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Perpetrators and Victims – Some Responses to right-wing extremism in Germany

Modern right-wing extremism in Germany is extremely diverse. Long gone are times when neo-Nazis were recognized because of their outspoken appearances. Modern German right-wing extremism is hard to identify; moreover, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between extreme left and right rhetoric and movements. The right-wing scene is organized in many ways, such as in political parties, or in comradeships and loose associations. All of these diverse groups, however, share an ideology of xenophobia, racism and hostility towards democracy. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution reports that in 2007 more than 30,000 people were associated with right-wing groups, 10,000 of whom were regarded as violence-prone; 17,176 criminal offences were filed of which 980 were violent. Since 1989, more than one hundred victims have been killed in violent, right-wing extremist attacks. 
 
While the statistics above point to a great number of easily identifiable victims, it seems possible that these numbers do not capture all victims of right-wing extremism.  For example, what about family members and friends of victims?  Most people would easily concede that these groups are also clear victims within a broader definition of victimhood.  Yet there are further cases which might provoke heated debate.  Could one consider the children of right-wing extremist parents as victims?  Or perhaps more controversially, could one consider some of the less-involved, right-wing youth extremists as victims of economic deprivation and neglect and thus easy prey for demagogic propaganda? Furthermore, what about individual German citizens who witness right-wing extremism? Are they bystanders? Victims? Or even perpetrators? It seems plausible to make a case that in modern Germany there is a blurring of the line between perpetrator and victim.  Who and what exactly is a victim, and who and what exactly is a perpetrator?  Furthermore, what efforts are necessary to foster reconciliation between the two?  Are there any?  Is it even possible?  And finally, what attempts are actually being pursued today in Germany to foster reconciliation between perpetrators and victims?

Where to Draw the Lines?

Going to the party congress of the German National Democratic Party (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands, NPD) is not what most self-proclaimed democrats would usually do. Yet, Sebastian Weiß, a student who loves to write and regularly publishes articles in different newspapers, recently did just this; in May 2008, Weiß went to a NPD party congress in Bamberg, Germany.  As he told us in an interview, he likes being confronted with opinions that run counter to his own. Weiß found the experience shocking and decided to write about his feelings during the event for an online German youth magazine, SPIESSER.de. Two days after his article was published, he received an email from the editorial office of SPIESSER.de informing him that his article, together with a photograph of him, was published on a Nazi propaganda website under the headline, “My first time: Sebastian at the NPD party congress” (“Mein erstes Mal: Sebastian beim NPD Parteitag”). The website Deutschland Altermedia.info (de.altermedia.info) claims to provide “World Wide News for People of European Descent.” In response to articles, users can post opinions on the website. For example, the article on Sebastian Weiß received more than one hundred comments within twelve hours. Most comments threaten and or insult Weiß. Weiß was shocked by the reactions and did not really know what to do. In our interview, he explained, “I feel like a victim. I try though not to let it affect me, I try to block it off.” Should Weiß fear attacks from the right-wing extremist scene? “I don’t know,” he told us. 
 
Weiß is one example of an unorthodox victim of right-wing extremism. He has not been physically attacked, but he has been undoubtedly maligned by right-wing extremists. As earlier argued, the questions of who is a victim and who is a perpetrator are often blurred. It is difficult to draw clear demarcations. Yet, what the case of Sebastian Weiß shows is that right-wing extremism is present and requires urgent responses. Observing the response within German civil society through the lens of victims and perpetrators, we discovered a variety of initiatives. The initiatives address a wide variety of needs, including: providing support for the victims of right-wing extremists; educating citizens about right-wing extremism and thereby address root causes of the problem; supporting those willing to take action to build up initiatives; and even supporting neo-Nazis who are willing to leave the scene.  

