Four years ago, when he was the leader of a neo-Nazi group in Thuringia, a federal state in central Germany, Steven Hartung organized demonstrations and other political actions that promoted extreme right-wing ideology. He believed that ethno-pluralism — a view supporting ethnic or racial separation and opposing cultural diversity — was the only way to treat the illnesses of society, and that whoever rejected this view needed to be converted. Hartung said initiating street fights against the “enemies” of the ideology was part of his neo-Nazi group’s routine.
“In Thuringia there are not so many immigrants, so the enemies were the left-wing groups,“ Hartung recalled in an interview with the Forward. “Every person in our group was involved in violence towards other people. In right-wing extremism, the violence is a very important part of the ideology.”
Today, Hartung is no longer a neo-Nazi. He is one of about 500 people who have dropped out of Germany’s extreme right-wing scene with the help of Exit-Deutschland, an organization that supports people who want to break free from right-wing extremism and start a new life. Exit’s activities include counseling services for individuals, as well as campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. In one recent stunt, neo-Nazis were duped when their annual march through Wunsiedel, the town where Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, was originally buried, was turned into a walkathon to raise money for people who want to drop out of extreme right-wing groups. For every meter that the unwitting neo-Nazis marched, local residents and businesses donated 10 euros to Exit, raising a total of 10,000 euros.
There are an estimated 21,700 people with extreme right-wing views in Germany, according to the Federal Office of Protection of the Constitution, and about 40% are willing to use any kind of violence to promote their ideology. Fabian Wichmann, one of the organization’s counselors, said that among those who decide to leave extreme right-wing groups, some can disconnect without any problems, while for others, exiting is a challenging process.
“It is necessary to discuss [with the person who is exiting] what was the meaning of the ideology, what was the goal and what is your goal now,” said Wichmann, who counseled Hartung’s exit process in 2011. “We have to rebuild a new identity, a positive new identity looking forward.”
Wichmann said the first step for people who choose to exit right-wing extremist groups is to immediately cut all ties with other neo-Nazis. In Hartung’s case that was particularly challenging, because he had been part of neo-Nazi groups from a young age. Hartung first learned about Nazism at age 13. He discovered the ideology through extreme right-wing bands that use music to bypass Germany’s laws against the spread of Nazi symbols and propaganda. Two years later he began attending meetings and demonstrations of a neo-Nazi group near his hometown. At age 16 he stopped going to high school and got a job as a butcher’s assistant. He continued to be part of neo-Nazi groups until he was 23 years old.
“All my life I was a neo-Nazi, all my friends were in this scene and I didn’t have friends out of the scene,” the 27-year old Hartung said. “It was very difficult to say I am no longer part of them.”
Hartung’s home state of Thuringia, formerly part of East Germany, has seen more right-wing extremism than other parts of the country, including a series of murders of people of foreign origin between 2000 and 2006. Several mass protests by a xenophobic movement called Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of Europe have recently occurred in Dresden, another former East German city. According to Gereon Flümann of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, the overall popularity of right-wing extremism in Germany, as well as the number of people voting for the National Democratic Party, a far-right political party, is not on the rise.
“But I think some loose right-wing extremist attitudes have a very broad distribution in Germany, and that definitely is a problem that needs to be tackled,” Flümann said.
For Hartung, exiting the neo-Nazi group was not only difficult, it was dangerous. A few months after disconnecting from the neo-Nazi group that he had led, Hartung was interviewed on German television for a report about extreme right-wing dropouts. After the interview aired, Hartung received dozens of voicemails — he chose not to answer phone calls — from his former comrades. They expressed their contempt and disbelief about his dropout in a vulgar, threatening manner. Two days later, he saw a post on Facebook linking to an article that called for his murder, published on a neo-Nazi website.
“At that time I was very afraid of them,” Hartung said. “I moved to another city, and Exit helped me to have the security of police and so on, so that these people don’t find me.”
With the counseling of Exit’s Wichmann, Hartung set out to create a new life. He moved to Jena, a city in Thuringia that’s located 80 miles away from his hometown of Meiningen. He signed up for studies, choosing to pursue a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and sociology, which he is due to complete this year, at the university of Jena. Exit considers him a closed case.
Exit, which currently has about 35 open cases, has made a name for itself among neo-Nazi groups since it launched 14 years ago. Hartung said everybody on the extreme right-wing scene had heard about Exit’s work, as it raises awareness through innovative campaigns, such as the Wunsiedel march. In 2011, undercover Exit members distributed 250 T-shirts decorated with skull symbols and extremist slogans in a music festival organized by the NDP. When the recipients washed the T-shirts the initial stamps disappeared, exposing a stamp with a message, “If your T-shirt can change — so can you! We can help you get free of right-wing extremism. Exit-Deutschland.”
Exit is a not-for-profit organization that is supported by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working to strengthen democratic civic society and eliminate bigotry and hate in Germany, as well as by private donations and governmental funding. The federal government decided to support Exit because such a program sends a signal saying that “no one who would like to leave the right-wing extremist scene will be left alone and without support,” according to Frank Kempe, spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The kind of work Exit does is very important for German society, according to Flümann. He said those who support democracy must be welcoming toward former extremists who want to come out of the scene.
“We try to have a realistic approach in tackling right-wing extremism,” Flümann said, adding that the German government has a main focus on this field because of the country’s history. “Right-wing extremism will not be abolished — it’s normal pathology of the democratic state — but we try our best to strengthen democracy by enlightening about right-wing extremism.”
One common misconception about Germany’s neo-Nazis, according to Ralf Melzer, who monitors extremism for Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German not-for-profit promoting values of social democracy, is that they are all classical skinheads, young and uneducated, with a unique dressing style that includes black leather jackets and high boots: “You cannot characterize the typical German neo-Nazi.” People of all backgrounds and economic statuses, including scholars and academics, are part of the scene. “What you can say is to the contrary, that the whole scene is getting more and more differentiated,” Melzer said. “But they are united in their hostility towards democracy, towards equal human rights.”
Hartung said there was not much thought behind it when he first joined the neo-Nazi groups, that he was just “a dumb racist.”
“In the beginning, I thought all white people must fight against the enemies, and the enemies were the immigrants,” Hartung said. “Later, the enemy was the system; the police, the democratic state, the democratic system, the capitalism.”
Doubts about the logic of the group’s ideology crept in as Hartung matured and became more knowledgeable. After years in which he personally recruited many new members to the neo-Nazi group, Hartung gradually came to an understanding that the ideology he followed and promoted was not the right way to bring a better world. Today, aside from being a university student, he is also an activist against Nazi ideology. He believes extreme right-wing views are “the enemies of a free society.”
During a recent trip to Berlin, Hartung visited a squat of migrants from Africa under threat of deportation in Kreuzberg, which is considered to be the German capital’s most liberal, “leftist” district. The squat became a major meeting point for refugees and German activists who support the struggle for rights of migrants.
“These people were in the past my enemies,” Hartung said about the people he met there. “But I am no longer this person. I am a new person.”
Yermi Brenner is a Berlin-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter, @yermibrenner