Ex-Members of the Far Right Warn of Life They Left

Middle School Students at an assembly i i

Middle school students in Boehlen, Germany, listen to an ex-skinhead and a former neo-Nazi political activist tell what it's like to be a part of far right groups. Khue Pham, for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khue Pham, for NPR
Middle School Students at an assembly

Middle school students in Boehlen, Germany, listen to an ex-skinhead and a former neo-Nazi political activist tell what it's like to be a part of far right groups.

Khue Pham, for NPR
Curbing the Far Right

Read more about one German man's efforts to limit the far right's influence in his community.

Holding a picture of a German soldier i i

Trying to de-romanticize World War II, Michael Ankele shows students a picture of a German soldier from that time. He also read part of the soldier's letter home, which spells out his miserable experience in the war. Khue Pham, for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khue Pham, for NPR
Holding a picture of a German soldier

Trying to de-romanticize World War II, Michael Ankele shows students a picture of a German soldier from that time. He also read part of the soldier's letter home, which spells out his miserable experience in the war.

Khue Pham, for NPR

Germany is trying to fight rising neo-Nazism by, among other things, helping individuals deep in the far right scene to get out, get a job and a get new life.

But first those targeted have to want to leave.

Two Germans who were heavily involved in the far right scene decided, ultimately, to leave. They are now viewed as traitors to the far right by their former peers.

Growing Up in the Far Right

Tanja Privenau was born in West Germany in the 1970s, but she was raised on the ideology of Hitler's Third Reich. Her stepfather was jailed several times for denying the Holocaust. From a young age, her mother and grandfather taught her that foreigners and Jews were blocking Germany's rightful place as a world power.

"Adolf Hitler was a big idol for me. My grandfather always told me stories about the war and portrayed it very positively," Privenau says. "He said he never saw any evidence of Jews being gassed and that it was all propaganda and lies."

Privenau soon was a young leader in the radical political scene. She says she became fanatical about restoring Hitler's Germany.

"The far right scene gives you this feeling of camaraderie [and] community. At first, it's a nice feeling," Privenau says. "There are people who think like you do, and you're all working for the same thing."

Leaving the Scene

By the time she wanted out years later, Privenau was married to another neo-Nazi, a violent man, she says. She had five children. The oldest is mentally handicapped, and negative reactions to him from her far-right comrades gave her a first taste of doubt in her chosen ideology.

It took several years to actually escape the life she now found insulating and isolating. In those several years she teetered between her old and new mindset.

"When comrades came over it was like a double life. I put on an act and forced myself to participate in political conversations I didn't believe in anymore," Privenau says. "The freedom that I thought I was getting in the far right scene, I wasn't really getting. I have freedom only now, after I've left all that behind."

Federal Support Programs

She physically left a few years ago, but Privenau is not entirely free from the neo-Nazi scene. Afraid of revenge, she has a new name and a made-up family history.

Privenau escaped the far-right world with the help of programs that aim to provide logistical and emotional support. There aren't a lot of participants. One federal government program had 1,000 inquiries since it began six years ago, but only 20 percent were considered serious and only half of those were offered help.

Arthur Hertwig, who is project leader for the Right and Left Extremism Program in Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution, says with an issue like this, you can't measure success by the numbers.

"It's a signal to society at large and the far right groups that the government isn't willing to just let people go," Hertwig says. "We were looking for something supportive to do, something apart from just repressive measures."

Young and Out of the Far Right

At a middle school assembly in a small community in eastern Germany, an ex-skinhead, now with dreadlocks, gives students the inside scoop on the extreme right. His name is Dennis, and he only gives his first name because he fears retaliation from the far right.

Dennis speaks openly and easily to the students; he's been doing this for several years now. But another recent dropout, from far right political activism, speaks hesitantly. He says he's still getting used to his status as a former right winger.

A social worker moderates, telling the students that people find far right views attractive when they have no other options. Then he tells a gruesome story about a drunk neo-Nazi who broke a young boy's skull.