Helping the Victims

ReachOut Berlin is a counselling center for victims of right-wing extremist, racist or anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin. It seeks to empower victims, raise public awareness and increase solidarity with victims. Victims often get in touch with ReachOut through information received from doctors, lawyers, or the police. The center also monitors cases of right-wing extremist attacks on the internet, and sometimes tries to establish contact with the victims. ReachOut not only supports and counsels victims in the period after an assault, but also supports witnesses as well as victims’ friends or family. Depending on the severity of the case and other counselling institutions involved, ReachOut may work with victims for weeks, months or years.  To learn more about ReachOut’s work with victims, we talked with the Center’s Director, Biplab Basu.
 
In the immediate aftermath of attacks, Basu told us that victims often agonize over feelings of their own guilt, and often search for a mistake in their own actions. Victims doubt themselves, inwardly posing questions such as “Maybe I made a mistake? Maybe I looked at him? Maybe I took the wrong S-Bahn?” ReachOut tries to mitigate the victims’ feelings of guilt. In many cases, it is difficult for victims to deal with the fact that no one came to their assistance. An implicit accusation of passive bystanders usually remains. Basu notes that “our society needs to have a feeling of solidarity with those in need of help.” While he admits that it is not always possible to do something against potentially physically stronger perpetrators, “showing sympathy for the victim and making clear that no person has the right to beat another person is always possible.” In ReachOut’s experience, it is easier for victims to cope after others have intervened. 
 
For all matters, taking the victim’s side and perspective are of central importance for ReachOut. The organization provides trainings and workshops and has created a database on right-wing extremist, racist and anti-Semitic attacks in Berlin. ReachOut also provides free victim counselling, which, like all of its services, can be used anonymously. While victims’ family members or friends may reach a point where they cannot bear to hear attack stories anymore, ReachOut remains a safe space where victims can continually share their stories with active listeners in a shelter. As needed, the organization may also establish contact to local therapists for further sessions. 
 
According to Basu, “ReachOut’s work is not about defining what is good or bad, but rather about creating a wall between victims and perpetrators in the sense of creating a shelter for the victims.” The organization provides support for legal questions and accompanies victims throughout court procedures, sometimes simply by being physically present in the courtroom. While ReachOut leaves the decision over whether to pursue a court trial or not to the victim, if a victim does decide to pursue legal action, ReachOut provides support. Basu states that going to court “gives the victims the possibility for self-defence” and usually helps victims in the healing process. Nonetheless, according to Basu, there is usually no point at which victims forgive their perpetrators, particularly as perpetrators usually continue to stay within the scene. 
 
In line with maintaining solidarity with the victims, ReachOut avoids facilitating any sort of contact between victims and perpetrators. According to Basu, victims should not be forced to confront perpetrators.   Of course, if they feel the need to meet their perpetrators, they can arrange to do so themselves. Yet within the organization, there is no discussion on this issue. “Maintaining credibility for the victims” is the core principle of the organization’s work. As an organization, ReachOut must be “partial” to the victims. From his own experience, Basu tells us that victims do not express the wish to meet their perpetrators. When pressed on this issue, Basu makes the point that most perpetrators of right-wing extremism never actually leave the right-wing scene. In fact, those who do leave are mainly teenagers who were never deeply involved in the scene in the first place. Basu regards them as followers, and as they never really entered the scene, he argues that therefore they should not be seen as persons who truly opt out. 

The Local Project’s Approach

While ReachOut clearly works with victims, it does not work to counter or combat racism or right-wing extremism as such. ReachOut is, however, one of the many organizations that works closely with a group called the Mobile Counseling Team. Since 2001, the Mobile Counseling Team against Right-Wing Extremism in Berlin (Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus, MBR) has supported individuals, associations or organizations in Berlin which either want to or have become active against right-wing extremism, racism, and or anti-Semitism. According to Bianca Klose, MBR’s Director, the MBR does not try to recruit people, but instead supports those who take the initiative to help themselves. Before providing any advice, MBR tries to employ a hands-on and bottom-up approach to understand a given area in Berlin’s local right-wing extremism scene. Then MBR’s team of eight fully employed activists provides guidance on how to set up initiatives or how to raise funds for new projects to counter these movements. Thereafter, action plans are developed and implemented. 
 
