A march for Victims of the Christchurch Mosque attacks in Duesseldorf. (Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

I’m German and I live in Christchurch. Let’s talk about swastikas

When we arrived to live in New Zealand we were shocked to discover how tolerant many people were of flagrant expression of neo-Nazism, writes Anke Richter

When we migrated to New Zealand 16 years ago as a family, many things were different to our old life. Bus drivers were friendly. “North facing” meant sunny and warm. Kids ran around barefoot. Spaghetti could be tinned and eaten on toast. Birds came before the morning news. And swastikas were not that big a deal.

In 2004, not even a year after our arrival, we attended the first antiracist rally in Christchurch, initiated by the Asian community who had enough of being harassed, spat at, ridiculed. It was a different cultural experience, though I had been to many “demos” back home, as we call them. The 1990s had seen the rise in Germany of skinheads and neo-Nazis who hated immigrants, long before the refugee crisis swept over Europe. My boyfriend back then was a political activist from Iran, where he would have been thrown into prison and tortured. We stood in human chains around asylum seekers’ homes to protect them from nightly attacks. Years later, my husband joined a protest as a medic, travelling across the former GDR border with anti-fascists who were likely to be beaten up once off their bus.

We didn’t expect such volatile clashes when we marched peacefully through our Garden City, pushing a stroller. But we also didn’t expect to be joined by a dozen National Front members. It was the first time I saw swastikas up close on real people. They’re illegal where I’m from.

I say “joined” not because these neo-Nazis supported our march – they were opposing it of course, and pathetically small in numbers – but because everyone was so civil with them. They were even handed the megaphone for the sake of balance. Only one left-winger who came from Switzerland tried to interfere, aghast. He almost pulled out his dreadlocks in despair over this act of courtesy. In Europe we were doing anything legally possible to prevent these groups from being vocal and gaining notoriety.

The next surprise was seeing Māori among the white supremacists. One guy had a swastika tattooed on his forehead, which historically didn’t make much sense – indigenous people ranked low in the race hierarchy of Nazi eugenics. I didn’t know back then that the Mongrel Mob Kingdom had “Sieg Heil” as their war cry (they dropped it after the mosque attack) and a “Heil’s Kitchen” cooking group, with more than 90,000 members on Facebook (still going). The gang used the martial greeting out of ignorance, not ideology. For 50 years. Did no-one tell them?

At the end of the 2004 Christchurch march, we all sang the national anthem together, left and right. I had to tackle this phenomenon with sarcasm: in Aotearoa, even neo-Nazis were apparently bicultural, and everyone gets along.

Five years later, Lincoln University students showed their own brand of humour when they dressed up as SS officers and “concentration camp Jews” for their Oktoberfest. Who can blame them when even young Prince Harry found it OK once to wear a swastika armband for a costume party? He would have had a more expensive education. Windsor is also a lot closer in proximity to Berlin – and Israel – than Lincoln. It was doubly painful for me that Germanic stereotypes didn’t mean bratwurst legs with socks in sandals but mocking the worst atrocities of the last century. The German students at Lincoln recoiled and left the party in disgust, as did some Kiwis.

One work party to which we were invited shortly after moving to Christchurch was planned around a second world war theme. The funny side completely escaped us. Should we go as bomb-raid victims and fold our legs into stumps? Or scribble numbers on our arms? There was nothing to celebrate or spoof for us, and that is not – as one sympathetic Anglo-Saxon assumed – because we “lost the war”. Maybe we just didn’t grow up on Hogan’s Heroes. Germany is only now able to derive some hilarity from The Third Reich, as in the 2015 comedy Look Who’s Back”, or in 2007 with Mein Führer: The Truly Truest Truth About Adolf Hitler – by a Jewish filmmaker from Berlin who was more confident to break that taboo.

Adolf Hitler is still the first association internationally with my birthplace: before beer, soccer, lederhosen and VWs. That might be unfair and simplistic for the post-war generations there. But it’s not simplistic to draw the line from a white supremacy terrorist to the scourge of the Nazis. The shooter was a Nazi, of the worst and modern kind, even though he was Australian and not politicised in Deutschland – a solid democracy now for 70 years that not only gave us Kraftwerk and Claudia Schiffer, but recently embraced a million refugees when other countries shut their doors. I don’t drink beer, watch soccer or wear a dirndl, but one thing is typically German about me: I don’t take Nazis lightly.