The kids pay close attention during the two-hour presentation. They want to know exactly which symbols and sayings are illegal in Germany. They want to know whether neo-Nazis' privacies are violated if they're closely monitored. And they want to know whether either of the men in front of them ever beat up children. Dennis, the former skinhead, says that he never beat up children.

Experts say people are often attracted to the far-right because they feel that it's the only place where it's okay to express pride in being German after World War II. Dennis says pride is fine, but not exclusion or violence.

"It's okay to love your country. I love my home country too. But you must never forget every person is a human being who has dignity, just like you," Dennis said. "When you turn against others, you lose your dignity. You're not a human being any more."

This represents a radical shift of ideas for Dennis, but the school presentation doesn't explore the notions of equality and diversity any further. It's all about the practical realities of the far right scene. Michael Ankele, the moderator, says that's intentional.

"I want to reach out to nationalists too. I want to reach out to everyone, even those who have strong beliefs," Ankele says. "I just want to plant this seed somewhere in their heads: be careful, it can happen that you're losing control [and] that you're getting totally off course."

Questioning Political Beliefs

Dennis says he began to question rightist ideology because of a practical matter. He and another skinhead made a bet to grow their hair long. He calls it a whim, not an intentional challenge to skinhead values. But it wasn't well received by his skinhead friends.

"They all got grossed out by it. And they didn't want to have anything to do with me any more — because I looked different, because I was different," Dennis says, "even though I still taught the same things, at least at first."

He was viewed as a traitor, as was Privenau. Even with a new name, home and job, she still fears her ex-husband could kill her.

"The other danger I see from my husband — and my mother — is that they would take my children away. Even if they had to kidnap them," she says.

In their view, she says, she's withholding her children from the great Nazi cause.

A German Man Tries to Curb the Far Right's Impact

Olaf Boenk in front of his vandalized home i i

Boehlen resident Olaf Boenk openly tries to counter far right efforts to influence young people in the area. His car and house have been vandalized in return. Khue Pham, for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Khue Pham, for NPR
Olaf Boenk in front of his vandalized home

Boehlen resident Olaf Boenk openly tries to counter far right efforts to influence young people in the area. His car and house have been vandalized in return.

Khue Pham, for NPR
The Life They Left

Read more about the experiences of leaving Germany's far right.

Olaf Boenk motions across the road, pointing out a blue BMW with four ordinary young men inside but he cautions not to stare.

The BMW driver revs the engine, backs the car behind a tree — and the car is out of sight. He later says that those in the car were neo-Nazis.

Boenk is a local businessman in Boehlen, a small community with a bakery and a bus stop scattered among farms in eastern Germany. He's worried about the far right's influence in his community.

He estimates there are a dozen or so "hard-core" right wing extremists in Boehlen. But there are more in the next village, he says, and other small groups are scattered all over the region.

Reaching Out to Youth

Boenk organized an assembly at the local middle school as one step to fight extremism. Students heard a former skinhead and a recent dropout from Germany's extreme right talk for two hours about why they got out of the violent and radical scene.

The assembly is part of Boenk's ongoing attempts to stop the creep of far right ideas into the community. He's had his car and house vandalized in response.

Boenk says he suspects sympathetic students told the neo-Nazis in the car about the assembly.

A Limited Amount of Leisure Activities

Boenk says one of the biggest problems in Boehlen is there's nothing for young people to do. The local youth club closed down after the director allowed neo-Nazi concerts to be held there. The director was a follower of the extreme right, he says, something authorities didn't realize at the time she was hired.

There aren't many jobs here either — a fruit processing plant is the biggest local business. Boehlen is halfway between Dresden and Leipzig, two large and lively eastern German cities. But there's no train connection linking them to Boehlen.

Far right groups offer "leisure," Boenk says, including a lot of alternative music. "They even show up at schools and hand out newspapers aimed at kids," he said.

Boenk says that the groups aren't outsiders and he criticizes local officials for trying to keep things calm rather than root out right wing extremism.

They let neo-Nazis "get on with it," he says.

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