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Fighting the Mainstream “88”: Opposing Right-Wing Youth Culture

 

Introduction

Twelve years ago, large groups of casual bystanders accompanied by only a few police officers watched idly or even cheered as young right-wing extremists, in a perverse outburst of xenophobia, trapped more than 100 Vietnamese immigrants in a burning asylum seekers’ home.  The events at Rostock-Lichtenhagen (and a few similarly violent episodes since the fall of the Berlin Wall) received widespread media attention and became the public’s representation of right-wing movements. The public has seen little, though, of the thousands of individual assaults on foreigners and peoples of color that occurred throughout Germany during the last 15 years. Only since 2000 have politicians, the media, and the public at large begun to realize that Germany has an entrenched daily life culture of right-wing sympathies amongst not only fringe adherents of extreme right-wing organizations but across the social spectrum. Unacknowledged fragments of racist and xenophobic opinions prevail in all societal discourses—a situation that many now trace to a developing right-wing culture amongst the youth, a group particularly ignored by the public spotlight in the 1990’s. Especially in small and rural districts of former East Germany, right-wing youth have managed, through unorganized strategies of fear and intimidation, to control not only the streets, but the modes of cultural expression. With the blossoming attention given to these groups, several programs have arisen to stem the spread of right-wing youth culture. This paper will describe and assess these programs after an initial discussion of this brand of youth culture and the problems it is causing across Germany today.

Cultural and Ideological Identity of Right Wing Youth

Amongst youth groups, the Centre for Democratic Culture, a Berlin-based NGO (non-governmental organization) that observes and analyzes new trends and recruitment strategies among right wing organizations and develops counter-strategies, distinguishes between three degrees of right wing involvement: Those that participate in right-wing extremist youth culture but have only fragmentary ideological views are regarded as right-wing extremist-oriented youth. Those that have regular contact with right-wing extremist organizations, are members of neo-Nazi organizations or of the Kameradschaften (so called comradeships), or hold manifested right wing extremist opinions are termed right-wing extremist youth. Once they hold positions inside organized right-wing extremist groups, they are referred to as the right wing extremist cadres.

However, right wing youth culture is not only about right wing extremist ideology. It is a widespread socio-cultural phenomenon. The right appeals to youth not only through racial slogans but also by targeting emotionally charged aspects of teenage life such as music, lifestyle, and peer groups. Music plays a crucial role in this context for it is often through listening to right wing extremist music that teenagers are being drawn into right wing youth culture. There is a vast amount of so-called Rechtsrock, right-wing rock that includes examples of Rock, Dark-Wave, Heavy Metal Techno, and even folk music, all of them promoting hate-speech. Apart from music, ssymbols and codes of speech as well as ways of dressing and haircuts are all parts of the identity of the right wing youth. Numbers are being used as a substitute for the letters of the alphabet, meaning that 1 equals A, 8 equals H, etc. Codes such as “88” for “Heil Hitler,” “18” for Adolf Hitler, or “28” for the banned “Blood & Honor” movement refer to the time of National Socialism, to the Teutonic world, or to international racism. It is especially from these sources that right-wing extremist youth draw elements of their particular culture. 

Regarding clothing, the spectrum ranges from explicitly rightwing extremist brands such as “Consdaple” and “Masterrace” to brands such as “Lonsdale” and “Fred Perry.” The latter two can frequently be seen at right-wing extremist demonstrations. However, they are not necessarily indicators of right wing extremist activity, as they are also worn for fashion by non-right-wing youth.  Just a year ago, wearing a sweater of the popular brand “Thor-Steinar” implied right-wing extremist thinking; nowadays, it has become (right) mainstream fashion. It is hard to distinguish fashion from explicitly right-wing extremist-wear since, as with any aspect of youth culture, it is frequently difficult to identify. As right-wing extremism is not only an ideology but also a fashion culture, it is perpetually altering its image. “Radical right youth culture is a picture that is not all that clear,” as Catharina Schmalstieg, who is a member of the Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism in Berlin, puts it.

