At one point, a well-known local journalist with a colourful mohawk is spotted in the crowd. Far-right demonstrators corner him, chanting “Lugenpresse” (German for “lying press”), a phrase with anti-Semitic undertones that was commonplace during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

Thomas Witte, 30, has travelled more than 275km (170 miles) from his hometown in Germany’s Saxony state, a region often cited as a bastion of neo-Nazism and anti-immigrant politics.

“Merkel’s policy [on migration] has to go,” he argues, holding up one side of a banner likening Merkel to Hitler.

Thomas Witte, right, holds up a banner likening German Chancellor Merkel to Adolf Hitler and the GDR's Erich Honecker [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Thomas Witte, right, holds up a banner likening German Chancellor Merkel to Adolf Hitler and the GDR’s Erich Honecker [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Arguing that the public discussion on refugees and migration is restricted, he claims: “Everything that’s against Merkel’s opinion is automatically considered right-wing.”

Yet Witte is a member of Heimattreue Niederdorf, a far-right and anti-refugee movement based in his hometown. Although Witte rejects allegations of neo-Nazism, the group is routinely referred to as such. In the past, the group was accused of attacking refugees and leaving a severed pig’s head in front of an asylum centre. 

“And the way she [Merkel] reacts and has pushed her style of policy in the past few months – even a real dictator would envy her,” he concludes.

Identitarian Movement: ‘Maybe it’s time to move to Turkey’

Identitare Bewegung, or the Identitarian Movement, is an extra-parliamentary political movement that calls for stricter immigration restrictions, chiefly from Muslim-majority countries. The group’s roots can be traced back to France in 2002, but it has since spread in a handful of European countries. 

Robert Timm, the group’s Berlin-based spokesperson, admits that the movement is associated with the AfD, but stresses that the Identitarians operate independently. A towering, rawboned 25-year-old architecture student with brown-rimmed glasses and an unkempt beard, Timm has been active in the movement since April 2016.

Robert Timm is the Berlin spokesperson for the Identitarian Movement [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Robert Timm is the Berlin spokesperson for the Identitarian Movement [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

He concedes that members of the group have political roots in neo-Nazi movements, but dismisses it as youthful folly and a lack of political education. He describes the group as “a conservative movement” and insists that the Identitarians are “not far-right”.

Timm says he was once a believer in multiculturalism and that he is not a proponent of a white ethnostate, but argues that migration has upended Germany’s social and cultural balance. “Even in a rich country – it doesn’t matter how rich it is – [migration] still has an effect on the society,” he says, sipping an espresso in the smoking section of an East Berlin cafe.

“We are not blaming them [refugees] for coming here, but I think that we as Europeans, as Germans, still have the right to be against that.”

Last August, Timm was one of around 15 activists who scaled Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to hang two banners there. One of them displayed the group’s name, and the other read: “Secure borders – secure future.”

More recently, in May, Identitarians attempted to storm the Justice Ministry offices in Berlin, calling for Justice Minister Heiko Maas to step down over the country’s migration policies.

The provocative action and others like it have landed the Identitarians in hot water with German authorities. By October, at least 400 members of the group were under surveillance by domestic intelligence. “The fact that you are under surveillance does not make you a criminal,” Timm retorts.

In March, Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic intelligence agency, Bundesverfassungsschutz, told a local newspaper that the Identitarian Movement was going through a process of “increasing radicalisation”.

A far-right demonstrator's shirt reads: 'Let's change the politicians before they change the German people.' [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
A far-right demonstrator’s shirt reads: ‘Let’s change the politicians before they change the German people.’ [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“People come here, they migrate and … their parents are pretty liberal … but these people do it [by] themselves because they find themselves in a Western society where they maybe feel they don’t really belong, and then they try to find their own identity by, for example, turning to radical Islam,” Timm says, arguing that “enforced patriotism” for German citizens and mass deportations of refugees and migrants are the only solutions for the country’s supposed ailments.

“If you consider yourself a Turkish nationalist [in Germany], then it’s maybe time to move to Turkey,” he offers as an example.

Claiming that Muslims will seek to install Islamic law in Europe, he says: “I think we have every right to just make sure that we [white Germans] stay a majority here in Germany not just because of the demographic but also the democratic aspect.”