When asked about the success of her project, Bianca Klose often redirects the question to the initiators of local projects, and asks them if they have accomplished their goals.  For example, MBR supports a local initiative against the Tønsberg clothing store in Berlin that sells clothing of a brand preferred by neo-Nazis, Thor Steinar.  Anna-Delia Papenberg, a Senior Fellow of Humanity-in-Action who participates in the project, said, “Yes, we have reached our goal insofar as we have received extensive media coverage. We managed to raise awareness for what the brand Thor Steinar actually represents. Most importantly, we succeeded in preventing this area from turning into a no-go area. We have a lot of foreign-born people living in the street where the shop is located who already feared attacks from the customers of the shop. Now after the initiative, it is rather the shop itself that should be in fear,” Papenberg explains, referring to the many attacks on the shop from the left-wing extremist group Antifa (Antifacists).  
 
Further reflecting on MBR’s impact, Klose notes that “the state cannot do what we are doing,” yet, she wonders, “what would people do if MBR did not exist?” MBR employees often work at nights and socialize with those involved in the projects after working hours. This working approach facilitates close cooperation between the civil society, politicians and police. In fact, Klose calls it a unique cooperation in Berlin, and notes that alliances against right-wing extremism now incorporate more partners than ever before. Yet while MBR is active in sensitizing local neighborhoods to right-wing extremism and rightist argumentation, Klose admits that there are far too few activists in Berlin who speak out and take action against right-wing extremism.
 
Through her work at MBR, Klose finds one area in civil society’s response to right-wing extremism particularly important, yet tricky. This is the provision of support programs for neo-Nazis willing to leave the scene, or the so-called Aussteiger. She criticized the support program of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Bundesverfassungsschutz, Aussteigerprogramm für Rechtsextremisten) for being poorly implemented and she stresses the importance of emphasizing a non-governmental program. She points to Exit Deutschland as an alternative.  

Getting out of the Scene

In existence since 2000, Exit Deutschland is a support program for neo-Nazis who wish to leave the right-wing scene. It helps those who need assistance to help themselves. Financed by the Amadeu Antonio and Freudenberg foundations, Exit Deutschland is an established NGO. The organization’s approach is not to try to convince people to leave the scene, but rather to provide support and alternatives to those who begin to reflect critically on the neo-Nazi scene. Exit helps neo-Nazis to set up new contacts and provides them with support. Exit also actively pursues prevention. For example, a new project within Exit deals with family support; the organization gives support to families in order to protect their children from entering the right-wing scene. 
 
According to Matthias Adrian, a formerly prominent neo-Nazi now working for Exit Deutschland, the organization never actively tries to recruit people, but always waits until they first approach Exit via phone or email. As a first step, Exit evaluates the situation of those willing to leave the scene. An analysis examines from which part of the scene the individual comes and where they were active. Exit then creates a security profile that assesses possible dangers for the respective person. A needs-based concept for leaving the scene is subsequently developed. As a second step, in something resembling group therapy, Exit tries to evaluate and discuss the right-wing extremist ideology together with other former neo-Nazis. 
 
Exit has, over the years, supported about four hundred neo-Nazis. This number compares favourably with the exit program of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Some explain this through the fact that Exit Deutschland is an NGO and as such is not part of the state, unlike the program run by the Federal Office; a further explanation could be that neo-Nazis perceive the threat of legal prosecution to be lower when they contact a non-governmental organization instead of the state authorities.  In working directly with former neo-Nazis, Matthias Adrian stated that it is important “to have the right feeling with a person.” This can only be judged through experience and personal assessment. Exit has a pool of experts who either work voluntarily or on a paid basis for the organization. The experts have a range of diverse backgrounds; some are former neo-Nazis, policemen, psychologists and social scientists. When asked about the support program of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution Adrian states that “everything that harms the scene is helpful.” In his view, Exit provides an alternative to the state-run program that may attract another category of right-wing extremists who do not feel comfortable going through the Federal Office. And he is proud to note that Exit has given support to more former neo-Nazis during the past years than the state-run program. 
 
