In Germany, EXIT helps people who want to get away from the far-right scene. A woman tells DW about the reasons for her change of heart, and how difficult it was to return to a normal life.
Eleven years ago, a woman - let's call her Sabine - found the strength to jump over her own shadow and leave the far-right scene she had been an active member in for years. With the help of the EXIT organization, she went into hiding.
Sabine is not willing to give precise details for security reasons, just that she is in her 40s and was born in northern Germany. Even today, Sabine is cautious, in particular where reporters are concerned. Several phone calls were necessary before she agrees to a date for a telephone interview with Deutsche Welle.
"My father was politically active, though in the CDU," Sabine says. "Politics influenced our entire family life." Conservative ideas were prevalent in her home. Her grandfather fought for the Nazis in World War II, and it was he who "contaminated my ideology and convictions," she explains her move into the right-wing radical scene, where she was active for more than two decades.
Sabine joined the far-right NPD party, and played a leading role in another far-right group that has been banned. Asked whether she encountered weapons, she said she knew men and women in the organization who used weapons. There were mercenary soldiers in the group, and old Nazis specialized in explosives who had attempted assassinations, she said. "Of course, they had the right connections and were able to get weapons and explosives."
Keep a low profile
People who want to get out of the far-right scene need more than an iron will, they need support from the outside. They face threats and blackmail and often enough, they have to hide from their former comrades-in-arms for whom exiting the group is akin to treason.
In Germany, EXIT is the address to turn to. Bernd Wagner founded the NGO in 2000; today EXIT has five employees and is financed by donations and federal funds.
But how to quit an extremist group? At first, the person intent on getting out of the scene will get in touch via phone, letters or emails, usually without disclosing his or her name, Wagner says - they maintain a low profile. "The more militant and aggressive a group the person used to belong to presents itself, the more militant and aggressive the members are within the group," the former senior police officer and expert on political extremism explains.
Quitting a party is not as dramatic, Wagner says, though the degree of militancy plays a role here, too. "People who want to get out should keep that to themselves and first approach an organization like ours," Wagner says.
Sabine increasingly distanced herself from the NPD because of the growing radicalization of the far-right. "Weapons played a greater role, and we considered possible attacks," she says, adding she had children by then and no longer wanted to be a part of such actions. "Add to that domestic violence against women - that happens a lot in Nazi circles." At that point, Sabine finally decided to get out.
She used to believe foreigners should be expelled from Germany and drug dealers should be handed the death sentence. Today, she is convinced that "dictatorship and extremism lead to war."
Years of suffering began when Sabine left the far-right for good in 2002. Her neo-Nazi husband threatened to kill her and the children and blow up their house. She was forced to move to another city, to change her name and all of her documents. At first she turned to Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic security agency, and later to EXIT.
Far-right organizations may not be wealthy, but they are not poor, either, Sabine says. There are plenty of people who fund them, and pensioners who bequeath their properties, homes and cash. There is even public funding like subsidies for the still legal NPD. Unofficial funds fill the coffers via organized crime: Far-right groups have ties to circles involved in the weapons and drugs trade as well as prostitution, Sabine says.
It's a myth to believe that no one but poor, desperate people seeks refuge in the far-right scene, Sabine says: educated people like doctors and lawyers join with conviction, a fact often conveniently forgotten. The threat from rightwing extremism in Germany is much greater than communicated by the politicians, Sabine warns.
Sabine is no longer afraid. She is very convincing when she declares that her life is better today, despite the lost years. Today, she tries to help others who want to leave the far-right scene, like EXIT once helped her.
EXIT has supported 500 people over the years, Bernd Wagner told DW. Almost all of them started a new, better life far away from extremism and intolerance. Only 11 people didn't manage the transition, Wagner says: they returned to far-right groups, a few became Islamists or left-wing radicals and two ended up as drug dealers.