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Germany's government spent over €100 million in 2017 for initiatives promoting diversity. But as the country marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, intolerance remains a serious issue.
"We've been busiest at our psychosocial center for refugees over the last few years," says Isabel Teller, an attorney, mediator and advisor at the Office for Equality at the Aachen Educational Center (GBB). Founded in 1983, the initiative receives financing from the German federal government and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. It has seven areas of focus, ranging from support for the victims of racially-motivated violence to the integration of refugees.
"The waiting period for people seeking trauma therapy right now is about six months. That is what we are specialized in," says Teller, who has also become an expert at dealing with civil registry offices. She says she receives complaints about them on an almost daily basis.
Teller says the most common complaints arise from civil servants refusing to issue birth certificates for refugees who have given birth to children in Germany. "Legal guidelines are often interpreted in such a way that it becomes almost impossible for those seeking documents to get them."
Helpless in the face of growing right-wing sentiment
Lately, Teller has also been invited to participate in a growing number of seminars and panel discussions on the topic of racism. "We have detected a growing sense of helplessness — in society in general but also from government authorities and other institutions like ours — in the face of Germany's recent shift to the right," she says. "We have to take a stronger stance than we did in the past."
What could be improved to ensure that anti-racism initiatives can achieve what they set out to do? Teller says that one important change would be to standardize structures so that counselors dealing with racism would at least be housed in one central ministry.
Moreover, she believes administrators and politicians need to change their attitudes. "We often receive complaints from police officers with migrant backgrounds telling us of workplace discrimination, either from colleagues or superiors," she says. "I see a lot of halfheartedness in tackling anti-democratic tendencies."
'It's cool to be right wing again'
Journalist Andrea Röpke knows better than most just how prevalent xenophobia and right-wing violence have become in Germany. For years, she has been chronicling occurrences of racially-motivated right-wing violence in Germany in annual reports. "It has once again become cool to be right wing in Germany," says Röpke.
She says anti-racism initiatives are more important than ever when it comes to combating the problem: "The initiatives are doing everything right. They represent German society and they are getting involved."
Röpke's only problem is that racist slogans are largely disseminated online and the initiatives have yet to come up with an adequate solution to countering that phenomenon. "AfD (Alternative for Germany) is by far the most popular party online, with more than 3 million followers. People still continue to underestimate their professionalism in that regard."
She says there are also a number of problems with the legal treatment of right-wing crimes, adding that more money has to be invested in long-term prevention projects.
Former neo-Nazis have more credibility when addressing students
Exit is an initiative that steps in when it seems as if it is too late to fight racism. Its main task is to help people who want to get out of the neo-Nazi scene. The project has been receiving funding from Germany's Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ) since 2000.
Felix Benneckenstein says he was lucky to get out of the scene. He was a wholly convinced Nazi for 10 years, and now at age 31 he actively helps Exit in Bavaria.
Benneckenstein has noticed changes, too: "We need to be careful. The [neo-Nazi] scene has seen a surge with the rightward shift and now it thinks the revolution is coming."
Benneckenstein's greatest asset is his credibility. Neo-Nazis who want to get out of the scene get in touch with him before all others.
And his words carry a lot of weight at the schools he speaks at as well: "Teachers regularly tell me that kids believe what I tell them. But they don't believe the teachers, even though they tell them the same thing."
Dealing with right-wing ideology
Benneckenstein is repeatedly asked the same question at schools around Bavaria: "Is it racist if I say there are too many refugees in Germany?" That is a question that calls for a strong, substantive reply, he says.
And that is something he misses when it comes to how people deal with right-wing attitudes: "One has to address the things that students are told at right-wing information booths. It isn't enough to just say, that is all bad and evil."
And what would Benneckenstein's strategy for helping anti-racism initiatives be? He suggests "getting more conservative people involved, initiatives need more diverse political opinions." He says that left-leaning counselors tend to shut out people that lean right straight away.
But for him the most important thing is "to talk to people that are scared. Deal with them – over and over," he says. "You have to make sure they don't become radicalized."