Rehabilitating Neo-Nazis

In the Magazine
Accused neo-Nazi leader Beate Zschäpe. Peter Kneffel/picture-alliance/dpa, via AP

At 23, with long hair and a colorful bandanna, “Jens” looks much like any other German university student. But the studiously scruffy demeanor belies a darker side. Jens is an ex-neo-Nazi or, in his own words, “the most dubious person that exists.” As he puts it: “Left-wing groups view you as a spy; right-wing groups consider you a traitor. And the political center is just uncomfortable with you.”

How Germany deals with neo-Nazis—and those who want to leave their ranks—is an issue that’s received a lot of attention as the trial of accused neo-Nazi leader Beate Zschäpe has gotten under way in Munich.

Few people know as much about the issue as Daniel Köhler, a manager at Exit Deutschland, the leading NGO for the rehabilitation of German extremists. Since its inception 13 years ago, Exit has rehabilitated more than 500 right-wing radicals, with a relapse rate lower than 2 percent, according to the group. Once someone comes to Exit, they get a case manager who assesses the situation, says Köhler. “Are their lives at risk because of their defection? Do they have to move to a different city or state in order to minimize the threats against them? Do they need a new identity? Do they need therapy?”

For many, being a neo-Nazi is less about an ideology than about feeling strong in a group.

It’s an effective method to deal with a serious problem. According to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, one of the country’s domestic intelligence services, there were 22,400 right-wing extremists in 2011, down from 26,600 in 2009. However, during that same period, the number of neo-Nazis increased from 5,000 to 6,000.

Getting individuals out can affect the collective strength of the extremist group. “It creates a huge hole in their ranks,” says Köhler. “There’s no more-effective way of combating right-wing extremism.”

As a teenager, Jens, who can’t reveal his real name publicly, felt himself drawn to an extreme-right group because it offered the attachment and closeness he didn’t have at home. At 18, he founded his own group. “For many, being a neo-Nazi is less about an ideology than about feeling strong in a group,” he says. “But after some time I realized that these people just wanted to get together to drink alcohol.” Jens decided to join a more political group but, after a while, he found himself disagreeing with the group’s entire ideology. At 20, he was ready to leave. But the price of quitting is often a life in secrecy and fear, and so Jens turned to Exit, a group he credits with making the break possible. Though living in fear of reprisals can be difficult, “I don’t see myself as a victim,” says Jens. “You have to take responsibility for what you’ve done.”

ELISABETH BRAW covers international affairs for Metro International.

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