At the adjacent table, a snowy-haired German man tries to read the newspaper. Eavesdropping, he shakes his head disappointedly without looking directly in Timm’s direction, an expression of frustration on his wrinkled face.

Although the group experienced a surge in popularity in January 2015, when more than 25,000 people participated in an Identitarian-led march, its active membership is estimated to be around 500 people.

In mid-June, around 1,400 anti-fascists held a counterprotest and outnumbered an estimated 1,000 marchers who came out for an anti-Muslim rally called by the Identitarian Movement. Mensah-Schramm and others were forcibly removed by police when they staged a sit-in in the middle of the street to block the far-rightists from moving forward. 

‘Not just the right-wing to blame’

While Timm maintains that Germans are sympathetic to the Identitarians’ message, he admits that he has landed in the crosshairs of Antifa activists on several occasions. He’s been doxed, with activists publishing his address online, leading to attacks in the street and anti-fascists showing up at his home.

“Pretty much every week there are two to three attacks [by anti-fascists] when either people [from the Identitarian Movement or AfD] get beaten up, or their homes are being breached, or their cars are getting smashed,” he claims.

Anette Schultner accuses refugees and migrants of attempting to bring 'sharia law' to Germany [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Anette Schultner accuses refugees and migrants of attempting to bring ‘sharia law’ to Germany [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Anette Schultner, a member of the party group Christians in the AfD, insists neither she nor her party is Islamophobic. But, she says, she doesn’t want to “see sharia law” in Germany. “The asylum law should not encourage people to move here,” she opines. “Our position is that we should invest in countries that neighbour countries with wars, so there are more camps for refugees there.”

She argues that refugees and migrants, even those who work hard to integrate, are “a danger to German identity”.

Ulla Jelpke, a spokesperson for the Die Linke (The Left) party, argues that far-right movements and parties exploit the socioeconomic anxiety of Germany’s working class to whip up xenophobic sentiment. “They don’t see that the right way is that the rich should give to the poor; they look at people who are even weaker than them and blame them for whatever [the poor] don’t have,” she says.

“This is the area where the [right-wing] populists work,” she adds. “It’s not just the right-wing to blame but also the conservative government like the CDU and their coalition partners. They are using this message as people from the middle of [the political spectrum].”

READ MORE: Racism in Germany – ‘They let his body be torn apart’

In December, Chancellor Merkel called for a ban on the Islamic full-face veil, a rightward shift from her Christian Democrats (CDU) party’s previous stance. The party has reportedly been drawing up plans to impose the ban in courts, while stopped by police and when driving automobiles.

In September, Germany will hold federal elections. Although the CDU and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) were polling neck and neck earlier this year, the former has taken a nearly 15 point lead, according to a recent poll by Emnid. 

Last year, the AfD made huge gains in regional elections, capitalising on the refugee crisis that saw hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and economic devastation come to Germany. 

It gained 24.2 percent of the votes in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, and also landed in third place in both the Baden-Wurttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate states, securing 15.1 percent and 12.6 percent respectively. The AfD is currently represented in 13 state parliaments, but it has yet to gain representation in the federal government. 

Although the AfD’s support in the polls has dropped since it peaked at around 14 percent in January, most surveys still put it safely above the five-percent minimum required to enter for the Bundestag, the country’s federal legislative body. 

Ulla Jelpke is the Berlin-based spokesperson for Die Linke, or The Left, party [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Ulla Jelpke is the Berlin-based spokesperson for Die Linke, or The Left, party [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

“First of all, we need to fight against the neo-Nazis, who are often close to the AfD. We have to demand that everyone is treated equally – poor people here – and not only to call for integration of refugees; the enemies are upstairs,” Jelpke says.

“In the whole world, Germany as well, the rich people … have enough for everybody if there is fair distribution.”

Arguing that the far-right exploits the poor without ever fighting on their behalf, she says: “This type of nationalism puts Germans first before everyone else … this is pure racism.”

READ MORE: Revisiting Germany’s xenophobic Rostock riots of 1992

“They manage to get a lot of people from the centre with nationalism” by eschewing the openly racist rhetoric and anti-Semitism of traditional neo-Nazis, she adds. “Although they may not openly say it, they are hardcore German nationalists and make it a holy thing. They don’t want to mix with foreigners and integration is off the table for them.”

