Eichplatz Square Eichplatz Square

The Skinhead Scene in the GDR

The Eichplatz is the central square in Jena, as it was in the 1980s as well. In GDR times, the square was called „Platz der Kosmonauten“ (Cosmonaut Square). It had a fountain, the Orchid Fountain, and at the foot of tower – now called JenTower – was the Café Orchidee

Orchid Fountain on Cosmonaut Square

The Orchid Fountain was a popular place for children to play, but also for young people to meet. The station to the Young Community was already about youth subcultures in the GDR. These spread more and more in the 1980s and their members also met here at the fountain and on the benches.

This stop is also about youth subcultures. In particular, it looks at how the GDR security authorities dealt with the right-wing skinhead scene.

The Socialist Unity Party (SED), the state party of the GDR, believed in educating youths to become „socialist personalities.“ Deviant opinions and attitudes, but also deviant appearance, were considered „anti-socialist“ and were rejected.

Alternative youth cultures in the 1980s

Actual or supposed western influences in particular contravened the ideal of a „socialist personality“. Those who belonged to a youth culture tried to escape this prescribed and expected conformism. However, this did not necessarily go hand in hand with a clear oppositional stance. Especially at the beginning and even in the course of the eighties, various subcultures crossed political groups. Thus, skins were not automatically right-wing, and punks were not automatically left-wing.

Deviations, however, were a way of provoking the state. In this sense, right-wing alignments offered a tempting opportunity to express protest. Football stadiums had long been a place for this. For example, there were antisemitic chants in the stands and in the cities attacks by right-wing hooligans happened on match days. Here on Eichplatz, too, attacks on punks took place in GDR times when FC Carl Zeiss Jena was playing.

How did the state, especially the security agencies, react to the presence of right-wing skinheads? For the Ministry for State Security (MfS), or „Stasi“, the decisive factor in observing all alternative youth cultures was that they evaded the prescribed discipline and leisure activities. The following overview comes from the MfS in Weimar: All deviant youth cultures are summarised in it by the Stasi as „negativ-decadent youths“. 

„Overview of the appearance of negative-decadent youth in the GDR“ 

For the MfS, skinheads were merely another of these deviant „negativ-decadent“ subcultures. What attitudes the youths actually held was irrelevant. Crimes committed by skinheads were usually depoliticised and simply described as „youth violence“ and „rowdyism“. In any case, the punk scene was the main focus of state repression for a long time. In the eyes of many GDR citizens, right-wing skinheads had a well-groomed appearance and were considered hard-working - this also gave them an advantage over punks in the eyes of the state security.

October 1987 marked a change in the way the state dealt with neo-Nazis in the GDR. A punk concert was held in the Zion Church in East Berlin. Here again it becomes clear how important church spaces were for the GDR opposition and for non-conformist youth cultures. The concert was attacked by skinheads from East and West Berlin, and the perpetrators were arrested afterwards. After the West Berlin press reported on it, the incident could no longer be hidden from the GDR public either.

The reaction of the GDR judiciary was harsh; the perpetrators received long prison sentences. The attack in the Zion Church marked a new strategy of the state in dealing with right-wing violence: harsh punishments as a deterrent. However, a social discussion, with a self-reflection on where right-wing youths could come from in a supposedly „anti-fascist state“, failed to materialise.

The MfS also continued to proceed on the assumption that the  „skinhead ideology“, as it was called, was „imported“ from the West. After the Zion Church attack, the security authorities increasingly focussed on skinheads. The Stasi headquarters in Berlin issued instructions to all GDR districts to report on skinheads. For the district of Gera (to which Jena belonged), this state approach towards the radical right-wing scene can also be traced at the local level, as shown by the analysis of sources from the MfS, reports from the People's Police (Volkspolizei) and the public prosecutor's office.

Neo-Nazis in Jena until 1988

As early as 1978, there are reports in the People's Police files about schools and boarding schools in Jena where „the dissemination of fascist ideas“ reportedly was observed. Examples given include pupils greeting each other with „Heil Hitler“. The reasons given for this are the „constant ideological influence of Western mass media [...] and the resulting imitation of barbarism and lifestyle“ und „contacts with citizens from the NSW“ (=non-socialist economic area).

There is a People’s Police report from 1979 about right-wing fans at FC Carl Zeiss Jena games. The chants documented were directed against the Soviet Union and the Red Army stationed in the GDR . This source is another pointer that the ranks of the security authorities were aware of the existence of right-wing attitudes among young people well before the Zion Church attack in 1987.

It is equally clear from the sources how all young people labelled „negativ-decadent“ by the Ministry for State Security were considered equally dangerous. However, one can also see from the sources how skinheads came into much greater focus after the attack in the Zion Church in Berlin in 1987.

In 1988, the MfS documented the existence of an organised skinhead group in Lobeda. In addition, the Stasi reported that racist attitudes were generally widespread among young people in Lobeda.

According to the sources, the documented incidents increased greatly in 1989. For Jena, there are records of racist insults by fellow students , the harassment and racist insults of a school group from France at Jena West station by skinhead hooligans and intimidation by skinheads in front of a student dormitory in Lobeda . In addition,„Cosmonaut Square“, i.e. Eichplatz, also appears in the sources as a meeting place.

Analysis of Right-Wing Radicalism in the GDR Opposition

In the broader society, there was still no critical discussion of right-wing radicalism at the end of the 1980s. In opposition circles, however, people were aware of the problem. The filmmaker and later Alliance 90 (Bündnis 90) politician Konrad Weiß wrote the text „Die neue alte Gefahr – Junge Faschisten in der DDR“ (The New Old Danger - Young Fascists in the GDR) in March 1989. It first appeared in the underground magazine Kontext and was then also printed in church magazines. In Jena, for example in the Young Community, it was thus also read.

The article was the first public analysis of right-wing radicalism in the SED state. In it, Konrad Weiß also questions the social causes instead of explaining the ideology as an „import“ from the West. 

He states in the text: „These young fascists are the product of our society; they are our children. [...] The state's efforts to contain new fascism appear helpless and ineffective: counter-violence is apparently seen as a universal remedy“. Konrad Weiß did not yet have any meaningful empirical studies available for his study. However, his arguments were confirmed by social science studies from 1990 onwards.

In summary, it can be stated: Organised neo-Nazis groups were in Jena even before the fall of the Wall. Today's Eichplatz was evidently a meeting place, although not the only one. Through the attacks that took place here, Cosmonaut Square became a fear zone for some. With the exception of within opposition circles, the question of where right-wing ideas, attitudes and also violence came from was not honestly discussed.

Already in the 1980s, more and more punks joined the skinheads; this trend intensified with the end of the GDR. Right-wing violence also became more open and brutal in the 1990s. The violence of the baseball bat years is often attributed to the uncertainties of the upheaval from 1989/90. Accordingly, young people became skins and neo-Nazis because so much changed at once.

However, it is more plausible to explain the right-wing radicalism of the 1990s as a continuity from the GDR to the united Germany. There was already a relevant proportion of the population in GDR times that held right-wing and racist attitudes. The phenomenon already existed before and intensified in the course of the system change.

The second continuity lies in the way right-wing violence is dealt with. Even in the 1990s, right-wing violence was often dismissed purely as a „youth problem“ and neo-Nazi youths were even met with empathy and understanding. Few wanted to accept that it could be a problem of society as a whole. The attitudes of the general population, which passively supported the radical attitudes, were not sufficiently discussed.

As in the GDR, the focus of attention in the 1990s was not on the victims of the attacks, but rather on the perpetrators. This imbalance and the attempt to correct it are the subject of further stops on this tour.

Text: Raphael Bergmann