How do you rehabilitate a young Neo-Nazi behind bars?
"You talk with them," says German social entrepreneur Judy Korn. In the past, German prisons showed films about Hitler and the Holocaust to try to reach such extremists. But Korn says re-integrating the young men happens with personal communication, not by showing them passive media.
And it turns out that helping Neo-Nazis change their ways requires the same five principles (see the sidebar below) that work on Muslim extremist youth and others who end up behind bars for violent or hate-motivated crimes. The chief skill to teach them: empathy.
"If you work with violent people, you can be sure at one point in their biography, they stopped having the ability to feel empathy for other people," says Korn, who has worked with right extremists since she was a teenager. She said most Neo-Nazis her team of trainers work with in 10 of Germany’s 16 states come from abusive homes with alcoholism and other problems. "If you train people to feel empathy for themselves, you can train them to be and feel empathetic for another person."
Korn’s organization—Violence Prevention Network—has worked with 500 such cases of incarcerated young skinheads, Neo-Nazis, and Muslim extremists in Germany since 2001. Her records show recidivism rates for the young men they work with is 30%, compared to 80% for all juvenile offenders in Germany. Her team of trainers can work with about 100 young people a year, but she would like to expand to work with more than 300. Other projects like Exit Deutschland also helps shuttle Neo-Nazis out of the scene, offering a witness protection type of program to young people who might fear violent retribution when they quit an extremist movement.
Germany tries to combat its National Socialist past by funding many nonprofits and government agencies to keep a close eye on far-right groups. It even plants thousands of undercover agents inside the extreme right, 6,000-member NPD political party, which sometimes hosts music and other events that recruit young people into extreme ideology. Political leaders in the country set up various government initiatives to monitor extremist behavior. Roughly 50 million euros from the European Union and German government go to funding prevention and deterrence programs in Germany each year, according to Korn. Other nonprofits such as The Nazi Documentation Center in Cologne present history so that German people, especially school children, know what happened in the past. Last summer, the group Exit Deutschland used a stealth campaign at an extremist rock concert in Thuringia. The group handed out free extremist T-shirts to 250 of the 600 people at the concert. When washed, the T-shirt had a message ("What your T-shirt can do, so can you.") and gave contact information for Exit Deutschland and encouraged the wearer to leave the group.
But the prevention efforts are not perfect. In November, two young right extremists committed suicide in the city of Zwickau and police found evidence that showed the men were responsible for murdering nine immigrants and a police officer in recent years. In 2010, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, estimated there were roughly 25,000 right-wing extremists living in Germany. That office counted nearly 16,000 politically motivated crimes by the far right that year, including 762 violent crimes. At the same time, Germany struggles to integrate the growing number of Muslim immigrants in Germany, a small percentage of whom turn to extremism. Germany faced a wake-up call after it was discovered that some of the 9/11 terrorists, like Mohammed Atta, had spent time in Germany.
Korn, an Ashoka Fellow in Germany, says some of this prevention and marketing work is good. But she thinks more money and time should be spent talking with Neo-Nazis behind bars, debating Germany’s right-wing NPD political party in public, and confronting the right-wing views on a human-to-human basis. Her organization has created standard training to deal with extremists, and her trainers learn debate-style skills in which they let the young extremists talk and then ask them questions that reveal the lack of knowledge or logic on which their views are based.
For example, she said a young Neo-Nazi recently told his trainer that the global financial crisis was caused by "Jewish bank executives." The trainer asked the young man to do research and back up that claim with analysis. He poked holes in the homework the young man did, proving his anti-Semitic assertion was unfounded. "We show when they are not well informed," Korn said. "We keep on asking questions." Similarly, an imam accompanies trainers in discussions with Muslim extremist youth and, with superior knowledge of Islam and a peaceful interpretation of the Koran, counters their assertions and backward notions.
Young men in German prisons can enroll in the voluntary "anti-violence" personal growth program for five months and meet with a personal coach once a week as well as in groups. They join the program, Korn says, because they are bored in prison and realize they are missing dimensions of self-control in their lives. Countering their extremist political, racial, or religious views is a secondary benefit.
"In prison, they are at a point where they are vulnerable," she says. Neo-Nazi leaders are often past the point of reform. But young men age 16 to 18 in the movement often find themselves socially trapped in their gangs and unable to control their violent responses. Korn’s program offers civic education discussions in democracy, human rights, gender, and other topics.
The organization, funded by government grants and private foundations and donors, follows up with them for one year after they leave prison and aims to help them find a high school degree, an apprenticeship, a job and self-confidence. It encourages and aims to help them relocate away from their previous city to avoid the old friends or family influences. Many of the young men have sad life stories. And 80% don’t have a high school diploma she says.
"They talk to you in a very unemotional way about their behavior," she said. "It’s like talking to a five-year-old boy and training their vocabulary." One key point for each young man is to talk through the crime that put them in jail, reconstructing the event in minute detail, and discussing their actions in a way that shows them the perspective of the victim, their responsibility for the crime, and the impact it made on society.
Would the same principles and approach work for drug-dealers and gang members in America’s juvenile justice system? "Absolutely," she says. "The reason most people become violent criminals and part of extreme scenes," is the same she says. "You find young guys who don’t feel like they have any worth, are unable to build relationships, and are at risk of gangs."
But, she cautions, "To do this kind of work, you have to understand the local culture" of a place. A teacher in Northern Ireland, for example, should know the history and culture of the region. Similarly in Sweden, the former Neo-Nazi Kent Lindahl started a group called Exit that helps extremists there leave the scene.
Rightist movements are on the rise in several European countries at the moment, causing increasing concern by officials. The EU recently created the Radicalization Awareness Network after Norwegian extremist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people last summer. It will spend $28 million in the next four years to help prevent extremism in Europe. While Germany has its share of ongoing problems with extremist communities, she worries about the right-leaning rhetoric coming from the political class in some Western European countries.
"In Germany, because of our history, we have a more respected movement against extremism. I don’t see the same in the Netherlands, Denmark, or France," she said. "In Germany, it’s not common to be educated and to have right wing, extremist opinions as freely as in those other countries."