In Germany, right-wing extremism still lures young, often alienated people into a grip of hate and violence that's difficult to escape. But one program started by a former neo-Nazi shows people a possible way out.
Getting out of this group is harder than you think.
Ingo Hasselbach knows what it feels like to be caught in a vicious cycle of hate against everything and everyone who's different. He also knows what it feels like to have that hate turn against you. He's been there.
Hasselbach was a member of Germany's neo-Nazi scene for 25 years.
But ten years ago he turned his back on the skinheads and rejected their gospel of racism and xenophobia. When he did that, he lost friendships he had had for a quarter of a century. When he stopped defining himself by right-wing ideology, his entire social world collapsed. But, he says, it was a sacrifice he had to make. That is the hardest message to get across to the young, mostly male neo-Nazis who contact Exit, a program he founded to help people successfully get out of the right-wing scene.
"It's important to make clear to the boys who come to Exit that they have to get out of their social environment," Hasselbach says. "In some cases they have to even move to another city. They have to be prepared to do this."
Hasselbach (photo) founded Exit two years ago because he knew how difficult, and dangerous, it could be to leave the right-wing scene once one has been a part of it. Making the decision to step away from extremism often means stepping into social isolation and enduring the wrath and even violence of former friends who consider it treachery to leave the scene.
Taking the first steps
Most of the young people who call the Exit hotline are between 17 and 27 years old. Before they can get help from the program, however, they have to fulfil a few requirements. They must be calling on their own free will; they must be willing to talk about their experiences in the scene; and they have to take responsibility for their actions and behavior during their time with the far-right. Once they've agreed, Exit helps them take their first steps in a new world.
Those steps include introducing the person to a possible new group of friends, putting him in contact with the employment office and if necessary, the police or a lawyer. Exit's goal is to create a completely new foundation for the former neo-Nazi.
"It's like the person falls into a black hole and doesn't really have anyone anymore," Hasselbach said. "The scene has a cult-like character to it."
During its two-year existence, Exit has helped some 200 people leave the far-right behind. Hasselbach is proud of that figure, especially given the fact that the organization is privately run and receives its funding from private sources.
But after ten years of helping right-wing youth turn their lives around, and even consulting on the German film "Führer-Ex," which tells the story of two neo-Nazis around the time the Berlin Wall fell, Hasselbach has decided to pass the baton along to someone else and leave behind his neo-Nazi past completely.
"At some point it become clear to me, that I don't want to be a professional ex-Nazi," he said.
Security concerns played a role in his decision as well. Helping pull people away from violence-prone groups has its dangers, and Hasselbach is none too popular in the far-right community. Now that he has two kids, he is ready for a line of work that is a little further removed from the line of fire.
"And it's also time to catch up on all those things, like my professional development, that I've let sit for the past ten years," he said.