In Germany, the Role of Family in Recruiting Members into Neo-Nazi Groups

This is the third installment in the #HealingFromHate blog series. Stay tuned for future blog posts in the series. And follow along on Twitter, #HealingFromHate.

In Germany, members of violent extremist groups are more often than not recruited when their family ties are severed in some way, causing young German men to find a sense of family elsewhere. In Healing from Hate: How Young Men Get Into—and Out of—Violent Extremism, Michael Kimmel, a leading expert on men and masculinities, shares how this occurs:

Since 2001, EXIT Deutschland has handled nearly five hundred cases of young skinheads and neo-Nazis who wanted to jump. Four out of every five were male, the average age was about twenty-six, and virtually all fell within the twenty-five–to–thirty-five range. These are not the post-adolescent Swedes or the long-committed ideologues in the United States [described in chapters 3 and 4 of the book].

Typically, the German youth engage while young, through recruitment either from the streets or, more often, in prisons. German prisons are teeming with immigrants, mostly Turks, and so an apolitical white prisoner soon finds “his people” among some of the harder-core Aryans. The young men enter the movement without much in the way of ideology, but they like the scene, connect to the music, and love the community and camaraderie they experience, especially after being loners for so long. From within the prisons, ironically, they feel for the first time that someone has their back. Many are unemployed, and those who have jobs are wage laborers or craft workers. Bernd Wenger [former East German police officer and founder of EXIT Deutschland] gave me a bit of a profile of them.

To begin with, he was quite certain that all of them had a “break” with their families in some way prior to their drifting into the neo-Nazi scene. Their parents were divorced or they grew up in foster care. Some were abused, one or two sexually. Some knew their sisters were being abused and felt powerless to help. “It’s not so much the abuse, or the broken home. It’s that feeling of injustice being allowed to exist, and that feeling that they are powerless to stop it. They all have felt that powerlessness—and they are absolutely determined never to feel it again.”

That observation, of course, matched my observations of every group I examine in this book. The experience of isolation, of emasculation and humiliation at having been abused or ignored or raped—these feelings compromise one’s sense of self, thus posing a core existential threat, and also, not coincidentally, compromise one’s sense of self as a man, capable of acting with power, autonomy, and purpose. Something essential has been stolen  and some of these guys seek an outlet for it on the streets. Of course, as I’ve said, it is not the case that all abused, ignored, or bullied young boys become neo-Nazi terrorists. There are many other paths that they can and do take. But the fact that virtually all those who drift into extremist politics come from such a background ought to suggest that we pay attention to these family variables.

Especially when those family variables parallel their political observations of society. Their fathers may have lost jobs, had to close the family store, or had the family farm taken away, and such losses often correspond with their observations that society is sinking into a degenerative state of decline and despair. “Almost every one speaks of the atomization of society, which they fear,” Wenger explains. “They want stronger institutions, stronger structures to act as a barrier to this general cultural decline.” They want a wall. They may have been happy to see the Berlin Wall come down, but they surely wouldn’t mind a new one, between “us” and “them.”

EXIT hopes to recommend alternatives to the “family” ties created with the Neo-Nazi groups:

EXIT tries to offer an alternative to that—not an alternative ideology, but an alternative experience. The opportunity to build a community of brothers (and sisters) committed to one another—and committed to staying out of the movement. Committed to helping these guys find ways to feel more masculine by helping them find steady jobs, thereby developing a sense of economic efficacy. Committed to helping them build a masculine identity anchored in their communities and in healthy relationships.

Read the first chapter of Healing from Hate. And see what others are saying about the book.

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