The neo-Nazi drop-out project "Nina NRW" works with people wanting to leave the right-wing extremist scene and return to a non-violent life. In an interview with DW a drop-out counselor describes how this can succeed.
Deutsche Welle: What has to happen for a neo-Nazi to consider an exit?
Exit counselor: The best help is repression or love. These topics provoke persons to change their life in another direction. Some gradually come to the conclusion that they don't want to carry on as before, that he cannot stand the conflict between that which is preached in the scene and that which he had experienced.
How difficult is an exit?
For a follower it is perhaps easier to leave compared to someone who was in the leadership; it is very difficult because a person who has opted out is a traitor and a traitor can't be allowed to just leave.
The drop-out Karl, who you counseled, told us that they wanted to kill him …
Yes, that can happen. The young women and men who quit the scene have knowledge about the scene: about illegal activities, possession of firearms or other things. There is always the danger that a person who leaves the scene will be interviewed by the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution [Germany's domestic intelligence service] or the police. That's why they want to eliminate these people.
Karl was attacked with a knife and stabbed. They held a gun against his head. Sometimes the former comrades stand at the door with a baseball bat and kick the door down. Sometimes a pet is killed, sometimes the rest of the family is threatened. But that's not the general rule. In a supervised exit there are possibilities to protect the drop-out.
Karl went to the police when he quit - is this the best way?
The police are one way. But it is not so easy when the dropout begins to talk. The police are then obliged to launch criminal proceedings. An exit program like Nina NRW has no obligation towards law enforcement. We can try to bring the person to a different, safer region. Often a move has to be quickly organized and the person given a new identity, because there could be informers in the authorities.
An exit often means that a person reaches rock bottom?
For every exit, everything collapses from one moment to the next: friends, the ideology, everything that one thought about life in general. Maybe the place of employment is gone when I move away. I have to make new contacts, there is often complete distrust. For a neo-Nazi dropout everything collapses and has to be completely rebuilt.
What do you do when someone meets you for the first time?
I ask them which scene they were in, what duties they had, how they perceive the threat and where we have to plan. That could mean a move, it could also mean removing a swastika tattoo. Security is the first priority. Can we achieve a quiet exit? How do you quit? Later all things are possible: accompanying someone to the job center, to an addiction therapy or debt counseling – all sorts of baggage that one has to carry around.
How can you change extreme right-wing thinking – are there democracy seminars?
No. You don't become a democrat from one day to the next. It always requires personal conversations. It is very important to move away from the ideology because there is always a danger of falling back into such circles.
You have to rehabilitate certain topics individually: is it someone who doesn't accept the fact that people with a migration background live in Germany? Is he a Holocaust denier, a chauvinist? Everyone has his particular trait; some have all of them. Because there are very different directions, you have to look where the person stands and how he can rehabilitate this intellectually. Sometimes you have to proceed in very small steps.
What is important for the drop-out to persevere long term with the exit?
It is really important to create other perspectives - for example, employment: that he has a task. It's all about personal esteem. In the group there was recognition, slaps on the back for certain acts and this recognition now has to be found somewhere else.
Violence, also handling weapons and explosives, gives lots of them a high – how does the dropout cope without these stimuli?
He has to find an alternative. Thrill of speed is a substitute satisfaction, but that is very different. Someone who enjoys the feeling of power has to see what he can do instead – maybe a sport that satisfies him.
How often are there relapses?
Extraordinary seldom, something I am very glad about. There are of course relapses - people who meet with their comrades who realize that: I am somebody and in real life I am just a stupid trainee , who has to deal with being screamed at in the factory. It is not easy but relapses are part of every life change.
Kart was abused as a child, isolated, was in a children's home. Do all concerned come from strained situations?
I know people who come from really good families, but there are always triggers where the balance of recognition is not right. When neo-Nazi hear this they would probably become angry, but I know from many stories of strained situations and say that these are partly hazing victims. These are experiences which could be compensated by joining a strong group.
In the beginning it is not all about right-wing extremist ideology, is it?
The joining processes are relatively the same in all scenes. I hear that again and again: "It doesn't matter who caught me, it could have been left, right or anything else." Seldom does the way go via ideology. Often it's called: "Suddenly there was somebody there who looked after me. Then we began to talk about these things, I went to a demo and slowly became political. "
If one wants to keep people out of the neo-Nazi scene, one must separate the ideology and the people?
Yes. I think it's also important to keep in contact and to argue, amongst friends or as parents: when you notice that your child is going in a direction that you are not happy about, you should always say "as a person you continue to be important to me, it is just that what you say and do that I cannot accept at all."
How long do you have for the supervision?
For as long as the project exists. If someone needs five years, then he needs five years.
Exit projects often have financial difficulties – how is it with yours?
We have to make an application every year, so that we can continue to work. You can become exasperated because you have built up a network and more importantly are working with participants who need security. You don't want to drop them because the project ends.
The exit counselor works as a qualified educationalist in the "Nina NRW" project in North-Rhine Westphalia. For security reasons she does not want to have her photo and her name published.
The interview was conducted by Andrea Grunau.