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Global Connections

Armed with satire, German group challenges neo-Nazis

By Grace Wong for CNN
  • Apple Front demonstrates at neo-Nazi marches and rallies across Germany
  • Mock-extremist group protests far-right extremists by parodying Nazi dress, symbolism and rhetoric
  • Group is after the "shocking moment," which makes people think about the ridiculousness of radical movements, says member Tom Rodig

Global Connections, a segment on CNN's Connect the World, takes two very different countries and asks you to find the connections. Germany is one of the countries featured. Read more -- and make your own connections -- on the Global Connections site.

(CNN) -- Clad all in black and wearing red armbands and banners emblazoned with an apple, members chant, "What gives power to the youth? Apple juice! Apple juice!"

That's a scene you're likely to encounter if you run into the Apple Front, a provocative group that uses satire to challenge far-right extremists in Germany.

The appearance of the members of the satirical political group -- it argues for maintaining the purity of the German fruit crop -- has an unsettling effect, to say the least.

People usually react with shock when they come across Apple Front for the first time, says Tom Rodig, a 22-year-old student who helps organize the group's demonstrations.

But once they realize it's an apple -- rather than a symbol of hate -- that's at the center of the group's iconography, then they understand the parody, he said.

"They see it very fast. This is an effect we want to have -- the shocking moment and then [the realization] that it's just a joke," he told CNN.

He says Apple Front, short for the Front of German Apples, is all about emphasizing the absurd -- it's against "infiltration of the German fruit crop" by alien species and wants to expel tropical fruits to make sure German children remember the value of a "good German apple."

The group, which Rodig says resembles a political theater group more than anything else, demonstrates alongside radicals and neo-Nazis at marches and rallies across Germany -- to make fun of the radicals.

This is an effect we want to have -- the shocking moment and then [the realization] that it's just a joke.
--Tom Rodig, Apple Front member

(There are two stories behind the group's name. Apple is a play on the last name of a prominent far-right German leader. At the same time, the apple, which is used in several traditional recipes, is "the most German fruit," Rodig said.)

The group was started in Leipzig by performance artist Alf Thum -- who Apple Front members mockingly call the "Fuhrer" -- in 2004 in response to an increase in neo-Nazi marches in the city.

Radical groups like the National Democratic Party (NPD), which the German federal government has unsuccessfully tried to ban, have gained a platform, especially in eastern regions, in recent years, Rodig said.

The NPD, which Germany's domestic intelligence agency describes as being based on "strongly pronounced racism" and standing "in opposition to the free and democratic order," entered regional government in 2004.

Although he doesn't have a background in performance, Rodig, a politics and philosophy student, saw Apple Front as a fresh way to object to what he views to be rising extremism.

There are no solid figures on member numbers because the group is loosely knit, but Rodig estimates there could be as many as 1,500 in Apple Front's ranks. The group tends to attract younger people and has members across Germany, as well as in Poland and Austria.

"The attraction for younger people is that it's creative, it's new, it's fresh. It's not what your parents would do if they were to go to a demonstration," he explained.

Apple Front isn't the first to use performance as a method of protest. The Diggers, a group of community activists who emerged in California in the 1960s, for instance, incorporated street theater into their efforts to challenge capitalism.

Apple Front fits into a broader tradition of using satire to make a political point, according to Edward Vallance, a historian at Roehampton University who works on radical protest groups.

"If you look at European politics generally, almost as soon as most Western European countries become democracies, you start to see satirical parties emerging," he said.

Whether you can use such a serious aspect of Germany's recent history for parody remains a matter of debate in the country, where the Nazi era is still quite a sensitive and painful topic for some to discuss.

But it's precisely because of Germany's past that you're seeing an organization like Apple Front emerge, says Vallance.

"It's an effective way to deal with the far right because you can pinpoint the absurdities and deflate these groups so easily by attacking their symbolism, dress and rhetoric," he told CNN.

The mock-extremist group has offended people who have mistaken it as being part of the Nazi community. One such incident resulted in a passer-by shoving Thum into the street, Rodig said.

"There's no way to measure if what we're doing is something relevant," Rodig said. "But it's one part of the movement against these people -- and it's the creative and the fun part."