History of anti-fascism

People like Mensah-Schramm, who challenge the growth of Germany’s contemporary far-right, are just the latest in the country’s long history of anti-fascism. That history is punctuated with examples of effective tactics that include both non-violent strategies and direct confrontation.

In 1924, the Red Front Fighters’ League, tied to the Communist Party of Germany, was one of the first organisations to engage in street fights with Nazis. Its membership is estimated to have reached 130,000 by 1929.

Police separated anti-fascists and far-right protesters at a demonstration in March [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Police separated anti-fascists and far-right protesters at a demonstration in March [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

After Adolf Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, harsh state repression led to dwindling public resistance. With the Nazis in full control, many of the Red Front’s leaders were arrested, jailed, banished to camps and executed. Others fled and joined the fight against fascism in Spain and elsewhere.

Anarcho-syndicalists continued to publish pamphlets and newspapers, calling for strikes and protests against the Third Reich. In 1936, however, the Gestapo carried out raids across the country and crippled the movement.

WATCH: The Making and Breaking of Europe (47:29) 

Later on, anti-fascism emerged as a grassroots movement under the Soviet satellite state of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the eastern part of the country. Although anti-fascism was a key component of the state’s mythos from its inception, a neo-Nazi movement blossomed in the punk rock scene during the 1980s.

With the authorities taking a hands-off approach, Antifa circles materialised and took matters into their own hands. Church groups and collectives of concerned citizens also campaigned against the social phenomenon, reaching out to young people and trying to offer them an alternative.

Anti-fascists rallied against a far-right demonstration in Berlin on March 4 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Anti-fascists rallied against a far-right demonstration in Berlin on March 4 [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

According to the logic of East Germany’s ideology, the imposition of communism had eradicated the conditions that allow for fascism to sprout. Confined by these ideological binds, the GDR was hesitant to crack down on neo-Nazis as it would require acknowledging their existence.

Neo-Nazi attacks on anti-fascists were particularly intense in 1987 and 1988, according to historian Peter Ulrich Weiss’s research on the emergence of Antifa in eastern Germany.

Outraged by the return of fascist currents to society, concerned citizens set up anti-Nazi leagues and Antifa groups to disrupt neo-Nazi activities and meetings, while also training in self-defence and distributing newspapers, pamphlets and other forms of anti-fascist education.

Until today, these forms of direct confrontation and sociopolitical organising are the backbone of the Antifa movement in Germany, with an added focus on monitoring far-right activity online. 

‘No one has the right to spread Nazi propaganda’

Back at the protest, the Antifa counterdemonstration has grown larger than the far-right one. In the middle of the crowd a large inflatable bear – “Nazis out of Berlin” printed across its chest – sways in the wind.

A banner on the front line reads: “No one has the right to spread Nazi propaganda.”

Another placard hangs from a wall. “No one is illegal,” it states.

Mensah-Schramm says she goes to Antifa rallies on a frequent basis [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Mensah-Schramm says she goes to Antifa rallies on a frequent basis [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Mensah-Schramm stands in the first row, a middle finger raised in the direction of the far-right demonstrators, a group of whom saunter over. A row of police separates the opposing sides. The tension is palpable. Profane words hang in the air.

But as the sun gives way to night, the two protests draw to a close. Mensah-Schramm, however, sticks around, searching the area for neo-Nazi stickers. Spotting a Pegida one on a nearby bus stop, she quickly pulls out her scraper to scratch it off.

She makes her way through the alleyways and streets of the surrounding neighbourhood, checking lampposts and walls. Eventually, she sees “refugees out” scribbled over a pre-existing painting of a heart on a concrete ledge. She douses it in nail polish remover and scrubs it until only the bright red heart remains. “Voila,” she exclaims, bursting into laughter.

READ MORE: Germany’s rejected asylum seekers fear deportation

On the train ride home, she recalls an incident in 2005 when death threats naming her started appearing on the walls of homes and shops in her neighbourhood. “Schramm, we will get you,” the graffiti read.

One of the young men who was responsible for the graffiti eventually approached her and told her he’d changed his views, she recounts.

“We talked for a little bit, and he said he had been rethinking his choices because they were threatening and intimidating me so much, but I never gave up. We shook hands and I offered him help. That was a colossal experience for me.”

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

A before-and-after of Mensah-Schramm's work in Berlin [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
A before-and-after of Mensah-Schramm’s work in Berlin [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera