Gothic is a way of dressing, a taste in music, a style. But in Germany – at the extreme fringes – it has also become the point at which neo-Nazism and Satanism meet. Report by John Hooper
The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2002
The prosecutor called it “a picture of cruelty and depravity such as I have never, ever seen”. He was describing the scene left behind when Daniel and Manuela Ruda fled from their home in the west German town of Witten in July last year after murdering their friend, Frank Hackert. When police broke in three days later, on July 9, they found a poster of hanged women in the bathroom and a collection of human skulls in the living room. There was a coffin in which 23-year-old Manuela sometimes slept. Blood-stained scalpels were scattered around the house. And then there was Hackert’s corpse. He had been stabbed 66 times. A scalpel was lodged in his stomach and a pentagram cut into his skin. Nearby was a list of names. Police believe that they were those of the people the couple intended to kill next.
The Rudas’ trial in January provided a stream of outlandish and gruesome details. Much of the focus was on Manuela, who shrank from sunlight and had had two of her teeth replaced with animal fangs to look more like a vampire. She said her initiation into the world of Satanism had taken place at a Gothic club in Islington, London, where she claimed to have met real vampires. “We drank the blood of living people,” she told police. On January 31, she was sentenced to 13 years in a secure mental facility, while Daniel was sentenced to 15 years.
While public attention tended to dwell on the way in which Manuela had given life to her sinister fantasies, a more chilling aspect of the case went largely unnoticed: the links between the Rudas and the neo-Nazi movement, links that hint at a much broader – and growing – overlap in Germany between the far right and the broad range of occult and esoteric movements that nowadays go by the generic name of “Gothic” or “Dark Wave”.
Among the witnesses at the trial was 28-year-old Frank Lewa. He testified that he had first met Daniel Ruda on the local far right/skinhead scene. Daniel’s involvement was more than casual. The regional newspaper, the Rheinische Post, discovered that at the 1998 general election campaign in Germany, Daniel had canvassed for the National-Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), a far right party that the government has since tried to outlaw (the matter is currently before the Constitutional Court).
On the witness stand, Lewa said that after the election Daniel drifted out of the skinhead world and into the Gothic scene. He began listening to “black metal” music, a variant of heavy metal, and at one time played in a band called the Bloodsucking Freaks. It was through a black metal fanzine, in fact, that he met Manuela, after placing an ad that read: “Black-haired vampire seeks princess of darkness who despises everything and everybody and has bidden farewell to life.”
Daniel, 26, broke contact with Lewa after a row at a party. Lewa told the court that he had received a letter from his erstwhile friend in July, a few days before the Rudas killed Hackert. In it, Daniel called Lewa a Judas and enclosed a photograph of himself, covered in blood and apparently hanging from hooks in the ceiling. He was pointing two gas pistols at the camera.
When the police finally caught up with Daniel and his wife, on July 12 2001, they were in the east German city of Jena, having previously visited two nearby towns, Sonderhausen and Apold.
The significance of these details would be lost on most Germans, and it appears not to have been remarked upon at the trial. Nevertheless, it would have meant a very great deal to anyone who had studied what has become known as “the case of Satan’s Children”, in which three schoolboys who lived near Jena were convicted in 1994 of the ritual black magic killing of a classmate.
One of the boys, 16-year-old Hendrik Möbus from Sonderhausen, formed a band while in a juvenile detention centre. Among the tracks on a CD they produced was one called Zyklon B, after the gas used in the Auschwitz gas chambers. Not long after Möbus’s release on probation in 1998, he began violating the terms of his parole, roaring out “Sieg Heil” from among the audience at a concert, and attempting to justify the murder for which he had been sentenced on political grounds. “I don’t know whether, in the Nazi era, one would have been convicted if one had rendered race vermin harmless,” he was quoted as saying.
Germany has legislation making both Holocaust denial and the use of symbols from the Third Reich criminal offences. In 1999, faced with the prospect of another spell in jail for contravening these laws (and thereby breaking the terms of his parole), Möbus fled to the US, where he applied unsuccessfully for political asylum. He is now back behind bars in Germany. His brother, who lives in Apold, runs a black metal label, Darker Than Black.
