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Tuesday, 10 April, 2001, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
Germany tackles neo-Nazis
Neo-Nazi demonstrators
Germany has seen a rise in racism in recent years
By Rob Broomby in Berlin

The German Government has banned 20 small neo-Nazi groups since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Its application to outlaw the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party itself is now being considered by the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

They had become ice cold, like stones and had no feelings

Martina, mother
But the government's strategy is rapidly changing.

It now wants to break the stranglehold that extreme right-wing groups have on their own members.

The policy is to provide help and support, particularly to vulnerable young people who want to quit the violent skinhead groups, or Kameradschaften. Such groups have been blamed for a wave of anti-foreigner violence.

The so called "exit" schemes, costing up to a $45,000 per head, could see disillusioned neo-Nazis receiving protection from their former comrades, help to find a new flat and support in finding work or training.

Teenage rebels

And there will be support for families with neo-Nazi children - families like Martina's, who live in a pretty village fountain in rural western Germany.

There are no concrete blocks, no depravation - just fields and farms. It is the last place you would expect to encounter a problem with Germany's extreme right.

NPD demonstration
The constitutional court is considering a ban on the NPD
But Martina's normal, middle class family was driven apart when her teenage son and daughter joined a far-right skinhead group called the White Power skinheads.

"We just noticed that the children had changed," she said. "They had become ice cold, like stones and had no feelings.

"At first we responded by telling them off, giving them lectures and forbidding them to do things, but that didn't work."

We would shout 'Adolf Hitler' in the street and I was proud when they thought we were idiots

Martina refused to give up on her children and eventually pulled them both out of the neo-Nazi scene. Her language is now that of psychotherapy rather than confrontation.

Martina's daughter, Katja, is just 16. She still has cropped hair, though now dyed bright colours, and she is working through the experience. She cites "personal reasons" and problems at school and within the family for joining the group.

Tiny in stature, and likeable today, she was once full of hate.

"I knew what the Nazis had done," she said. "You could use it to provoke society.

"We would shout 'Adolf Hitler' in the street and I was proud when they thought we were idiots.

"I felt we were against everyone."

Will it work?

The government's exit strategy is designed to help families exactly like Katja's.

Despite having quit the scene, Katja said she still gets mobile phone SMS text messages from ex-comrades wanting her to resume her activities. She is under intense pressure to return to the group.

I felt great after we had done it, I was so proud

"There are young people joining the skinhead or neo-Nazi scene, who are not really extreme right-wingers," said Junior Home Office Minister Cornelia Sonntag-Wolgast. "They just look for life in a group and they have no other contacts, so we try to get inside these groups, talk to them, and get them away from the scene.

"Afterwards you have to help them. "

The Federal Government now wants to take the battle to the top. They want senior neo-Nazis to give evidence against their erstwhile comrades in return for more lenient treatment in the courts.

One expert who already runs a fledgling exit-programme that has successfully turned round several neo-Nazis, told me anonymously he was critical of the government approach.

"They have to want to change themselves," he said. "If the government wants to concentrate on the high ranking activists they need a different strategy.

"I don't think it will be very successful. They are usually ideological committed and fanatical."

Others have warned that offering support to former neo-Nazis may send the wrong signals. But Cornelia Sonntag-Wolgast confirmed that direct payment had not been ruled out, although she was aware of the danger that paying neo-Nazis to leave might even encourage more people to cash-in.

"That mustn't happen," she said.

Moving on

In Katja's bedroom the word "Hate" is still scrawled on the wall, but now competes with the word "Love" for space. She still has some of the skinhead music that once fuelled the fires of her bitterness, though now controlled by her mother. The racist lyrics on banned CDs from groups like Landser and the Böse Unkles (The Evil Uncles) are a clear incitement to hatred.

But what Katja offers the experts is a valuable insight into the emotional mechanics of that hatred and the role of music in provoking it. Despite her youth, she has witnessed much violence and has taken part in attacks which have put people in hospital.

"I felt great after we had done it, I was so proud," she said, recalling one assault. "I would have been more proud still if I had gone to prison.

"In beating someone up, I thought I would have achieved something.

"Of course I see it all very differently now."

Katja has now entered a twilight world. She is seen as a Nazi to the local punks and foreigners who were once her adversaries, and she is seen as a traitor to the local White Power skinhead group.

Condemning 'too little'

The government scheme is designed to help young people like her from sliding back into the scene under the weight of peer group pressure.

Katja's mother Martina was a member of the peace and love generation. She has tried to do the right thing for her family. But holding a confiscated red stained baseball bat with a Swastika in the handle, she said it had not been easy.

"My daughter has kicked people on the ground," she said. "And that's very, very difficult to accept.

"But I know if my children had gone to prison I would still never have given them up".

For some experts, that softly-softly approach to winning back her children means understanding too much and condemning too little. For them, the victims of racial violence have to remain centre stage.

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See also:

21 Feb 01 | Europe
Germany sets up neo-Nazi hotline
08 Feb 01 | Europe
German racist attacks soar
10 Nov 00 | Europe
German Senate backs neo-Nazi ban
03 Sep 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Race hate in Germany
30 Aug 00 | Europe
German racist killers jailed
07 Aug 00 | Europe
Germany agonises over neo-Nazis
30 Jul 00 | Media reports
Germany agonises over bomb attack
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