Bianca Klose from MBR stressed the need for Exit as an alternative to the state run project. While she was quick to criticize the group for a lack of transparency, Exit Deutschland provides support to neo-Nazis willing to leave the scene. From her own experience she has observed more and more neo-Nazis getting in touch with Exit while in prison. But, as she sceptically noted, “starting a family, taking up employment or expressing a will to leave the scene may improve the conditions of imprisonment.” And in the end, while it might be easy for a neo-Nazi to leave the NPD, Klose believes that even ex-neo-Nazis will always remain everyday racists who “don’t realize that all humans are alike.” 
 
In dealing with questions of victims and perpetrators, almost every former neo-Nazi has to face the question of guilt and sorrow at some point. Yet according to Adrian, we must distinguish between two groups of people; as he clarifies, “not every ex neo-Nazi is a violent criminal.” When helping neo-Nazis to leave the scene, Adrian says it is critical to determine whether a neo-Nazi has committed violent acts because of his/her political conviction or whether the political ideology was only used as an excuse to commit crimes. In the case of the former, violence is less likely to occur again after the neo-Nazi has left the scene. In the case of the latter, e.g. violent criminals who use extremism as an excuse to do what they would do, with or without an ideological affiliation, therapy is longer and contains anti-aggression and conflict training to manage and hopefully change behavior. 
 
Adrian admits that meeting victims has been a special and intense experience for him. He also met Jews in a community in Frankfurt/Main and would discuss matters of intolerance with them. He says that “experiencing the atmosphere of fear in which these Jews lived has been life changing.” Adrian also told of a trip he took with former neo-Nazis to visit the former concentration camp of Auschwitz in Poland; he commented that activities like this were truly helpful. Adrian is greatly in favour of meetings between perpetrators and victims as long as the victims to agree to this. It can be a healing process to get together with the former enemies or victims and be confronted with their point of view. 
 
Of all the people with whom we spoke for this paper, only Matthias Adrian, the former neo-Nazi, was fully in favor of fostering meetings between victims and perpetrators.  Others, perhaps understandably, were reticent. What does this tell us, and what can we learn from it? Is it the case that these types of reconciliation meetings are necessary? Or are they only helpful for the perpetrators? Why is there a seeming reluctance from victims? Are victims simply, and perhaps justifiably, sceptical about former perpetrators’ genuine interest in reconciliation? Moreover, what about non-traditional perpetrators and victims? For example, is it possible that children identify as victims? Or is it possible for us to view politicians, in some cases, as accountable and thus as perpetrators? What does one need for reconciliation and forgiveness to occur? How can one best facilitate this?  Are courts the answer?   It is unclear as to how far this discussion can go. 

One Answer Back

Sebastian Weiß decided not to remain a victim. He finds it frustrating that he cannot name his perpetrators and, in this sense, has no one to direct his accusations against. He regrets that “an exchange of opinions is impossible. I feel like a victim. I completely disagree with the point of view of the people commenting on my article and that is why I answer back now.” With support from the law department of his university, he has decided to file charges against the website which published his article and photograph and against the unknowns who threatened and insulted him with their comments. He expects a court decision within two years.  
 

References

Interviews

Anna-Delia Papenberg, Mitte gegen Rechts, July 3, 2008
Bianca Klose, Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus (Mobile Counseling Team against Right-wing Extremism in Berlin), June 26, 2008
Biplab Basu, ReachOut Berlin, June 30, 2008
Matthias Adrian, Exit Deutschland, June 27, 2008
Sebastian Weiß, student and independent journalist, July 1, 2008

References

www.mbr-berlin.de
www.netz-gegen-nazis.com
http://www.bpb.de/themen/R2IRZM,0,0,Rechtsextremismus.html
www.reachoutberlin.de
www.weisser-ring.de
www.exit-deutschland.de
http://www.verfassungsschutz.de/de/arbeitsfelder/af_rechtsextremismus/
http://ida-nrw.de/html/frechtsext.htm
www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de
http://de.altermedia.info/general/mein-erstes-mal-270508_14401.html
www.fes.de/rechtsextremismus/
www.info-rechtsextremismus.de
http://mittegegenrechts.blogspot.com/
 
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