In the days that followed the murder of Frank Hackert, the Rudas embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to places that in their minds linked the far right and the occult – to Jena, Sonderhausen and Apold. It is possible they planned to do more than visit: on the death list police discovered in the Rudas’ flat was the name of the mother of the boy whom Hendrik Möbus and his friends had murdered seven years earlier.
Links between Nazism and esoteric and occult movements are nothing new. Hitler, rejecting Christianity, embraced instead the paganism of the early Germanic tribes. Their beliefs, both real and imagined, offered a basis on which any number of sinister concepts could be superimposed. The process reached its apogee at Schloss Wewelsburg, near the town of Paderborn. Though the present-day castle dates from the late 16th century, records suggest that there has been a fortress on the site since the days of the Huns, more than a thousand years earlier. The surrounding landscape is wooded, often misty, and interspersed with giant, weirdly-shaped rocks. The castle and its environs were ideally suited to the purpose for which Heinrich Himmler rented them in 1934 – that of providing the officers of his elite corps, the SS, with an education in the supposed pagan mysteries underpinning National Socialism.
Though it does not make much of an impact at election time, the far right remains a disturbing undercurrent in German life: sufficiently disturbing for the federal government to have launched an all-out drive against the neo-Nazi fringe two years ago (including the attempt to ban the NPD). “The problem with the far right in Germany is not that its members are particularly numerous, but that they are readier than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe to resort to violence,” said a senior intelligence officer who asked not to be named. That point was driven home by a string of savage attacks in early 2000, culminating in the beating to death of a Mozambique-born German citizen in Dessau.
The far right is especially pervasive in the formerly communist east where unemployment is high and where, after the war, there was not the same painful reckoning with the past as in the west. Despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that there are fewer immigrants in the former GDR, surveys also show that racist attitudes are more prevalent there than in the cosmopolitan west.
One possible reason why the degree of support for the far right does not show up in election results is that the most extreme rightwingers will have nothing to do with the democratic process and abstain. This is particularly true of those connected with the so-called Kameradschaften which form a network of mutually independent, neo-Nazi secret societies. Each may have no more than 10 or 15 members, but around them is a wider circle of associates and sympathisers. Indeed, the secretive and hierarchical world of the German far right mirrors that of many occult communities.
On several occasions since the fall of the Third Reich, evidence has surfaced of connections between the far right and Satanism. As in the cases of Hendrik Möbus and Daniel Ruda, however, they have been limited to individuals or, at most, small groups. But in the past five years, an entirely new phenomenon has developed: a mass youth culture in which neo-Nazi ideas and symbols have merged with the Gothic scene.
This movement can be traced back to 1993, when Roland Bubik, widely regarded as the leading thinker of the German extreme right, wrote a seminal article for the magazine Junge Freiheit. Entitled “Culture as a question of power”, it argued that “new possibilities for influencing people are arising in the area of communications networks. In particular, the entertainment industry… has an immense influence that until now has gone unremarked.” Within a couple of years, Bubik’s partner, Simone Satzger, was stating as fact, in a collection of essays edited by Bubik, that the far right’s strategy was “to open up contemporary cultural and political phenomena to use them for our own purposes”.
Since the mid-1990s, Germany’s neo-Nazis have attempted to penetrate several youth scenes, including techno, but it is with Goths that they have had their greatest success. The Gothic movement may be on the wane in Britain and many other countries around Europe, but in Germany, where its adherents are known as Gruftis (from the German word for “crypt”), they constitute a vast group. It is particularly strong in the former GDR. East Germans are still reeling from the fall of communism, and the young in particular seem to be searching for new values to fill the gap left by a creed that was as much a religion as an ideology.
“The concentration of Goths in Germany is much higher than in other European countries,” says Stephan Tschendal, who edits an online Gothic magazine. He estimates that between 5% and 7% of all young Germans between the ages of 12 and 25 are Goths, an overall population of at least 650,000. Many of them are doing no more than making a fashion statement, or registering a protest against the drabness and conformity of modern adult life. Devil-worshippers exist only on the extremist fringe. But in two specific areas of the Gothic scene – the areas in which the neo-Nazis have had the greatest success in infiltrating their ideas – Germany’s intelligence officers believe there is genuine cause for concern. One of these is “neo-folk”; the other is black metal, the dark variant of heavy metal that so appealed to Daniel Ruda.
