To accompany story Sport-Soccer-World-Security
Fabrizio Bensch  /  Reuters file
Members of a specialist security force during a drill at Berlin's Olympic Stadium.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 6/2/2006 2:49:38 PM ET 2006-06-02T18:49:38

MAINZ , Germany — As teams such as Ghana and Trinidad and Tobago have arrived in Germany for this year’s World Cup they have been greeted to a hero's welcome from their local hosts.

Large delegations, complete with their local hosts waving national flags, have greeted the foreign teams. In the northern city of Celle, the Angola team was even presented with modern technical equipment for a new hospital by their German hosts.

Some welcomes for international guests, however, have not been so warm.

Over the last several months the motto of the prestigious sports tournament, "A Time To Make Friends,” has been heavily tarnished by a number of neo-Nazi attacks on foreigners, particularly those of color. The incidents have left German officials scrambling to reassure visitors that the 32-nation soccer tournament, which kicks off on June 9, will not be marred by violence. 

Recent attacks
The string of recent attacks, coupled with a recent study suggesting there is an uptick in the number of neo-Nazis in Germany, has left many foreigners worried.

On May 26, three dark-skinned men from Mozambique and Cuba were beaten by eight assailants, ages 19 to 29, in the eastern German city of Weimar. That attack came just weeks after an Ethiopian-born man was brutally clubbed into a coma by two neo-Nazi thugs in Potsdam, the capital of Brandenburg state (a part of the former East Germany which surrounds Berlin). And in another incident, a Kurdish-born German politician was attacked in his district of Berlin-Lichtenberg. Officials believe that all attacks were racially motivated.

The attacks seemed to confirm a controversial comment made by a former government spokesman about "no-go-zones,” which he said exist in some rural areas and districts of eastern German cities.

"There are small and middle-sized towns in Brandenburg and elsewhere where I would not advise anyone who has a different skin color to go. He might not leave alive," Uwe-Karsten Heye, who now heads an anti-racist organization, told a German newspaper.

Adding to fears, a recent report from Germany's Bfv domestic intelligence agency says that the number of neo-Nazis in Germany rose to 4,100 last year from 3,800 in 2004. At the same time, the number of extremists ready to engage in violence increased by 400 to 10,400, according to the report.

Simultaneously, the number of skinhead groups rose to 142 from 106 and skinhead concerts by 40 to 192. (Skinheads are often, though not always, associated across much of Europe with extreme-right organizations.) However, the overall figure of right-wing extremists dropped from some 40,700 in the previous year to around 39,000 in a nation of approximately 82 million people, according to the same report.

Social and economic roots
Since German reunification in 1990, the country has struggled with high levels of unemployment and stagnating growth. Germans in many eastern regions, where unemployment was almost non-existent under the former communist regime, have become frustrated with their economic and social situation.

In particular, while large eastern cities such as Dresden, Leipzig and Weimar have flourished with the help of western investment in the past decade — re-constructing their historic centers and benefitting from other economic stimulus — many small towns in rural eastern areas and large city suburbs are suffering distinctly lower levels of prosperity.

"We clearly admit that we have a huge problem," said Matthias Platzeck, the governor of Brandenburg in a recent talk show discussion on public television.

Platzeck sees communist history as one of the causes for right-wing extremism and violence in the eastern states.

"Eastern Germans have only very limited experience with other cultures because this had not been practiced in the past," he said. During its 40-year history, East Germany welcomed very few foreign workers to the country and travel was severely limited for its citizens, thus limiting citizens' horizons.

Fear of disruptions
Into this volatile situation comes the World Cup — and fears among German officials that extremist groups could use the contest, with its audience of over one billion people worldwide, as a stage for further attacks.

"We will do everything in our power to prevent the World Cup from being used by extremist organizations to spread their abhorrent thoughts," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany’s interior minister and top security official.

It looks like Schaeuble and his officials have their work cut out for them. Neo-Nazi groups have already announced that they are intending to gather in Leipzig on June 21 when the Iranian and Angolan teams meet.

What's the particular draw for the extremists in this eastern city? A chance to show their support for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust and refuses to accept the existence of Israel.

(In Germany, the denial of the Holocaust or existence of death camps where millions of Jews and others were killed is a crime. Meanwhile, a group of 75 lawmakers from the EU submitted a petition to Austria, the current president of the EU, and FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, on Thursday asking them to prevent Ahmadinejad from traveling to Germany to watch his team compete in the World Cup. Ahmadinejad has yet to say whether or not he will attend).

German team not immune
And it is not just German extremists the police have to worry about. Security officials are becoming increasingly worried about the hooligan scene in other European countries — particularly Poland, which has a relatively high concentration of right-wing extremists.

They also have to face increasingly sophisticated organizational techniques. With the help of modern communication, such as the Internet and mobile phones, violent groups are more easily able to team up for pre-organized clashes, a phenomenon seen during European soccer tournaments in the recent past.

Meanwhile, even Germany's own national squad does not remain exempt from racist attacks. A high-profile tournament schedule, sponsored by the right wing National Democratic Party contained the slogan "White. Not only a jersey color. For a real national team," a reference to the team's white jerseys — and hugely insulting to Germany's two dark-skinned national players.

Andy Eckardt is an NBC News producer based out of Mainz, Germany.

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