EXIT Deutschland is an anti-Nazi organization that helps people get out of the far-right game they've found themselves tangled up in and rehabilitate. Founded by former police detective Bernd Wagner and former neo-Nazi leader, Ingo Hasselbach, in many ways it’s similar to a witness protection program—leaving a neo-Nazi cell or group is no picnic, and many people who make the decision to leave extremism live in fear of being attacked by the people they're trying to leave behind.
EXIT Deutschland hit the news last year with its ingenious ‘Trojan T-shirt’ idea. At the tenth annual right-wing Rock For Deutschland concert, black T-shirts emblazoned with skulls and the slogan "Hardcore Rebels" were handed out for free. However, once the T-shirts were taken home and washed, the design faded away to reveal a message that read: "What your T-shirt can do, so can you – we’ll help you break with right-wing extremism." The Rock For Deutschland organizers quickly sent round a mass text bulletin warning attendees of the swindle, but the deed was done. Afterwards, even some members of neo-Nazi forums admitted that it had been a good idea.
Far-right extremism has been rearing its ugly head again in Germany recently, and it’s mostly because of the NPD, the National Democratic Party; right-wing extremism dressed in a suit. There have been attempts to outlaw the party – once in 2003 and again in 2011, and numerous politicians have been calling for the party’s ban as it emerged that the NPD had ties with numerous Nazi terror cells. Recently, a cell of right-wing terrorists who called themselves the National Socialist Underground was also uncovered, the NSU blamed for the killings of eight foreign shopkeepers and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007. Despite this, neo-Nazis in Germany—once a fringe group—seem to be getting more brazen and active in regular society.
I spoke to Bernd Wagner, CEO of EXIT, criminologist and expert on right-wing extremism, to get a little more background on EXIT Deutschland and his thoughts on the emergence of right-wing parties in Germany and the rest of Europe.
VICE: Hey Bernd. How are you helping neo-Nazis who want to leave their right-wing lives behind?
Bernd Wagner: First of all, many individual conversations are conducted to clarify a person's background, the level of threat to their safety, their personal goals, obstacles for the exit, etc. Then an individual exit plan will be constructed. The important thing is: There are no financial and social benefits paid by EXIT. We can provide contacts, offer new perspectives and give answers to questions of safety or social issues. We will advise in every situation with our experience. The desire to leave the movement feeds on an individual's own doubts and an internal pressure to change his or her life. To these people, the ideology, the group, and the movement have become worthless.
What danger is someone in when leaving a right-wing movement?
Leaving the extreme right has many problems. On the one hand, the drop-out faces the threat of physical violence (revenge), psychological terror, persecution, and denunciation of his former "comrades." In addition, he or she is, for an indefinite period, part of a “society hole,” because his previous relations break off and a new circle of friends and acquaintances doesn't exist yet. If he or she is a known neo-Nazi, one enters a new environment of mistrust and rejection. Other problems include returning to the family, which isn't always easy after years spent as a neo-Nazi. Then there are labor, social, and education problems, the difficulty of having a criminal background—these are just a few of the problem areas dropouts have to deal with.
Have there ever been cases where a rehabilitated neo-Nazi has gone back to his right-wing beliefs?
Since the year 2000, 443 individual cases were processed. There have been a total of nine relapses since.
That's a pretty good hit-rate. What was the most difficult case you've worked on?
The most difficult case was “open” for seven years and is still pending. There is a woman and her children, who have left the movement and whom the father tries to access (he is still active in the scene). It turned out that German family law is totally inadequate to meet the “exit-problem.” The father tries to get in contact with the kids and the courts aren't flexible enough to respond to individual problems. The law is simply wrong, and in this case we see how human rights are betrayed by bureaucracy and unreflected law jurisdiction.
How did you come to work with Ingo Hasselbach?
I knew him since I watched him when I was a police detective, because of his extreme right-wing crimes. After his exit from the movement, we developed a close relationship and the idea of founding EXIT Germany came up.
The Trojan T-shirts. After one wash, their Hardcore Rebels logo would fade out to read: "What your T-shirt can do, so can you – We’ll help you break with right-wing extremism."
The Trojan T-shirt stunt was great. Whose idea was it?
The T-shirt was a collaborative idea of the EXIT team and an anonymous donor, who developed the production technology. Such public work is an important part of the EXIT model and necessary to maintain our presence in the movement. So, we are planning to conduct similar or completely different actions in the future.
Have the numbers of right-wingers coming forward to your group grown or shrunk in recent times?
The numbers are pretty constant.
The NPD is the ‘acceptable’ face of right-wing extremism. Is this group dangerous for the young people of Germany?
Definitely, yes. The party acts as a relatively central entrance to the movement. With their own youth organizations, targeted advertising in schools [e.g. the Project Schoolyard CD] and targeted youth work [in areas such as sports, youth fire brigade, youth clubs, etc.], the NPD is one of the most important recruiting centers for the extreme right.
Why have efforts to outlaw the party failed, in your opinion?
Because so many undercover agents are involved in the leadership of the NPD, German courts cannot decide whether the information received against the NPD is credible. Also, as is often the case, the problem was simply underestimated by the authorities.
A lot of far-right parties in Europe are very anti-immigration. What are your views on the immigration situation in Europe? Is it being used as a tool by these far-right parties as an excuse to employ racism with ‘reason’?
Look at the central arguments of the NPD: That immigration is directly connected to labor market competition, that they want compensation for the failed family policies of the Democrats, that it leads to crime and social parasitism. Therefore, the NPD uses immigration directly and openly as a means of recruiting voters and members. Immigration makes for good propaganda.
Finally, the work you do is admirable but it must be very difficult at times. Has there ever been a time when you have been close to walking away from it all?
Yes. Unfortunately that's almost constantly the case.
To find out more about EXIT Deutschland, go here.