In a darkened hall in the centre of Leipzig, blue lights play on the smoke billowing out from under a stage where Darkwood, a three-piece neo-folk band, play placid, lilting, slightly weird music. The band’s gig forms part of an annual, three-day Gothic festival, which this year attracted some 17,000 people from all over Europe to Leipzig. Churches in the city that had been asked to host concerts refused to do so, citing the risk that Satanists could assemble on consecrated ground.
About half the crowd at the gig are typical Goths, but the rest look as if they have wandered in from a Nuremberg rally. There are men wearing high, heavy boots and black military-style shirts and trousers. There are women, also wearing boots, with calf-length skirts and white shirts with a symbol on the right arm that resembles a badge of rank. Everywhere, there are leather cross-straps, forage caps and 1930s-style shorts.
As its name implies, neo-folk draws on the musical heritage of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other protest singers of the 1960s and 1970s. Some German groups dig further back into the past, updating and reworking traditional folk tunes. The acoustic guitar is central to its music, which also features flutes, cellos and violins. Yet neo-folk is anything but folksy. Punk has had an influence on its evolution and much of the music could be described as industrial. Unusually extensive percussion sets are typical of the genre. Another characteristic is that gentle melody-making can all of a sudden give way to something much more visceral: the lead singer of Darkwood seized hold of a pair of heavy drumsticks and beat out an intimidating tattoo on a bass drum. It was like Japanese Kodo drumming, but with the rhythms of a Prussian parade ground. The drumming rose in a crescendo, then ended as abruptly as it had begun, prompting the loudest cheers of the night.
The Leipzig festival was launched in 1991, soon after German reunification, and has helped turn the city into the Gothic capital of Europe. Like neo-Nazis, Goths are drawn to its Volkerschlachtdenkmal, one of the strangest and most intimidating monuments to be found anywhere in Europe. A vast, stepped pyramid towering over a lake on the wooded fringes of the city, it resembles a Mayan temple. The Volkerschlachtdenkmal was inaugurated in 1913 to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Leipzig 100 years earlier. But since German reunification, it has become a favoured rallying point for the far right.
The pivotal figure on Leipzig’s neo-folk scene is a 29-year-old DJ who goes by the name of Mortanius. He denies that neo-folk has anything to do with extreme-right politics. “These groups use language and symbols both from the Nazi era and the days of the GDR to provoke people, to get people to think – think about their past,” he told me. “People from the far right scene don’t feel comfortable in this environment. We never see skinheads at our gigs or in our clubs. On the contrary, we have problems with them. I won’t say you don’t see people from the extreme right or that they aren’t trying to infiltrate. The attempt is certainly there. But it is doomed to fail because people can think for themselves. We have a generally left-leaning audience.”
Less than an hour after meeting Mortanius, I found myself in a shabby room with four Goths, three young men and a woman, who had agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. One of the men had a partly shaven head and a pigtail, and was wearing a black shirt, camouflage trousers, military boots and a symbol dangling on his chest that managed to combine a Celtic cross, a human skull, an eagle’s wings, two entwined snakes and a pentagram. His girlfriend had a spiked collar around her neck and a dog’s lead dangling between her breasts. At one point, we fell to discussing what he called “youth Satanism”. “It starts with the moving glass and then they go on to animal sacrifice,” he said nonchalantly, and apparently knowledgeably.
When I read out Mortanius’s description of the local neo-folk scene and its lack of connection to the far right, all four burst into incredulous laughter.
Solveig Prass, the Leipzig social worker who had set up our meeting, asked me if Mortanius had been wearing any badges when I met him; had I noticed that one of them was the so-called “Black Sun”? A pagan fertility symbol, the Black Sun is known to have been used by the Alemans, a third-century Germanic tribe. Each of its 12 “rays” is the rune meaning “sun”. According to Dr Rudiger Sunner, author of a recent book on Nazism and its use of myth, the Black Sun is “definitely a sign of the SS”. Himmler fashioned the SS emblem from one of the Black Sun’s 12 jagged “rays”, and a large Black Sun was set into the floor of the Obergruppenführer’s Hall in Schloss Wewelsburg, immediately above the crypt.
