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Pegida Demo in Dresden
Image: Reuters/H. Hanschke

Can you re-educate the right-wing community?

Kathleen Schuster
February 23, 2016

With the rise of right-wing extremism, some German states must intervene in entire communities to uproot the ideology. One organization says it's possible, but it will mean more than tackling just extremism.


Attacks on refugee housing and anti-immigrant protests have given Saxony a bad name. Its state premier, Stanislaw Tillich, announced on Tuesday that he and his cabinet would devise a new strategy to combat right-wing radicals to save the state's reputation.

The idea that right-wing ideology is only found in isolated pockets of German society has been debunked in Saxony, which is not only the birthplace of Pegida, but also one of the first states where the "Alternative für Deutschland" (AfD) party won seats in parliament.

So, Tillich and his government must "de-radicalize" entire communities in some cases.

Germany already has intervention programs aimed at the neo-Nazi scene. One such program, "EXIT Deutschland," has used a strategy of open dialogue, outreach and personal safety plans to help over 700 people escape the most dangerous, militant part of the scene. This requires separating an individual from the source of danger and completely changing their mindset, which can take years.

Saxony faces a daunting task given tensions over the refugee crisis and the rise of anti-immigrant violence. But is it a realistic task?

Infografik rechte Gewalt in Deutschland ENGLISCH

Eliminating stereotypes

It is possible to change people's minds, EXIT's Bernd Wagner told DW, but Germany must change its own mind about Saxony in the process.

According to Wagner, who also heads the Center for Democratic Cultur (ZDK), politicians and the public have lost sight of how destabilizing forces - most of all, the refugee crisis - have left people, regardless of socioeconomic level, feeling forgotten by the government. As a result, they become susceptible to extremist ideology.

Another issue, says Wagner, is that the public has misplaced its focus on Saxony, despite cases - such as the NSU murders and other xenophobic attacks - that prove right-wing violence has affected every state. By attributing the problem only to Saxony, officials aren't cooperating to find a solution, since they think it isn't their problem.

"We have a large lack of awareness in Germany, and in Europe, in general. The West Germans are not spared from this."

Deutschland Dessau Kundgebung Neonazis
The presence of neo-Nazis and hooligans at Pegida and AfD protests has alarmed the authoritiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Woitas

An outdated mental image of the right-wing scene has also clouded the public's perception of what modern right-wing extremism looks like.

"We need to clear away the superstition that we're talking about a homogenous or even a Neo-Nazi scene," he says. "Only a very few are Neo-Nazis. It's a very broad ideological field that's being invoked and is seen on all levels of society," not just socially disadvantaged youths.

"The old Nazi image of combat boots and muscle-bound skinheads is long gone."

'You have to approach people'

EXIT successfully intervened in the Saxony-Anhalt community of Pretzien in 2006 after neo-Nazis tossed a copy of Anne Frank's diary and a US flag onto a bonfire during a public summer celebration, causing a nationwide uproar. Pretzien was "collectively damned and ostracized, so to speak," EXIT's Bernd Wagner told DW.

Counterdemonstrations have kept pace with Pegida and AfD rallies, but Wagner questions their effectiveness. In Pretzien and other communities, the key has always been dialogue.

"You have to approach people. You have to talk to people, you have to make people an offer, see if you can solve problems. You have to identify the problems first."

Deutschland Brandanschlag an Asylbewerberheim in Weissach
In Saxony, an arson attack on a planned refugee home in Bautzen followed just days after a large mob blocked a bus of asylum seekers in ClausnitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/SDMG/Friebe

In Pretzien, the whole community, including Neo-Nazis were given an open forum. "We worked with very racist people there, we also worked with very open people and migrants. We put mediation into action," Wagner said.

According to Wagner, politicians' anti-right-wing efforts must drastically increase contact with all local citizens.

The "arduous and exhausting" process of being in dialogue with everyone from choir members, to firemen, to youth leaders took six years before the organization completed its work.

Regarding the success story of Pretzien, Wagner admits that it wasn't possible to eradicate right-wing ideas from the entire community.

"But a state has been reached where a similar incident won't be repeated - not in the near future in any case."

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