RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And I'm Rachel Martin in Berlin, Germany, where we have been talking about, David, voters getting ready to go to the polls in national elections here - happen on Sunday. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her party feel confident that they're going to do well, that they will win, which would give Merkel a fourth term in office. But the big story here is about the rise of a right-wing party called the AfD. This is short for the Alternative fuer Deutschland.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Which is a narrative, of course, we've seen in other countries in Europe. And it sounds like it's happening there in Germany, you're finding.
MARTIN: Yeah. Similar populist movements have been doing well across Europe. This party is expected to meet the threshold necessary to get seats in Parliament, which would be the first time in postwar history that a party with this kind of German nationalist platform would secure that kind of representation. And with it will come a legitimate platform to push their policies. And that is raising concerns for a lot of people, including a guy we met in a Berlin suburb. His name is Heinz Ostermann. And he owns a bookstore on this quaint, little side street.
HEINZ OSTERMANN: We have books for everybody. We can also order them - more than 1 million titles. And here are children. Here are grandmas, grandpas of every age.
MARTIN: Last December, Ostermann held an event at his bookstore. It was a conversation about how to combat the message of the far right in Germany. And after that event, his store was vandalized, and his car was burned down, completely destroyed. He doesn't have proof, but he believes that AfD supporters were behind the attack. I asked him specifically what he finds so concerning about the AfD.
OSTERMANN: I think it's a racial party.
MARTIN: A racial party.
OSTERMANN: Yes. They divide the population, yes. And they talk like Nazis, some of them. And I think that's not good.
MARTIN: This is the fear that always seems to loom under the surface here. On the one hand, the atrocities of World War II feel so long ago. So much has changed. Germany is now a thriving democracy - Angela Merkel, the de facto leader of Europe and champion of liberal democratic values and human rights. At the same time, the history can feel so present, and Nazi ideas still inspire new generations.
CHRISTIAN WEISSGERBER: My name is Christian Ernst Weissgerber. I'm 28 years old. I am a former neo-Nazi.
MARTIN: It was less than a decade ago that Christian Weissgerber was leading a neo-Nazi youth organization. I recently spoke to him on Skype. And he told me what drew him to the movement in the first place.
WEISSGERBER: So for me, this was an immense fascination with the symbols, with the form of behavior of Nazism, the militarization, the strictness in that form of society, the kind of structural anti-Semitism, which worked, in my views, so that you could just portray every problem of society to another group, which is the enemy. So the belief is that, naturally, the Aryans are the superior race, or the white race is superior to every other race.
MARTIN: Christian's mom left when he was just a baby, and his father was physically abusive. Christian was looking for an out, a way to change his lot in life. And he found that in the neo-Nazi movement.
WEISSGERBER: I wanted to build a society in which a family like the one in which I had to grow up would not be possible anymore. So I thought that this could be a society where you have this kind of Volksgemeinschaft or this kind of organic body of people that works together just fine. And you have the state that helps families. And at the same time, families support the state in every way that they can.
MARTIN: A friend of a friend put him in touch with an organization. But he quickly got frustrated.
WEISSGERBER: They were not really good at anything. And they spent most of the time playing with their clan in "World Of Warcraft" and in the German uniforms of "Call Of Duty." So this was really not the way I thought we could instigate or install the coming Fourth Reich. So for me, the point was to say, I have to start my own youth organization because, otherwise, nothing will happen here.
MARTIN: Can I ask what physical markers you used to identify in the group? I mean, did you have uniforms? Did you shave your head? Did you get - was there a tattoo that indicated membership?
WEISSGERBER: No, I was never bald headed in my life. Of course, there were the so-called normal symbols like a black sun, like Thor's hammer or things like that. And then we have this kind of not-so-secretive handshake that is also used by the Romans, where you would touch the underpart of the arm of the other person.
MARTIN: Christian liked that it was this brotherhood where he felt a sense of belonging. But, again, there wasn't enough action for him. There wasn't even enough talk about action. So he left not because he was disillusioned with extremist Nazi ideas but because, at least in this particular group, they weren't extreme enough. Once he was on the outside, he started to read more. He befriended people who held differing views. And his ideas about the world started to change.
WEISSGERBER: Yeah, that's hard to explain because, also, that's not one event or just one moment in life when you decide something like that.
MARTIN: Once he started seeing the holes in Nazi philosophy, he decided it wasn't enough to change his own mind.
WEISSGERBER: Also do have to try to stop what is going on inside of the Nazi movement and all the violence that is being supported from there. So I'm responsible for every bit of violence that is committed by these groups. And this is something that kind of drives me until this very moment.
MARTIN: Christian says the current political moment in Germany and the rise of the far-right political parties has made it OK for more people to express racist views more openly.
WEISSGERBER: We have a kind of great problem with how to react to these forms of new national populists and, if you like, new racist arguments that say, no, we are not racist. We are just fighting for German and European traditions and so on. So these kinds of tactics are pretty effective. And as of yet, civil society has not found a remedy.
MARTIN: And that's what's so worrisome to many Germans, David. There is a real debate to be had over immigration and how to create systems and laws along with better plans to integrate those communities into German society. But there are concerns that far-right parties are basically using this moment to play to the darkest parts of Germany's history.
GREENE: All right. And it's just a reminder that an election is a moment. I mean, it's one event. But it can tell so much about a country. And I know you'll be there to cover a lot of these themes.
That's my colleague Rachel Martin. She is there in Germany, covering the run-up to these national elections on Sunday. You can follow all of her reporting here and also at npr.org and also at the NPR Tumblr page.
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