Mortanius was in fact wearing three badges, including the pagan Black Sun: he argues that “our symbols… don’t really have anything to do with the Third Reich”.
How close, really, are the links between Gothic – or, specifically, neo-folk – culture and the German far right? Unquestionably, there is an element of sheer, apolitical mischief: it is not easy for the sons and daughters of the generation of 1968 to find a way of shocking their parents, but dressing up in vaguely neo-Nazi garb should do the trick. “I want to stand out from the crowd of normal Dark Wave folk,” Mortanius told me. “I don’t want to be an ordinary Goth in the street. I want to provoke people.”
The organisation charged with protecting Germany from a Nazi revival is the Verfassungsschutz, a body roughly equivalent to Britain’s MI5. Reinhard Boos is its director in Saxony, the state in which Leipzig lies, and so has a special interest in gauging the threat posed by far right penetration of the Gothic scene. When I visit him in his office in a leafy Dresden suburb, he produces a couple of CD covers and lays them on his desk. One is an album by the British band Death In June, which shows four dogs’ heads arranged at right angles. Half-close your eyes and they become a swastika. The other CD is by the Austrian band Der Blutharsch. Tip it, and a shiny patch on the inside cover becomes a triangle containing the jagged ray of… what? The SS symbol? Or the sun rune? Is this merely provocation, or evidence of a link between extremist politics and neo-folk music?
“I think the truth is in between,” says Boos. “The Gothic scene is not to be confused with rightwing extremism. But there are some groups that use symbols which refer to rightwing extremism and they do it mainly for provocation. Very, very few of them do it to support rightwing groups. On the other hand, the rightwing extremists know that there are people who can be useful to them, so some of them try to win them over for their own aims. It is not a plan by a few [people] that is carried out in a clear, structured way. Those who think it is a good idea do so of their own accord.”
“Things are not going well for the far right,” argues Wolfgang Hund, an educational scientist and the author of several books on the occult. “They are under pressure from all sides and they are looking for allies… They are looking for foot soldiers in the ranks of disoriented youth – human raw material for any Pied Piper who comes along.”
One of the young men I met in Leipzig was about as different from the far right stereotype as could be imagined. His jet-black hair was shaved away on one side of his head and hung lank down the other. He was wearing a black velvet tailcoat, a silver pentagram on a chain around his neck, five rings in one ear, and sunglasses. This apparently typical Goth was in the process of trying to free himself from the neo-Nazi scene.
“My first contact was through a member of the NPD,” he said. “It was all very low key at first. We went to some concerts [of neo-Nazi bands] and I liked the music they played. Then I started getting flyers and leaflets. Eventually, I began to help distribute them.” He decided to leave after a row over money ended in his being badly beaten.
Such cases notwithstanding, Boos believes that recruitment is not, in fact, the far right’s primary aim. The threat posed by the infiltration of the Gothic scene is, he believes, subtler. “We take it seriously because it opens people’s heads to extreme rightwing thought.”
Solveig Prass and her colleagues in Leipzig, who talk regularly to DJs and others, have been keeping a running estimate of how much of the Goth scene is under the influence of the far right.”The link was first noticed in the mid-1990s. At that time, it was estimated that the overlap was about 5%. Two years ago, we put it at 7-8%. Now, our estimate is 9%.” Alfred Schobert, a lecturer at the Duisberg Institute of Language and Social Research, took a similar view in his 1998 academic investigation into the infiltration of the Gothic scene by the far right. “It is not about recruiting in the short term. It is about [producing] an overall reversal that picks up on and distorts the prevailing mood.”
Through the Gothic scene, the far right can obtain access to the minds of hundreds of thousands of young people throughout Europe. If they can be taught to accept certain beliefs and symbols as normal, then the extreme right will have made significant progress towards achieving what Schobert argues is a key, medium-term goal: “The removal of the taboos that attach to Nazi symbols and racist-nationalist ideology”.