German police interrogated two boys Wednesday who were photographed making Hitler salutes as part of a secretive neo-Nazi fan club.
The teenagers from the Landsberg School near Leipzig, a city in eastern Germany’s Saxony state, would secretly share their right-wing jokes and extremist propaganda in private with other classmates using the mobile phone application WhatsApp, police said.
Prosecutor Andreas Schieweck, 59, confirmed that authorities were investigating the allegations, which include references to Hitler as a “fantastic person.” Members also began chats with each other using the banned expression “Deutschland – Sieg Heil!”, or Germany! Hail Victory!
Making the Hitler salute or using Third Reich symbols like the swastika is illegal according to German law.
German officials expressed shock at the revelations, but neo-Nazis in Germany were among the first to go underground using online connections such as the Thule Network as a response to the country’s restrictive laws on far-right activity where they can face prison time for glorifying the crimes of the Third Reich.
The class has since made a public statement apoligizing for their actions, describing it as a joke that got out of control. But, the fact that children aged 14-15 were behind setting up the network, however, has caused widespread concern.
Teachers and parents of the 29 ninth graders said they had no idea that the children had such extremist right-wing ideologies.
Parents of the one Jewish boy in the class said they were stunned when they read about the extent of the anti-Semitic incidents for the first time in their local newspaper. They said their son had never spoken to them about what was going on at school.
Eli Gampel, 54, whose son is the sole Jew in the class, said, “My boy told me that on the hood of his jacket someone had stuck a far-right NPD [National Democratic Party] sticker. It was well known, it seems, that he was Jewish.”
Gampel, the former head of the local Halle Jewish Community, added: “I thought it was a bad dream when I opened the newspapers and read the article.”
“Even after I read about it, I found it difficult to get my son to talk about what went on. It was only through a lengthy discussion that he admitted what was in the newspaper article was essentially true. Of course the content of what was being discussed made him sad and he felt discriminated against,” Gampel said.
Other parents also said they knew nothing about what was going on because the students had kept their activities hidden by communicating using WhatsApp.
The school headmaster Lutz Feudel said the entire school had been shocked about the secret Nazi sympathizers, which he said were confined to one class.
David Begrich, who works in Germany as part of the organization “Miteinander” (“With One Another”), which fights against right-wing extremism, said, “It is definitely the time now for education officials to get involved, and not prosecutors. There need to be very clear conversations with all those in the class.”
Begrich added that there has been recent cases in Saxony of schoolchildren taking part in Nazi demonstrations, and being exposed to neo-Nazi music and through postings of anti-Semitic content.