She’s got a good eye. Where others see only something colorful sticking to a traffic sign she’ll recognize that it's a Nazi sticker. Where others see just a graffitied power box, she’ll make out a swastika. Armed with tools and paint, Irmela Mensah-Schramm is constantly on the prowl for evidence of the far right that she can obliterate. She’s the cleaning lady of the political space, if you will.
Her campaign against hate slogans has earned her accolades, but also complaints to the police. One of the latter has landed her in a criminal trial in the local Berlin court early last October, where the 70-year-old was charged with willfully damaging property.
She had discovered the slogan "Merkel muss weg," or "Merkel has to go," used by right-wing extremists in a pedestrian underpass, and repainted it to say “Merke! Hass weg!” or "Take note! Hate must go!"
Because the new paint overlaid the old, “damage to property” became “double damage to property” and a “deepening of the disfigurement,” as Ms. Mensah-Schramm had enlarged the area painted on the wall. The court estimated the cleaning cost at €300, but the trial ended in a warning, with the judge reserving the possibility of ordering an €1,800 fine.
Far-right followers have gotten wise to her ways and now put their propaganda on objects two or three meters high, where she can’t reach it without a ladder.
It was a slap on the wrist to prevent a repeat offense. But the defendant thought she deserved an acquittal. So she hired a lawyer and appealed the verdict. Anyone who crosses the line even a little “is criminalized,” she says. “I’m paying for my civil courage.”
But apparently the state prosecutor's office also wasn't satisfied with a warning, because it challenged the ruling as well. Now the case has moved up a level to the district court, where the defendant will have to appear soon.
Nevertheless, Ms. Mensah-Schramm was back on patrol recently, this time through Rudow, part of Berlin’s Neukölln district. A cold wind whips through the streets where she knows local neo-Nazis hang out. She walks with a slight stoop, taking a breather now and again. She usually spends about two hours walking her beat, and the work can be taxing.
She has been called an “activist,” but Ms. Mensah-Schramm calls herself “a member of civil society.” It all started one morning in 1968 when she saw a sticker at a bus stop near her home calling for “Freedom for Rudolf Hess.” At the time, Hitler’s deputy was still serving a life sentence in the Allies’ prison for war criminals in West Berlin. Ms. Mensah-Schramm, a teacher at a school for special needs children, was outraged. She scratched the sticker off with a key, but her outrage persisted.
Some people also call her a heroine, while others have abused her for letting shreds of a neo-Nazi sticker drop to the ground. She has received death threats. In Potsdam, just outside Berlin, she clashed with a neo-Nazi who photographed her, so she photographed him right back. He tried to take her camera and she called the police.
At the end of October she got another summons for damaging property, the tenth by her count. It said police had seen her spraying over Nazi slogans on a power box. “The policeman berated me as if I were a criminal and took my spray can off me," Ms. Mensah-Schramm told German news agency DPA after the incident. "Bystanders also abused me. I’d never experienced anything like that.”
She regards damage to property as the lesser evil. Patrolling Rudow, she says her work is justified. But far-right followers have gotten wise to her ways and now put their propaganda on objects two or three meters high, where she can’t reach it without a ladder.
The area around Alt-Rudow appears sedate and a little impoverished. It's also an area in which the new far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won 17.9 percent of the vote in the recent Berlin parliamentary election. Spotting a bit of neo-Nazi graffiti, Ms. Mensah-Schramm reaches for her camera. Whatever she removes she photographs first. She keeps the evidence in the 86 folders she has amassed over 30 years of combating hatred. It’s source material for exhibitions about right-wing extremist propaganda.
Has she noticed that far-right graffiti has increased lately? “Definitely,” and particularly when it comes to stickers, she says, then draws her can of spray paint. A dense red fog blankets a neo-Nazi code number as she forms a big, chubby heart, brightening the grey day. She puts the can away, smiles contentedly and says confidently, “I’m taking action!”
This article originally appeared in Handelsblatt's sister publication, Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.