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The Truth about 88: New Book Reveals Secret Meaning of Neo-Nazi Codes

dgs/SPIEGEL

Openly Nazi symbols such as the swastika are banned in Germany, so neo-Nazis get around the law by using coded combinations of letter and numbers such as 14 and 88. A new book explains the meaning of such codes, and reveals that far-right style is becoming increasingly diverse and hard to spot.

If you were at a German soccer game and saw fans holding up the numbers 14 and 88 in cardboard numerals, you might imagine them to be, say, the shirt numbers of fans’ favorite players. But you’d be wrong. In fact, the numbers hold a much more sinister meaning: They are actually neo-Nazi symbols.

It’s just one example of how right-wing extremists in Germany use hidden codes to get around a legal ban on Nazi symbols such as the swastika. Very few people know the real meaning of such codes, says Michael Weiss, a German expert on right-wing extremism.

Weiss, who has been researching right-wing clothing and symbols for 10 years, is one of the authors of a new brochure titled “Das Versteckspiel” (“Hide and Seek”). The publication, which is aimed at teachers, social workers and youth group leaders, is designed to raise awareness of right-wing codes, which are often displayed at football games. “We want the soccer teams and the major fan clubs to be able to recognize the codes,” Weiss told SPIEGEL.

Secret Codes ‘Everywhere’

The brochure, which is published by a Berlin-based anti-racism group, Agentur für Soziale Perspektiven, lists 150 codes that are used by right-wing extremists, including certain clothing labels such as Thor Steinar and letter and number combinations. According to Weiss, the number 14 is a reference to the so-called “14 Words,” a phrase coined by the American white separatist David Lane (“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”). The meaning behind “88” — often found in conjunction with 14 — is slightly more complicated. Here, the number eight stands for the eighth letter of the alphabet, forming “HH” — an abbreviation for “Heil Hitler,” a phrase which is banned in Germany. Similarly, the number 28 signifies “BH,” standing for “Blood and Honour,” a far-right network that was banned in Germany in 2000.

The secret code numbers can be found “everywhere,” says Weiss, including on license plates, tattoos and on signs at football games. “There are fans who travel 400 kilometers (250 miles) to a game just to hold up the four numbers that form 1488,” he says.

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, estimated that in 2009 — the most recent year for which figures are available — there were 195 far-right organizations in the country with around 26,000 members. The agency can shut down Kameradschaften, gangs or brotherhoods which are deemed violent. But many other groups in the neo-Nazi scene — such as rock bands with suggestive lyrics or clothing companies with coded symbols — often fly under the legal radar, provided they don’t openly display symbols like swastikas or explicitly support Adolf Hitler or his party.

Borrowing Symbols

The number of codes has increased since the first edition of the brochure was published in 2001. That publication only listed around 100 symbols. “The image of neo-Nazis is much more diverse today,” says Weiss. Right-wing extremists used to wear bomber jackets and have skinheads, he explains, but now their style incorporates elements from pop and rock culture. “Now they have piercings,” he says.

Similarly, old symbols are given new meanings, Weiss explains, giving the example of the kaffiyeh scarf, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism. “That is used nowadays simply as a symbol of struggle against Israel,” says Weiss, pointing out that neo-Nazis ignore the broader meaning of the garment when they co-opt it as a symbol.

The increasingly diverse image of right-wing extremists mean that neo-Nazis can often blend in at left-wing demonstrations or in a sports stadium, Weiss explains. “The problem is that many of these people no longer stand out.”

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