Around 500 far-right extremists have marched in Berlin to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of Adolf Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess.
The marchers were met with counter-demonstrators in similar numbers, who gathered near the parade in the Spandau district. Heavily-armed police separated both groups to avoid potential conflict.
Berlin police spokesman Carsten Mueller said that authorities imposed a number of restrictions on the march to ensure it passed peacefully.
“We have certainly adjusted our security concept in the light of recent events in Charlottesville, Barcelona, London and Berlin,” Mueller said.
Police told organizers they could march, but were not allowed to glorify Hess, who died on August 17, 1987 at Spandau prison. They were allowed to bring banners, but only one for every 50 participants.
Openly anti-Semitic chants would have prompted German police to intervene, although efforts would be made to detain specific individuals rather than to stop an entire rally, police said.
Such restrictions are common in Germany. A ban on Nazi symbols and language codified by allied forces in 1949 outlaws the display of swastikas and SS insignia at far-right rallies.
In recent months, neo-Nazi groups have tried to promote Saturday’s march by means of illegal flyposters and graffiti around the German capital, as well as fake police posters calling for assistance in finding Hess’ “murderer.”
Allied authorities ruled Hess’ death a suicide, but Nazi sympathizers have long claimed that he was killed and organize annual marches in his honor.
Local politicians, church leaders and union organizers in Spandau have sought to ban the march, with Kai Wegner, a local councillor of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, citing the possibility of street fights.
"I deplore the decision of Interior Minister Andreas Geisel to let the right-wing extremists march through Spandau," Wegner was quoted as saying by Spandauer Volksblatt.
He said freedom of assembly was of great importance, "but a democratic society does not have to please a neo-Nazi march."
But Geisel said there were no legal grounds to ban the rally. "I would have been delighted with a ban," he said. "But we looked very closely at the matter and concluded that unfortunately arseholes also get to benefit from democratic freedoms."
About 1,000 people attended the leftist counter-protests. Like the neo-Nazi marchers, they had to meet certain stipulations, including a change to their planned route to keep the marches separate.
Christoph Kopke, a sociologist specializing in police history, said to The Guardian newspaper that Saturday’s march illustrates the challenge facing police in a changing political environment.
“Until the 1990s, German neo-Nazi marches tended to be smaller than their counter-demonstrations. The police’s main task was usually to protect the main demonstration from the less predictable counter-demonstration”, he said.
“But in recent years, right-wing extremists are managing more and more often to organise large rallies, and they are more militant. The police will have to adjust their tactics accordingly.”