The Role of Right-Wing Adults

The right has organized efforts to dominate youth culture. In particular, the right-wing NPD (the National Democratic Party of Germany), which is playing an important role in the right extremist movement in Germany, and their youth organization (JN, Young National Democrats) are strategically organizing summer camps for youth, trying to befriend schoolchildren, buying them alcohol, and of course selling them their views. This support network can be particularly important for youth who feel distanced from their other peers. Beyond that, the Kameradschaften who belong to the neo-Nazi spectrum have begun projecting “good boy” images, establishing tutoring programs, leading youth groups, and generally helping old women to cross the street. This gives them direct access to easily influenced youth and further gains the respect of parents. Many adults are either silent as their children become involved in these groups or tacitly support them.

While the youth create an environment friendly to the right wing on the streets, right wing adults who infiltrate the economic and civic sectors have assisted them. Forming networks of businesses and gaining access to civic positions, notably the police, has done much to increase the power of the right wing movement in certain areas, creating a friendly, helpful environment for its members and improving its image amongst onlookers. The most extreme manifestation of this phenomenon is the relatively recent concept of “no-go” zones, areas of influence which right wing extremists, through intimidation, violence, and the previously mentioned networking, attempt to create in certain districts. “No-go” zones are to be specially designated, foreigner-free bastions of German life. To the Kameradschaften, these areas are known as “national befreite Zonen” (“nationally liberated zones”). This “promised land” vision gives right-wingers immediate goals to rally around, while simultaneously enhancing their influence over all sectors of life.

Right-Wing Mainstream 

In many regions in Eastern Germany, but also in a growing number of towns in the Western part, right wing violence is an omnipresent threat for everyone who is of non-German ethnic origin. Neo-Nazis and other right-wing gangs have designated numerous areas as “no-go zones” for immigrants, Jews, gays, handicapped and homeless people or for those who demonstrate their affiliation to an alternative youth culture. Wearing a hip-hop outfit or listening to rap music can be hazardous to your health in certain neighbourhoods. Contrary to popular opinion, these violent assaults are not so much carried out by organized right-wing extremists, but by youth that belong to the broad group of the right-wing youth culture. These assaults, beating up other people or chasing them, are usually unplanned, instead arising out of the group as spontaneous acts of violence. Often, alcohol plays a crucial role in these group acts. 

Still, it is not only the violence itself that poses a problem but also the right-wing groups’ domination of the street. By threatening to use violence and by appearing in the public as strong groups openly showing their racist views through symbols and clothes, they create an atmosphere of fear amongst all those who do not belong to the right wing. This is especially the case for large rural districts in the East. While there are extreme-right wing organizations throughout Germany, in larger cities such as Berlin, it is difficult for them to establish a widespread right-wing youth culture. Youth in such areas simply have too many alternative associations and are too mobile to be dominated by any one movement. If the right wing has taken hold of one block, there are many more within easy reach for youth to inhabit. In rural areas, however, where opportunities for association are fewer and where the “in-group/out-group” mentality is more prevalent, it is much easier for right wing groups to take hold. A few actively involved youth can create an atmosphere of fear in the neighbourhood streets, giving the rest little option but to imitate their dress and music so as not to become targets. 

“Rightist groups can create cultural hegemony where no other groups are allowed; everyone has to dress like them so as to blend in,” says Catharina Schmalstieg. “Just a few students with radical right affiliations who are supported by adults can ruin the climate in a school.” Speaking about the situation in Brandenburg, Claudia Luzar from the Opferperspektive, an NGO for victims of right-wing extremist violence, says that teenagers “have to choose to which group they want to belong. In smaller towns, they can only be part of the right-wing group or be mute.” The unwilling either have no youth group alternatives, or find that what once were alternatives have already been infiltrated by the right. Once this happens, though, right-wing culture has become the dominant youth culture in the region. The right-wing mainstream thought prevailing among the youth has dramatic consequences. As Stefan Rudschinat, who also works for the Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism in Berlin puts it, “In Eastern Germany, there is a whole generation growing up with a lack of democratic values, and the political parties have not realized the seriousness of the problem.” 

