right-wing extremism

Right-Wing Extremist Violence in Germany

Die „Zwickauer Terrorzelle“ des „Nationalsozialistischen Untergrunds“; Screenshot aus einer Dokumentation des Ersten Deutschen FernsehensThe murders of nine small business people with immigrant backgrounds have shown that right-wing extremist ideology in Germany is still a big social problem.

The “Zwickau terrorist cell” of the „National Socialist Underground“; Screenshot from an ARD TV documentation

The “Zwickau terrorist cell”, members of the right-wing extremist group “Nationalsozialistischer Undergrund”; Screenshot from an ARD TV documentation

Between 2000 and 2006 nine murders were committed against small business people with immigrant backgrounds. They were all killed at work. As we know today, the murderers have been members of the right-wing extremist group “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund”. That there are still such forms of right-wing terrorism has scared the public. Few observers or persons in responsibility in the government and politics believed that such terrorist potential existed in the right-wing extremist camp. This may have been a reason that for years the investigations were aimed in a completely false direction. For the families of the victims this was particularly painful: public authorities and the press seemed to succumb reflexively to at least latent prejudices. Newspapers spoke of the “kebab murders”, the police suspected internal power struggles in the “Turkish mafia”. The special commissions set up to investigate the murders were given the names “Crescent Moon” and “Bosporus”. The victims were suspected of criminal activities; family members had to face humiliating questioning.

Public reactions, demands of the victims’ families

After the discovery of the actual background to the crimes, it has been precisely this aspect that the victims’ families and numerous representatives of various civic organizations have brought into the center of attention. Both the murders themselves and the responses of the authorities and media point to a serious social problem that goes far beyond the criminal facets: widespread prejudices and xenophobia, lack of acceptance and integration. Thus the German Cultural Council has called not only for a comprehensive explanation of the crimes and the errors of the investigation, but also for a broad and intensive examination of the social causes of right-wing violence and of practical measures for combating right-wing prejudices.

Chancellor Angela Merkel about the series of murders committed by the NSU

Some of the demanded recognition for the victims and their families was given by the official commemoration on February 23, 2012. In addition to the moving testimonials of family members, the speech by Angela Merkel was of great symbolic importance. The Chancellor stood side by side with the victims: No one, she said, “can bring back to you your husbands, fathers, sons or daughters”. But “We can all show you that you do not stand alone in your sorrow”. From those who had long been police suspects, Merkel asked for forgiveness. Alluding to the fundamental norm of human dignity anchored in the German Basic Law, she said: “The murders committed by the terrorist cell from Thuringia were therefore also an attack on our country”. But above all the Chancellor addressed the deeper causes and problems: “Violence is by no means the first manifestation of intolerance and racism. The extremists are not the only danger. Dangerous too are those who fuel prejudice and create a climate of contempt. It is therefore important that we be sensitive to and keenly alert for the first signs of exclusion and disparagement. Indifference and heedlessness often mark the beginning of an insidious process of dehumanization. From words can follow deeds”.

Extremism of the center: attitudes of the “respectable citizen”

In representative studies from 2006 and 2010, which were commissioned by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, researchers at the University of Leipzig investigated the proliferation of right-wing extremist attitudes in Germany. The finding: right-wing extremist views are not a marginal phenomenon but rather a problem of the mainstream society. They are widespread in all social strata, regions and age groups. Just under 40 percent of Germans agreed with the following statements: “Foreigners come here only to exploit our welfare state”; and “Germany has been swamped to a dangerous degree by foreigners”. The study examines six themes: attitudes towards dictatorship, national chauvinism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, social Darwinism and the placing of Nazism. The researchers evaluated respondents that agreed with extreme positions in all areas as having a “consistently right-wing world view”. In West Germany they came to nearly 10 percent.

Cover of the studies “Vom Rand zur Mitte” (2006) and “Die Mitte in der Krise” (2010); © Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Cover of the studies “Vom Rand zur Mitte” (2006) and “Die Mitte in der Krise” (2010); © Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

The authors of the study warn against treating right-wing extremism as a youth problem confined to East Germany. “Young people do not make up the largest group of right-wing extremists.” On the contrary, pensioners, those about to retire, many of the unemployed, more men than women and generally people with low education levels are also advocates of such views. The sometimes alarmingly high rate of agreement to individual statements has not decreased in recent years, but rather increased. “Islamophobia” in particular has long been a majority phenomenon. Nearly 60 percent agree with the following statement: “The free practice of religion should be considerably restricted for Muslims in Germany”. On this point the majority diverges significantly from the legal and moral demands of the German Basic Law; indeed, it represents even anti-constitutional positions!

Chauvinism and xenophobia are, according to the study, essentially mechanisms of self-valorization by means of depreciating the foreign. They are found in people with low self-esteem, a mistrustful attitude towards their surroundings and a high degree of disaffection with politics. Here we encounter that “extremism of the center” which has long been well known from studies on the popularity of the Third Reich. It is a very alarming phenomenon, for it points to the “respectable citizen” whom we would like to distinguish from the radicalism of extremist and violent minorities. The first signs of a contempt for people that turns against marginal groups in society are not crimes such as those committed by the Zwickau terrorist cell. They are an integral part of narrow-minded notions of order and fears of loss. To change the “climate of contempt” against which Chancellor Merkel has warned is one of the great social challenges facing the immigration country of Germany.

Christian Schwaabe,
Dr. phil. habil., lecturer in Political Philosophy at the Geschwister Scholl Intitute of Political Science at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
June 2012

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