Town gambles fortune to keep neo-Nazis out

Published Aug 18, 2006

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By Tom Armitage

Delmenhorst, Germany - The boarded-up entrance to the hotel is covered with angry scrawl: "Stamp out the Nazi scum", "Never again fascism", it reads.

The graffiti is in sharp contrast to the otherwise tidy appearance of the 100-room hotel, a 1970s-style block located in the heart of this sleepy industrial town in north-west Germany.

It also hints at a bizarre story which has attracted national attention in recent weeks as the town of Delmenhorst gambles a fortune to stop a declared neo-Nazi from buying the building and turning it into a far-right training centre.

"The danger of a neo-Nazi centre is there and it is almost tangible," said Timo Frers, a town spokesman, from his office across the street from the hotel. "We can't sit and say that we will wait and see how it goes. We had to do something."

Seeking to retire, hotelier Guenter Mergel put his three-star hotel - used more for functions and conferences than tourism - on the market for €4,4-million (R39-million).

However, he says he only received one offer -- from the far-right lawyer Juergen Rieger, who has violated German anti-Nazi laws and questioned if Nazis gassed Jews in the concentration camps.

To the town's horror, Hamburg-based Rieger wanted to buy the hotel and turn it into an education centre for neo-Nazis and a meeting place for Germany's extreme right-wing NPD party.

In response, thousands of citizens turned out on Delmenhorst's streets to protest against the sale and a staggering €800 000 has been raised to fund a counterbid.

"That such a broad cross-section of the population said 'no' has never happened in this town and I think to have so much money in the account already is unique in Germany," Frers said.

Like many towns in the northwestern industry belt, many people in Delmenhorst have parents and grandparents who were immigrant "guest-workers" from Turkey and former Yugoslavia. However, the region near the city of Bremen has never had a reputation as a right-wing stronghold.

Rieger first offered to buy Mergel's hotel via the shadowy London-based Wilhelm Tietjen Foundation for Fertilisation Ltd.

The foundation is controlled by Rieger and draws on the estate of Tietjen, a former Nazi Luftwaffe officer from Bremen.

When Delmenhorst moved to hinder a sale, citing local planning rules, Rieger proposed Mergel gave him the hotel in return for Rieger taking on outstanding debts relating to it - an offer which Mergel said earlier this week he would consider.

"We are not going to cover the facade with swastikas," Rieger said in a telephone interview this week. "The hotel would continue to be run as a hotel."

"Like in any other hotel, there will be conferences and meetings but given my political views they will mainly be in the nationalist and right-wing area."

Rieger was fined in 1994 for wearing a Nazi military uniform while driving a World War 2 jeep, bedecked in symbols of Adolf Hitler's SS troops - which is against German law.

German parliamentarians called on Friday on authorities in Hamburg to investigate Rieger's right to practice as a lawyer.

Experts say that neo-Nazi moves to buy up property are part of a campaign to increase their presence in local communities.

"They have a foothold in the local community and places in each part of the country where the national socialist scene can meet," said Matthias Adrian, 29. an anti-neo-Nazi campaigner and himself a former neo-Nazi.

They organise events to "educate" potential supporters, including lectures from former Nazis or SS officers, said Adrian who now helps other young neo-Nazis quit the far-right scene.

Armed with tax money and some 800,000 euros in donations, Delmenhorst hopes to agree to buy the hotel soon from Mergel, who said on Wednesday he was considering Rieger's offer.

"Mr Rieger is at the moment the only company which has made an offer," he said. "I am 64, I wanted to retire."

He told the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung on Friday he had now received other expressions of interest for the property, which he had earlier said was unsellable due to noise from Turkish weddings nearby.

Spokesman Frers acknowledged the town did not need the building and would not run it as a hotel, instead seeking partners to take on the business after the sale.

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