Civil Society and Democratic Culture in Germany

Giovanni di Lorenzo and his Network Against Nazis

Logo der Homopage; Copyright: Netz-gegen-Nazis.deLogo der Homopage; Copyright: Netz-gegen-Nazis.deAt the age of 25, he was entrusted with his first TV programme, at 39 he became editor-in-chief of the renowned Berlin daily Tagesspiegel, in 2004 he moved to the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, where he assumed the same function: Giovanni di Lorenzo is one of the most prominent representatives of the German media scene. The German-Italian journalist has taken up arms against right-wing extremism.

Danger from the right

According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior, almost 6,000 right-wing offences, the highest figure for a long time, were registered between January and May 2008. At the same time, neo-Nazis have been making targeted attempts to infiltrate sports clubs and other charitable and public-benefit organisations. In May 2008, not wishing to stand by idly and permit these right-wing inroads to be made, Giovanni di Lorenzo, joining forces with prominent partners such as the German Soccer Association and the ZDF (Germany's Channel 2), founded the interactive information and advice website Network Against Nazis. Under the "Knowledge" section, the website offers a wide range of reports on the right-wing scene and its ideological background. In the "Action" section, interested persons can obtain advice on anti-Nazi initiatives and personal contact with right-wing extremists. There is also a discussion forum and a daily press review.

There are already a number of internet websites against racism and xenophobia. What makes Network Against Nazis different?

Giovanni di Lorenzo: First of all, you're right: there are numerous initiatives against right-wing extremism and they are doing a very good job. We asked ourselves what was missing – and hit upon the idea of addressing people's uncertainty: on our website, Netz-gegen-Nazis.de, citizens who come into contact with right-wing extremism in their everyday lives can exchange experiences – and learn from one another's experiences, too. Our Knowledge section also offers several hundred articles, ranging from articles on the history of National Socialism to current developments in the far-right scene. Visitors can therefore obtain comprehensive information and arm themselves with arguments.

The project was launched on 5th May. What provisional conclusions can you draw after the start-up phase?

Members of Bundesliga soccer teams Hamburger SV and Werder Bremen participate in the Network Against Nazis project. Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa The first few weeks were very exciting, as we didn't know what to expect. But hundreds of thousands of citizens took advantage of our offer, people who have to defend themselves against right-wing extremism in their everyday lives – school pupils and teachers, coaches and athletes, firemen and numerous other people. Many of them want to know what they should do. And they receive answers. The website is still very popular; in all, we have had more than 2.2 million visitors to date. In view of this success, we have decided to prolong the Network Against Nazis website, initially until the end of the year.

Actors, media makers, authors and soccer players speak out in favour of greater tolerance and civil courage in video clips. Do celebrities like soccer player Michael Ballack have any influence on right-wing extremists?

Well, naturally we're not completely naive. A dyed-in-the-wool neo-Nazi will not become an upstanding democrat on the spot, just because Michael Ballack advocates tolerance. Celebrities are nevertheless very important. People in small towns who are members of local groups fighting right-wing extremism often tend to be treated as outsiders, as outlaws. But if celebrities like Ballack support such campaigns, this will be assisting grass-roots groups immensely. Here in Hamburg, a very impressive scene took place during a German league match between Hamburg and Bremen, when the players unfurled a Network Against Nazis banner on the initiative of the management board of the HSV (Hamburg soccer club). Almost 60,000 onlookers then stood up and applauded. A fabulous signal and a message to those who sympathize with right-wing extremists – that they are certainly not the voice of the silent majority.

You stated that good democrats have the better arguments. Have there been any contacts with rightists who were prepared to listen?

Demonstration procession of right-wing followers in Recklinghausen; Residents give vent to their displeasure with posters. Copyright: Dirk Bauer/photoplexus There have been and still are right-wing interventions, but the democratic forces always prevail. For me, that's what counts and what I'm pleased about. We tried to launch a campaign that is not so concerned with reaching people who know the score anyway. We wanted to go where it hurts – that is to say, to the grass roots level. And who knows? It may perhaps be possible to persuade one or the other right-wing extremist to give the matter some thought!

National flags, motorcades, jumbotrons – did the German "party-mile patriotism" of the Euro 2008 summer overcome nationalism or rather encourage it?

In my opinion, the fact that the Germans have found a mode of enthusiasm for their own country, in the last few years in particular, that is relaxed and neither menacing nor militant has been of great assistance in the conflict with right-wing extremism. Proceeding from this basis, it is possible to distance oneself from right-wing extremists in a very self-confident manner – and take the wind out of their sails as it were.

In a 2006 survey, 39 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement that Germany is "dangerously overpopulated" with foreigners. Is the enemy still on the fringe or long since in the mainstream?

DGB Chairman Michael Sommer (right) and DGB District Manager Eberhard Weber (left) at am anti-Nazi demonstration in Dortmund; Copyright: Einar Bangsund Such alarming survey results are unfortunately a continual feature of Germany's post-war history, and I doubt whether all of those who agree with such statements have a cohesive far-right world view. But assuming the findings are correct, what they reveal to me above all is how important it is that condemnation of xenophobia and anti-Semitism should be signalized – not only by the usual suspects but also by mainstream society. If the sewer system overflows, manhole lids are a true blessing.

According to the publicist Christian Schulz-Gerstein, right-wing extremists are "losers who hate losers". The number of social losers is increasing. What gives you hope?

I remember that article exactly, although it dates back more than a quarter of a century and the author has long since died. The main idea was that a society that is afraid of facing up to neo-Nazis is not completely confident of its democratic values. Basically, this is also one of the core ideas behind the Network against Nazis portal – namely, not to shy away from conflict but to take up the challenge enthusiastically, armed with good arguments. However, I would also like to add explicitly that it is equally important for the police and justice to do their duty, too, and rigorously prosecute right-wing extremist offences.

Dr. Dipl. Kai Lückemeier
is a philosopher and free-lance author in Gescher

Translation: Mary Lou Eisenberger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write to us!
online-redaktion@goethe.de
August 2008

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