A cartoon from Stern magazine

Most of the 13,000 or more German immigrants in New Zealand feel dread and bewilderment around “Sieg Heil”, Nazi dress-ups and any glorification of second world war replica. (One exception: There was the German founder of the still famous Wunderbar in Lyttelton who once decorated the table soccer figurines with swastikas and stars of David.)

Anthropology professor Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich from Victoria University of Wellington documented in her book Keeping a Low Profile that this sensitivity is as typical for Kiwi-Krauts as using chopsticks is for the Chinese. It’s a good trait, like punctuality and directness, and just as irritating sometimes. Our discomfort is not just shame but also an alertness – like a DOC ranger who sees species of native birds I wouldn’t be able to identify.

I’ll never forget our visit to Napier prison. It felt morbid and dark, not just because of the executions that took place there. We saw far more recent signs of human distortion: swastika after swastika carved into walls and bedposts.

I have a German friend who’s not going to the local swimming bay any more because of the many inked swastikas he sees on naked arms and backs there. My husband was standing behind a skinhead in a queue at the AA who had a big swastika on his shaved head. It was a while ago, on 27 January 2005 exactly – the 60th Holocaust Remembrance Day of the liberation of Auschwitz. Maybe that gave him more courage to say something to the guy in military boots in front of him while no-one else took much notice. And maybe 10 years later he wouldn’t have said anything any more because he had become too acclimatised.

Another German friend cycled past a party in her New Brighton neighbourhood and was appalled to see a Nazi flag hanging in the open garage while no-one seemed to mind. She knows it’s not the Kiwi way to get involved – “each to their own”, “let’s not make a fuss”. One week after the attack, while I was heading to the first public prayer at Hagley Park, she texted me. “Now I’m thinking about reporting these people in my street,”. She was still hesitant. “Do it,” I said.

I wrote a comment piece around the 2004 anti-racism march in Christchurch for the Press and was publicly called a “chest beating guilty liberal” and “newcomer to the debate” by a local politician. Today I’m not so new to the debate. Sadly, I have also become desensitised to what once appalled me. But I still cannot get my head around our foreign minister who has been xenophobic to win votes and got away with it. Hang on, isn’t that the kind of job that takes you to places abroad where people might look and speak differently? Oh, he’s a good bloke. He played rugby and can hold a drink. Who cares. She’ll be right.

But she won’t be right. During that first week after the tragedy, the New Zealand Herald revealed that pig heads had been dumped at the Al Noor Mosque by neo-Nazi Phil Arps in 2016. He had filmed himself with the Hitler salute, shouting “Bring on the cull”. Arps, the owner of “Beneficial Insulation”, has been driving his van with Nazi symbols around the city for years – sun wheel, 14.88 and all. It wasn’t a news story until now. And he sure wasn’t the only one of his ilk, as the Islamic Women’s Council has pointed out over and over again without apparently being heard.

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Also in that first week, a swastika was sprayed on the Christchurch street where the mosque shooter was arrested. In the light of the attack, it seems absolutely disgusting. Why was it not shocking before, in the light of eight decades of hate and the murder of millions of innocent people it represents?

To use the words of Afghanistan war veteran Simon Stromborn from the Porirua RSA: “People have said the Christchurch terror attacks was the day we lost our innocence. It was also the day our ignorance was exposed.”

I want to get this off my chest without pointing even the tiniest finger at this country – yes, mine – while it was showing the world how to react to terrorism with love. When I walk past the sea of cards and wilting flowers on the footpath alongside the Botanical garden on my way to a victim at the hospital who might never walk again, or a grieving family that is just holding it all together, or finally to the Masjid Al Noor for a visit, I feel nothing but gratitude for living and belonging here. I wish I could say I’m proud as well. I am. But it’s too ingrained in me that national pride is wrong.

Over in Germany, what happened in Christchurch has already fallen off the news radar again. My work is slowing down. They have their own demons to tackle. An alarming report by a leading institute about right-wing extremism came out last week in Der Spiegel. It states that the number of right-wing hate crimes in the country has been rising drastically for years. The gap between what’s on the police’s radar and what is really happening to people of different colours and religions is huge. The authorities turned a blind eye. We’re all the same and all in this together.


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