Lure of the Right Wing

In order to pull youth away from right wing associations, it is essential to have a clear understanding of what it is precisely that can attract such large numbers of youth to right-wing extremism, or at least to right-wing culture. The answer, as always, is partially historical. While not by any means an exclusively East German issue, reports do indicate that right wing culture enjoys a particular affinity amongst the youth in eastern districts. Timo Reinfrank, staff member of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that supports projects enforcing civil society and democratic culture, explains that the reason behind this may be found in the nature of the authoritarian GDR (German Democratic Republic)  rule. Unaccustomed to democratic discussion in GDR times and thus now lacking acquaintance with democratic values, the present generation of East Germans and their children are naturally susceptible to the potentially anti-democratic ideas of the extreme right. When the wall finally fell in Berlin, neo-Nazi cadres entering from the West to organize right wing networks found willing assistance from a generation of youth eager to accept right wing philosophies, adopting them with the authoritarian political culture they learned from the GDR.

Apart from reasons already touched upon such as the problem in small towns or rural districts in eastern Germany where right-wing youth culture is the only youth culture available for teenagers, there is also a cultural attraction to the right. When youth identify themselves with music and dress, right-wing youth culture becomes one fashion amongst many others competing for attention and adherents. Right-wingers strive against other alternative youth, most notably hip-hoppers and punks, to dominate the local disco and monopolize concert venues. Their style of dress easily becomes mainstream in certain areas, and as right-wing groups have begun distributing free CDs containing punk and metal music of the right, the infiltration of youth culture through the usual byways of cultural discourse is pre-eminently important. When the cultural interchange of youth is nearly synonymous with rebellion against the established modes of thought and expression, the radical right presents a particularly attractive avenue.

Finally, beyond historical and cultural factors already mentioned, there are very personal reasons for youth to become involved in the right wing. While this notion is challenged by some, Sascha Quäck, who worked as a social worker with right wing groups and later as a member of Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism, feels that a substantial proportion of the youth involved in right wing activity come from less attentive and less affectionate family circumstances. The opportunity to become an integral part of a group, to be warmly accepted, to hold a place (even if it is negative) in the public eye, and to fight against an enemy, offers a solid identity and support network which certain youth desperately need but do not receive at home.

Coping with the Problem

Since the formation of the new German constitution, the federal government has had a constitutional mandate to ban all antidemocratic symbols and organizations. The National Socialist Party was outlawed early on, along with the swastika and the “Heil” salute. In more recent times, symbols have been banned and the hate-band Landser has been prohibited from promoting right wing extremist thought. 

The first real attempts to combat right wing youth in Germany in the beginning of the 1990s focused entirely upon the most extreme manifestations of the organized movement. The thought prevailing amongst the politicians was that these violent youth turned to such activities because they lacked other diversions to occupy their time. The federal government thus instituted programs such as AgAG (Program Against Aggression and Violence) to conduct social work with obvious right wing extremists. Social workers created youth groups and soccer clubs to pull right-wingers off the streets and did not focus very much upon trying to address the political views of the youth. These programs, according to Sascha Quäck, had little success for three reasons: (1) the groups provided an opportunity for right-wing youth to concentrate and express their usual lifestyle, especially when right wing adults managed to become the group leaders, (2) the program lacked clear aims, and (3) right wing ideas were held not only by overt skinheads and neo-Nazis but also by a much broader contingent of youth. 

In 2000, due to increasing numbers of violent incidents, politicians, responding to public worries, began to implement a slew of new programs. CIVITAS, a large program sponsored by the German federal government, acts as an umbrella program to distribute funds to several smaller NGOs. Programs such as XENOS, funded by the European Union, distribute funds to local initiatives fighting racism. The following are a few of the programs operating in Germany:

1) The Amadeu Antonio Foundation: Named after one of the first victims of right-wing violence after reunification, this is an umbrella organization that provides money, training, and networking opportunities for a variety of projects. It supports workshops for teachers, concerts (“Rock Against Right-Wing Violence”), theatre performances, and such NGOs as EXIT, which helps those involved in right-wing movements to extricate themselves. The foundation also focuses on strengthening civil society, allowing free expression of views, and enforcing democratic values, mostly in East Germany.

2) Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism: These programs work with schools, youth clubs, and administration, educating those in charge on how to recognize right- wing activities and supporting local inhabitants in establishing initiatives fostering a democratic counter-culture.

3) Netzwerk für Demokratie und Courage (Network for Democracy and Courage): This program’s main goal is education. Invited into schools by school officials, members conduct “project days” in which they foster democratic discussion amongst students and educate them about racism, xenophobia, and the right wing. “We intend to make them realize that right-wing extremism poses not only a threat to minorities, but to a pluralistic democratic society as a whole,” says staff member Michael Schwandt. Also, they encourage those students who have more tolerant opinions to voice their thoughts in challenging right-wing hegemony.

4) Opferperspektive (Victim’s Perspective): This NGO, as its name implies, takes the focuses upon victims of right wing violence. The group offers psychological help, arrangse for legal representation for victims, and helps to publicize incidents of violence. It also supports other alternative youth cultures, helping to present punk and hip-hop concerts. Finally, because police and politicians frequently are not sensitive to the political dimension of the right wing vs. hip-hopper “culture war,” Victim’s Perspective conducts educational campaigns on right-wing youth culture.

Those involved in these more recent activities against right wing youth culture range from cautious reservation to outright enthusiasm when discussing the success of their operations. Ann-Sofie Rusen from the Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism is a little unsure of how to measure their gains, but believes that her work is a “small step in the right direction.” Timo Reinfrank, on the other hand, thinks that the Amadeu Antonio Foundation “can be a little proud of its work.” The civil structures they have implemented and are still implementing to foster democratic values are self-perpetuating. Education on the community level has been strengthened. Sascha Quäck as well sees a positive tendency in public sensitivity to right wing violence. “Ten years ago, no one would have intervened to assist an assaulted foreigner; this is less likely the case now.” While the programs since 2000 have had some measure of success, he thinks that some of the lessons learned from the pre-2000 programs which worked directly with right wing youth should also be incorporated. The interviewees were, however, unanimous in asserting that future successes are contingent upon continued funding, which may be threatened as early as 2005.

Opinions and Recommendations

During our investigations and subsequent discussions, while we both agreed that the goal of curbing right wing extremism amongst youth was laudable, we found that we differed in our feelings regarding some of the means used to achieve these ends. We argued primarily over two measures: 1) that of the federal government banning right wing symbols and 2) organizations and the more grass-roots effort by Network for Democracy and Courage to educate children within the classrooms.

1) Federal Prohibitions

Mihailis’s Opinion

The program of the federal government which bans symbols and organizations affiliated with the extreme right is counter-productive and an infringement upon basic tenants of democratic society. On this issue, we must keep in mind that we are here concerned not with adults who, when denied an official structure, lose all ability to function, but with a loose cultural association of teenagers. The youth are, on all accounts, anti-organization and anti-establishment. While adults may have prohibited the band “Landser” and the organization Blood and Honour, far from suppressing the right-wing identity, they have created martyrs for the youth to salute with spray-paint and tattoo ink for years to come. Further, such a limitation of expression and organization is an explicit offence to the democratic process. We may continue to wonder whether Germany has truly escaped its authoritarian past when those in power, the politically central parties, not only ban the opposition but forbid with constitutional force even individual expression of related opinions.

