From Labor Unions to Right-wing Militias in Germany

The shifting politics of Germany’s disenfranchised lower working class in the Ruhr region.

Aarez Farhadi
6 min readJun 8, 2020
“Besorgte Bürger Herne” militia patrol in Herne in 2019. Photo: Anti-Bo

The traditional heartland of Germany’s Labor Union friendly Social Democrats (SPD), is bearing witness to disheartening political and social change. A new wave of right-wing militia groups have managed to plant their feet firmly into cities and neighbourhoods where once weary coal miners and steal workers previously went on strike for better working conditions and pay.

This development is a result of high unemployment in the Ruhr region due to the long-term decline of coal mining, as well as the closing and relocation of important regional employeers such as the Opel factory in Bochum in 2014, which took with it more than an estimated 10,000 Jobs. Inspite of the economic downturn, the Ruhr region has also become a new home to many immigrants and refugees from the Middle East as well as immigrants from southeastern Europe.

This large and rapid influx of refugees and immigrants into the Ruhr region has lead to additional competition on the job market for the already struggling unskilled workers as well as increased societal division and fear of home invasions, islamic terrorism and sexual harassment. These fears, although legitimate, are overrepresented among the lower class due to an over-reliance on tabloid and sensationalist media such as the “Bild” newspaper. These troubling economic and societal conditions have provided right-wing extremist groups with a slew of new supporters who were previously not politically interested or who had even voted for left-wing political parties.

The majority of these new militia members do not fall into the neo-nazi skinhead category of right-wing extremists from the 1990's. Instead they are typically a mixture of bikers, football hooligans and other low level criminals who have come together to keep the public “Safe” from immigrants, muslims and other “Undesirables” . Yet in contrast to traditional neo-nazi groups, they do not all fit the German Aryan profile as there are often members of obvious non-German yet European background such as Serbians, Italians and Poles.

“Division Herne” militia walking a patrol in Herne in 2019 without any visible police presence nearby. Photo: Anti-Bo

The most well known of these right-wing militias are the Steeler Jungs in Essen, the Bruderschaft Deutschland in Düsseldorf and the militia group in Herne which goes under various different names. Steele is the neighbourhood where the militia originated and that’s why it is known as “The Steeler Boys”. In addition, there are smaller and less active militias in the cities of Mönchengladbach and Cologne. The Steeler Jungs in Essen take regular “Walks” through the neighbourhood which are generally accompanied by a police escort in order to keep the peace between the militiamen and left-wing protesters. The Steeler Jungs maintain good relations with the traditional neo-nazi scene in Dortmund-Dorstfeld while at the same time rubbing shoulders with the Bandidos biker gang and acquiring funds by pimping out women.

Steeler Jungs militia members posing for a photo in 2019. Photo: Anti-Bo

There is however a silver lining, the majority of these right-wing extremists are in no physical state in which they could successfully fight and win without the use of automatic weapons or explosives. Aging, junk food, alcohol, smoking and drug abuse have rendered a large fraction of the “Volkshelden” incapable of sprinting more than 10 meters. There is also a lot of overlap between the members of the various militias due to the Ruhr Region’s well connected system of public transportation and the close distance between the various cities which enables the members of one militia to take part in the “Spaziergang” of another militia during the same week or even same day. This means that the true number of militiamen is actually much lower than it appears to be, simply due to ease of mobility.

Herne Militia members in 2019. Photo: Anti-Ber

One must however keep in mind that these militias have access to firearms and are willing to ambush and attack their political opponents such as in the case of the 63-year-old left-wing political activist Max Adelmann. Mr.Adelmann who has long been campaining and protesting against the extremist militia in his neighbourhood was ambushed and beaten by a masked attacker upon stepping outside of his apartment in Essen-Steele in December 2019.

Another prime example of the criminal/terroristic nature of such militias can be found in the unprovoked firing upon the Grend Cultural Center where children and teenagers practice playing music and reciting poetry. Luckily nobody was in the center at the time of the shooting and only a few windows were damaged. The Grend Cultural Center is located shortly down the street from the bar of the Steeler Jungs. The police have still not found any suspects or made any arrests in both the ambush and beating of Mr.Adelmann or the shooting upon the cultural center.

Members of the Steeler Jungs with skinhead neo-nazis from Dortmund in Essen-Steele. The back of the T-shirt reads “National Socialism Now!” Photo: Aarez Farhadi

Even more problematic is when average citizens with no previous right wing-extremist or criminal past begin to support or take part in such activities. This helps legitimize the actions of the extremist militias while at the same time muddying the moral compass of left-wing activists, journalists and police. These worried domestic personalities provide the perfect cover for the more unscrupulous political and criminal actors among them. Such was the case in the neighbourhood of Essen-Altenessen where a supposed right wing militia was broadcasted on social media to be taking it’s first baby steps. In reality the group was comprised of mostly uninspiring average citizens, with the occasional neo-nazi in between.

The dilution of the boundaries between right-wing agitation and civil protest can lead to increased sympathies and fraternization between police officers and right-wing extremists when the police officers attempt to shield the civil protestors from left-wing activists. This fraternization and establishment of long-term contact between police officers and right-wing extremists with average citizens acting as the bridge can spell disastrous consequences in the long-term as seen in the rise of paramilitary organizations such as the SA during the 1920s and 1930s.

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