ADDENDUM: Two men in their mid-twenties from the town of Sangerhausen in Saxony-Anhalt have been indicted for their role in an arson attack on a facility housing applicants for political refugee status. The suspects, who are known neo-Nazis, threw three Molotov cocktails into an apartment in the facility early on Saturday morning. No one was hurt in the attack (SZ).
Last Friday afternoon, an Israeli and a Yemenite student, both in their twenties, were attacked by five men in a Magdeburg streetcar. The assailants pushed the victims and taunted them with racist slurs. One of them pulled a knife and threatened the students. However, the two were able to fend off the attackers, and the tram-driver alerted the police who arrested the five men, aged 35 to 46. They have been charged with sedition [Volksverhetzung, literally "incitement of the people"], uttering threats, and assault (Spiegel).
Magdeburg is a mid-sized city in the former East German Land of Saxony-Anhalt, which currently leads all other German Bundesländer in the number of hate crimes committed by right-wing extremists. In the statistics, Saxony-Anhalt is followed by three other former East German Bundesländer, Brandenburg, Thuringia, and Saxony. However, Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg also reported significant increases in hate crimes. Overall, German police are reporting record numbers of such crimes for the year 2006.
These crimes are often attributed to young people who came of age in the 1990s. There is indeed a strong right-wing extremist youth culture in many towns of the former East Germany, that rose to prominence especially after the fall of the Berlin wall. In this particular case, the attackers came from a slightly older generation, educated entirely in the German Democratic Republic.
I last visited Magdeburg sometime in December 2003, when I had the chance to visit the Jewish community there. It is a rather dreadful city, visibly depressed. Like much of Saxony-Anhalt, it suffers from high unemployment. For some reason or another, its university has attracted a number of Israeli and other foreign students - one of whom I met in the synagogue. A former artillery-man who had served in Lebanon until the withdrawal, he complained bitterly about living conditions in the East. Most of the Jewish community, as elsewhere in Germany, consists of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Few of them have any desire to stay in Magdeburg; I remember a group of high schoolers who were especially enthusiastic about leaving for Canada (rather than the U.S. or Israel).
Volksverhetzung under German criminal law (Paragraph 130) covers incitement to "hatred or violence against certain parts of the population," or attacks on "the human dignity of others through insults, malicious libel, or defamation," (German Ministry of Justice). Paragraphs 130.3 and 130.4 also outlaw Holocaust denial and the use of symbols from the Nazi era. Convictions can lead to imprisonment from 3 months to 5 years and/or a monetary fine.