An association in Germany has been bringing skinheads face to face with the truth about Nazism by involving them in the preservation of children’s barracks in the notorious former concentration camp of Auschwitz.
Young and angry -- members of the German right-wing extremist party, NPD
Skinheads in Auschwitz? That may conjure up images of hooliganism and xenophobic slogans, but it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Since 1993, the association "Learning for the Future" in Freiburg, southern Germany has been confronting young neo-nazis with the truth about Nazism by driving them to the former concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland.
First-hand feel of concentration camp horrors
There, among the reminders of the horrors perpetrated on camp inmates, representatives from the association draw the young right-wing extremists into discussions about nazism. They are encouraged to see and feel for themselves first-hand what life in Auschwitz must have been like.
Aware that the young skinheads wouldn’t care to be bothered with lectures and podium discussion, the association has instead been conducting creative workshops with them on activities ranging from photography, painting, craft and carpentry including carrying out repairs when necessary on the children’s barracks in the camp.
The underlying theme is always the same – learning about the darker chapters of German history and coming to terms with it.
The success of the unique project can be gauged by a recent photography project done by a group of neo-nazis called "Looking closely – young people see Auschwitz", for which the skinheads clicked their own photographs.
Setting the record straight
Essential footwear for right-wing extremists.
The idea for the novel project was born almost ten years ago when a home for delinquent youth on the outskirts of Freiburg began to despair about an increasing number of residents who began to shave off their hair and clad themselves in bomber jackets and lace-up boots in the style of skinheads.
Werner Nickolai of the Catholic University in Freiburg, who is involved with the "Learning for the Future" association told DW-RADIO that the primary aim of the project in Auschwitz is to equip youth with political information that they didn’t learn in school – often because they didn’t attend school at all.
"They have certain ideas about Nazism, which are often very superficial. Our job is to offer them well-researched facts about Nazism and inform them about the horrors of Auschwitz. Against this background, it’s then up to them to check whether their opinions which they’ve had so far, are the right ones," he said.
Telling it like it was
One of the central themes of the program naturally is the so-called "Auschwitz lie" – the belief held by several neo-nazis that the gassing of people in former concentration camps never took place.
Facing the past.
"The testimonials of former concentration camp inmates are very significant for the young people because they don’t then have a basis to form the 'Auschwitz lie‘. They’ve then heard from someone, who survived Auschwitz, that gas chambers were used there," Nickolai said.
Pay for it and take it more seriously
The "Learning for the Future" project is financed from three quarters – from own funds and donations, the German-Polish Youth Service and the voluntary contributions of the participants.
The latter funding option is the most important from the perspective of the organizers because they believe that the young skinheads are more closely involved with the work through their own financial contributions.
Nickolai says it follows the motto, "if it doesn’t cost anything, it mustn’t be much". The project however relies heavily on donations to keep itself going.
The money is spent on the publication of a book that presents the suffering of children and youth in Auschwitz. The association needs to come up with some 40,000 euro ($43,306) over the next three years if it wants to continue its projects.
"Takes a while for hair to grow back"
But is it worth all the money and effort? The question of whether young right-wing extremists can really be made to change their often deeply-lodged ideas through the project is one that Nickolai would much rather not dwell on.
"If one expects that after such a project they (radical youth) won’t tell any Jewish jokes or their xenophobia – if it did exist earlier – to change, then it’s possibly too high an expectation," he said.
Nickolai rather prefers explaining it with the help of a scenario. "If I travel with a skinhead to Auschwitz, he’s not going to turn into a boy with blond locks within a week, hair needs longer to grow. And what needs even longer to change are deeply-entrenched attitudes," he said.