A former neo-Nazi from eastern Germany, who has since left the scene and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said new recruits discover the Autonomous Nationalists are a restless bunch, always plotting their next move.
“When you’re in that scene, it’s like you’re living in a parallel universe to normal society,” said the 25-year-old, who never joined the AN but often stayed at its flats.
The neo-Nazis methodically prepare their attacks against anyone who opposes their radical views, he said.
Much of the work they do mirrors that of private investigators: researching targets, staking out locations and taking pictures of opponents to match faces to names.
Many do not work, living off welfare from a democratic state they vehemently oppose as well as receiving donations from sympathetic outsiders.
“They are also able to secure weapons through contacts in other countries, such as Bulgaria or Switzerland,” he said. “If you need something, it’s possible for them to get it across the border.”
Alerted to the threat, Dortmund is among the cities that is taking measures.
Police raided AN clubhouses and apartments in Dortmund and two other cities in August, seizing weapons and propaganda material.
The authorities also outlawed the AN’s local branch there, although no arrests were made.
“We’ve all gotten better at recognizing the relationship between criminal offenses and far-right extremist ideologies and realizing that there is an organization behind the scenes that is calling the shots,” Wesseler said.
Wesseler said he had also increased police patrols in the area where the group rents its apartments.
There are signs the campaign may be working.
On Sept. 1, a date neo-Nazis mark to commemorate Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939, the only visible banners were those urging fascists to leave town.
Lampposts were newly painted with a special anti-adhesive to deter far-right vandals from defacing them.
A message has been displayed on top of Dortmund’s landmark U-Tower — a 1920s-era skyscraper crowned with an illuminated letter “U” and giant TV screens.
“I, the tower, have always thought Nazis were uncool,” it read.
Hajo Funke, a professor of political science and far-right expert at Berlin’s Free University, cautioned against complacency, however.
“If the ban isn’t enforced properly then nothing will happen,” Funke said. “Then they’ll be just as dangerous as before.”