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THE NEW YORK TIMES INTERNATIONAL Sunday, October 22, 1995.
BONN Oct. 17 -- In his converted loft, Burkhard Schroeder taps in the dial-up commands on his personal computer and awaits the ethereal screech of modems conversing. An Imperial German flag drifts onto the screen from cyberspace followed by the black Iron Cross of the wartime Wehrmacht.
"Neo-Nazis Now Network on Line and Underground"
By ALAN COWELL
Mr. Schroeder is told to enter a user name. He types "Erlkoenig" the mythical erlking or spirit that wreaks mischief and evil. The computer demands a password. He fumbles for a scrap of paper then types a sequence of numbers from it.
Mr. Schroeder, a leftist author in Berlin has penetrated one level of the Thule Network a string of electronic mailboxes that Investigators fear may be a clandestine technological response by neo-Nazis to restrictions against German rightist extremism.
"This is being done at a technically advanced level and it is being done professionally," said Fritz-Achim Baumann, an official in the North Rhine-Westphalla state Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Dusseldorf. "It is to be taken seriously."
The Thule Network hardly represents a threat to Germany's stabillty, but the response to it shows how much officials here worry over the possibility of a neo-Nazi resurgence in a land whose history haunts virtually every move it makes.
Since a wave of neo-Nazi and skinhead violence hit Germany in the 1990s, the federal authorities have banned at least 10 publicly known extreme rightist groups, placed hundreds of neo-Nazis under survellance, put others on trial and sought to penetrate their ranks.
The goal was to catch the neo-Nazis off-guard, reduce their public profile and political support, and spread confusion among them. But now, according to the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Cologne, German neo-Nazis are seeking to build "widely spread loosely organized alliances, initiatives and cells that operate independently from one another."
That is where the Thule Network comes in. "Mailboxes are a very good idea because you can commumcate without the police being able to monitor," Mr. Schoeder said.
Moreover, he said, the 90 bulletin boards on the Thule Network offer a forum for rightist intellectuals to propagate the ideology of a "New Right" that embraces exclusivist, radical thinking without evoking the stridency of Nazism. The network itself is named both for the mystical northern place that rightists view as the cradle of European civilization and for a political forerunner of the Nazis.
"They are not looking for power -- that would be ridiculous," Mr. Schroeder said. "They want to spread their ideas among a subculture of the young in the hope that a leader will come along," like the charismatic Austrian rightist Jorg Haider.
Mr. Schroeder said the electronic mailboxes at a level to which he does not have access, also allow neo-Nazi figures use commercially available software to exchange encrypted messages about meetings, demonstrations and other activities.
The mailboxes, said Eduard Lintner, an official at the Interior Ministry in Bonn, "are more and more difficult to track."
On the surface -- at least on the levels to which Mr Schroder has access -- the Thule Network is no more than a jumble of pseudo- intellectualism, rightist news bulletins and cyber-chat. Widely publicized instructions on building bombs turned out to be no more than Chemistry 10l. A supposed military almanac disseminated on the Thule Network was actually a publicly available Swiss Army guide, Mr. Schroeder said. But it was not clear whether such information was a revelatlon for Thule users.
Users are routinely warned to avoid exposing themselves to prosecution in a country where Nazi emblems, racial and religious incitement and denial of the Holocaust are all illegal.
"It would be very unusual for the German neo-Nazis to identify themselves openly," said Martin Dietzsch, an expert on rightist extremism at the Institute for Social Research in Duisburg. "They try to be more anonymous. They do not show their faces because they are frightened of being arrested."
That is in contrast to the smuggled computer diskettes that routinely display black swastikas as part of a broader onslaught by American and Canadian neo-Nazis using Internet addresses. Both the American Greg Raven and Ernst Zuendel, a German living in Canada, are said by Mr. Schroeder to run email systems.
The most prominent American Nazi propagandist, however, is Gary Rex Lauck, the leader of a neo-Nazi movement in Nebraska who was extradited from Copenhagen to Hamburg in August to face prosecution for smuggling publications like his "NS-Kampfruf" (Nazi Battle Cry)into Germany over the past two decades. His arrest however may have come at a time when new technology has made such kinds of pamphleteering obsolete.
"The danger is that up to now there were pamphlets with very few readers," said Mr. Baumann, the Dusseldorf official. "On the computer networks anyone with a modem can make a much greater impact than pamphlets."
If Germany's rightists turn to terrorism, he added, "the mailboxes could also be used to arrange encounters known to very few people."
The Thule Network itself is not linked to the Internet, Mr. Schroeder said, and its reach is limited to about 150 direct users at 10 electronic mailboxes in Germany, one in the Netherlands and one in Norway. Overall, German officials estimate the number of neo-Nazi and skinhead militants in Germany at 5,400, part of a total of 56,600 who are classified as extreme rightists.
While the physical locations of some users of the mailboxes have been raided, the authorities say they have not penetrated the passwords and encodement software employed by Thule Network users at the most restrictive level, that called cadre.
Indeed, the network itself boasts on one of its own bulletin boards that its aim is to "minimize the pressure of persecution by the System by setting up communications that the System cannot spy on without significant technologiccal effort." Passwords are issued only to those who send a copy of their personal identity document to Thule Network systems operators.
So how did a leftist writer like Mr. Schroeder in Berlin get access to a system whose workings he has now publicized in a book called "Neo- Nazis and Computer Networks"?
According to his book, he declared himself to a Thule Network systems ooerator and gained access. Mr. Schroeder then posted a message on one of the network's bulletin boards in an attempt to provoke rightist denials of the Holocaust.
Almost immediately, the systems operator warned the other users that "Erlkoenig" was a leftist infiltrator. One response, according to the book, came from someone with the user name Wolf, which was a nickname used by the young Adolf Hitler.
"If I was evil, I would say that Erlkoenig should be allowed later to co-found the camp newspaper," Wolf wrote in a macabre allusion to a concentration camp. "But I'm not evil so I won't write that."
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