Johannes Kneifel was 17 when he beat up a man so badly that he died. After five years in prison, the former neo-Nazi has gone through a radical transformation. He is now studying theology to become a pastor.
There's the occasional smile on the face of Johannes Kneifel when he talks about the radical change in his life. Once a right-wing and violent neo-Nazi, he now studies theology.
It's a remarkable turnaround. In future, Kneifel will be looking after the salvation of poor souls; in the past, his life was marked by hatred and violence, binge-drinking and right-wing propaganda.
The wrong friends
As a teenager, Johannes Kneifel became an active member of a local neo-Nazi scene. He broke with his parents, who sent him to boarding school because they couldn't cope. "I came from a very embarrassing background," he says. The right-wing scene seemed to be just the right thing for him; it felt like a deliverance and he finally had something to be proud of, said Kneifel.
At the boarding school near Hanover, he then began leading a double life. During the day he was a good student, in the evening and on weekends he lived the life of a racist.
He admits that at the time he was not merely going along with it, but was actually a convinced racist. He counted on the camaraderie of the neo-Nazi scene. "I'm sure that back then Johannes had the wrong friends who were able to manipulate him more than we were able to guide him," recalls his former headmaster Eckhard Nühring.
The night that changed his life
Together with a fellow neo-Nazi, Kneifel then commited the crime that was to change his life. In December 1999, at the age of 17, he and a friend made their way to the house of an unemployed local resident. The 44-year-old man had been dubbed "hippie" in the town because he was a champion of peace and non-violence.
The two teenagers had been drinking heavily and were intent on teaching the hippie "a lesson," because he dared to criticize them one time too often. They beat him until he was unconscious and left him behind, severely injured. The man later died in the hospital.
The fatal assault landed Kneifel in Germany's largest juvenile prison – the verdict: five years in jail for voluntary manslaughter. Mental health experts at his trial attributed to him severe psychological disorders and doubted that he would ever turn away from violence.
Questions and answers
Prison pastor Dieter Kulks accompanied Kneifel when he broke with the right-wing scene and when he started visiting church services. For the pastor, the change in Kneifel was credible, not least because he had always acknowledged his guilt.
"That's what made him ask the question, to whom he must answer for his guilt and who could forgive that guilt," Kulks recalls. "That was the beginning of asking religious questions."
Johannes Kneifel left prison as a Christian and – insecure in his new-found freedom – and found stability and a sanctuary in a Baptist church congregation. Instead of right-wing propaganda, he read the Bible; instead of engineer, his new dream job was now pastor. After a one-year internship with the Baptists, Kneifel decided to study theology.
His wrote down his story – from neo-Nazi to pastor – in a book. For him, it was the most painful reflection possible on his own life. For critics, it was just more evidence that the former neo-Nazi was looking for attention and wanted to make a name for himself - an accusation that Kneifel does not accept. "People who leave the right-wing scene are often pushed into silence and anonymity because with such a past it is difficult to find acceptance in society," he said.
A role model
Soon, Kneifel began work as a pastor in an independent protestant Baptist congregation. He wanted to work where others had also gone astray. He especially wanted to work with children and teenagers and hoped he could help them with his own biography.
He says he's discovered that "with my past I can be someone to talk to for people who would have never talked to other church representatives."
The most difficult thing for him is, "to keep telling myself that my guilt is redeemed and that I have the chance to start fresh; a chance given to me by God and by society." Only if he himself lives this new beginning, can he be a role model for others, he said: "I want to make people in similar situations realize that they can get out of it and that they can start a new life."