Franziska’s Opinion

Banning right-wing extremist music or symbols may often not be effective and may sometimes even be counterproductive, as the popularity of forbidden songs among right-wing youth shows. However, the banning of music bands promoting hate-speech or of certain symbols referring to the time and ideology of National Socialism are justifiable actions for two main reasons. First of all, the core of right-wing extremist ideology is the fundamental and explicit rejection of democratic basic values for people that differ in their lifestyle or their appearance, those deemed “un-German.” Right wing extremism therefore poses a threat to democratic society as a whole. Attempts that seek to do away with democratic values have to be opposed. Banning explicit right wing extremist symbols and music serves to transmit this message to the public. Second, Germany has a very peculiar history when it comes to such experience. The lessons learned from National Socialism were, amongst others, that democratic values must be readily protected against those trying to destroy them. Therefore, the present Germany has to be very sensitive about such issues and cannot passively watch the spread of right wing extremism.

2) Education in Classrooms

Mihailis’s Opinion 

In some programs, adult leaders are invited into public schools to hold programs on democratic values, to foster democratic conversations among students.  This is a truly sensible project. However, the frequent use of the term “political education” by those describing their programs, I think, is indicative of why I am not entirely comfortable with the concept: Using public funds and entering public schools, adults, in the name of democratic principle, gain privileged access to school children to conduct “political education.” While told first to be “moderators,” the “educators” involved in the program are also instructed that they may need to be “leaders” of discussion, emboldening those students with “tolerant” opinions and “questioning” those of supposedly “xenophobic” leanings. In France, such programs are sensibly prohibited from advocating particular state policies in the classroom; however, German conversation “leaders” are permitted to favour certain democratic political agendas over others in unevenly matched debates with school children.

Franziska’s Opinion

When talking about “political education,” it is necessary to make a distinction between supporting specific opinions clearly linked to political parties and education about core democratic values such as human rights that democratic political parties do not differ about. Therefore, questioning right wing extremist thoughts and encouraging those that are not of right wing opinion has nothing to do with promoting political parties but with opposing anti-democratic thoughts and supporting democratic values. Even if the adults express a political opinion that can be linked to a certain (democratic) political party view (for example, conservative), they are obliged to make clear that this is their personal opinion and have to mention other political opinions (e.g., left-center) as well – giving the students a good example of what democracy really means. 

 

References

 

Interviews

Ann-Sofie Susen and Stefan Rudschinat, Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism (Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus), Ostkreuz – Netzwerke gegen Rechts, Berlin, June 24, 2004.

Catharina Schmalstieg, Mobile Units Against Right-Wing Extremism (Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus), Berlin, June 25, 2004.

Timo Reinfrank, Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, Berlin, June 29, 2004.

Sascha Quäck, Stiftung Sozialpädagogisches Institut “Walter May,” Potsdam, June 30, 2004.

Michael Schwandt, Netzwerk für Demokratie und Courage, Berlin, June 30, 2004.

Claudia Luzar, Opferperspektive, Potsdam, June 30, 2004.

References 

www.amadeu-antonio-stiftung.de

www.mut-gegen-rechte-gewalt.de (encyclopedia) 

www.netzwerk-courage.de

www.opferperspektive.de

Agentur für soziale Perspektiven e.V. (ed.), Versteckspiel. Lifestyle, Symbole und Codes von neonazistischen und extrem rechten Gruppen, Berlin 2003.

Antifa Nordost (ed.), Fight Back 2, Antifa Recherche Berlin, Mai 2003,  see: freeweb.dnet.it/treptow/fight_back2.pdf.

Ministerium des Innern des Landes Brandenburg, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz, Verfassungsschutzbericht Brandenburg 2003,  see:http://www.verfassungsschutz-brandenburg.de/sixcms_upload/media/17/2003_vorabdruck.pdf.

Senatsverwaltung für Inneres, Abteilung Verfassungsschutz, Verfassungsschutzbericht Berlin 2003, see: www.berlin.de/seninn/verfassungsschutz/abteilung/rechts.html.

Zentrum Demokratische Kultur (ed.), Lokaler Aktionsplan Lichtenberg. Für Demokratie und Toleranz – Gegen Rechtsextremismus, Fremdenfeindlichkeit und Antisemitismus, Berlin 2003.

 

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