Swastikas and far-right music in the bedroom, hate-speech against minorities – a child who drifts into the far-right scene is a nightmare for many parents.
“It was definitely the most horrible time of my life – sleepless nights, tears, depression. Two years of pure hell.” That’s how the mother of Kai (name changed) described the time when her son was part of the far-right scene.
Claudia Hempel, author of a new book entitled “When Children Drift into the Far Right,” says it’s mainly the mothers who fight for their children and actively look for help, while fathers often say that it will pass, or else “let their worries eat into them.”
Hempel has talked to Kai’s mother and many others about walking the difficult line between distancing yourself from racism, xenophobia and violence and trying not to lose your child to extremism. She spent two years looking for parents who were prepared to speak anonymously about their children’s far-right extremism.
Parents who are not themselves in the far-right scene are ashamed when their son or daughter glorify National Socialism, or preach violence or xenophobia, or even attack people. They ask themselves, “What did we do wrong?” If they seek help, then schools or youth welfare offices often imply that they must be at fault.
But political scientist Reiner Becker says that the causes of such a development are not just to be found at home. Schools, peers, and the political culture young people live in are equally important.
The far-right scene offers young people a sense of strength and camaraderie
The lure of evil
As part of a study, Becker interviewed many far-right young people and their parents. He now runs a counseling network in the German state of Hesse, which provides advice to schools, clubs and local communities as well as parents.
Becker’s network has noticed that children are drifting into right-wing cliques at a younger and younger age – sometimes as young as 10. Becker believes that as puberty begins earlier and earlier, so does the temptation to join forbidden, “evil” scenes. “It’s a way to really horrify adults in a way that other forms of expression and other youth cultures don’t do anymore.”
That’s how it was for Kai, though his mother only found that out much later. He and his friend were approached on a playground one evening by a group of young neo-Nazis. Before they began talking about ideologies, they offered the boys beers and cigarettes, treated them as adults, and spoke to them for a long time.
Later they started wearing clothes fashionable in the far-right scene, and displayed symbols that their parents didn’t even understand at first. Kai and his friend were introduced to illegal music whose lyrics deliberately incited hatred and violence. Kai’s mother once found a baseball bat and a knife in his bedroom.
“Nowadays, I only need to lure kids with music – that’s all the political education they need,” one activist told Becker from prison. One boy he recruited confirms as much: “If you listen to it in the morning after you wake up, in the afternoon after school and at night before you go to bed, sooner or later you believe it.”
Responsibility of the older generation
Wilhelm Heitmeyer of the Institute for International Conflict and Violence Research at the University of Bielefeld believes that the need for recognition, for belonging to a group, and for a feeling of strength are important motives for joining extremist groups that despise weaker groups like immigrants, Jews, Muslims, gays, the homeless or the handicapped.
But one of the institute’s long-term studies also shows that antipathy towards such groups is actually more prevalent in Germany’s over-60s generation than among young people. While the younger generation is more likely to resort to violence, the study concluded that their grandparents’ generation also had to take some of the blame for the social climate that leads to that violence.
Parents often do not understand the far-right symbolism
Hempel also discovered that the young far-right extremists did not necessarily come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I was completely surprised that I found myself in nice housing estates, or sitting on swing seats in plush gardens and villas. I was sitting on middle class sofas,” she said.
These parents did not believe at first that their child had really become an extremist, partly because they were influenced by media images of the far-right: “These bull-necked skinheads who walk around in bomber jackets and Doc Martens boots and shout blunt slogans – the stupid far-right,” one mother told Hempel. “And then there was my child: open, sensitive, intelligent, and far-right? No, I couldn’t imagine it – it didn’t fit the picture I always had.”
The difficult search for help
Many parents only realized that their child had drifted into the far-right scene when the police or the intelligence agency was standing in front of the door – their son had come to the attention of authorities because of swastika graffiti, Hitler salutes or hate-speech.
That soon creates stress in the family, and parents find they need help because their children are becoming less and less responsive, despite endless questions, discussions, and appeals.
Kai’s mother spoke to the local school director, but he only assured her that there was no far-right extremism at his school. The youth welfare office said simply that Kai was simply rebelling against the fact that he was the child of a divorced parents. Meanwhile, his mother’s anxieties grew and grew. “It was like a swamp we were sinking deeper and deeper into.”
Hempel knows that this is no isolated case. Parents seeking help often find either that their worries get trivialized, or that they have to take the blame. “Many parents have to make an odyssey to find adequate help,” says Becker. The Hesse network is only a test project, like those in a few other states. Many alternatives are limited in time and “not particularly well-known.”
Advice centers can help neo-Nazis leave the far-right scene
Advice centers can help decode some of the symbols of the far-right scene. They help parents find out how deep their children have got themselves into the far-right scene. They support them in maintaining the balancing act of finding a positive relationship with their child, and setting boundaries. Many families no longer allow their children out of the house in neo-Nazi clothing, throw extremist CDs and propaganda away, and argue over and over again against antidemocratic prejudices and neo-Nazism.
But, Heitmeyer emphasizes that however much pressure is applied, parents need to offer their familial relationship as an alternative to the far-right scene: “It’s a myth that far-right groups have this camaraderie – there is also violence within the groups, and this aggression is of course lessened the stronger the outside pressure is.”
Hempel says parents have to make one thing clear to their children: “I totally condemn what you do, think, and read. I consider it fundamentally wrong, hateful and antidemocratic. But you are and will always be our child, and we love you.”
But walking this tightrope is almost impossible without support. Kai’s mother finally found a counseling center after months of searching. It was the first time she had the feeling that someone understood her problems.
At the same time, Kai asked for help to leave the far-right scene. He was scared, because neo-Nazis were threatening him. The center helped Kai to get in contact with another former neo-Nazi, and his mother was very grateful for the support.
And she was appalled when she read that state subsidies for the program were to be cut. “I think it’s absurd. It was so difficult to find anyone at all. There were no flyers, no newspaper ads, nothing. They should be visible everywhere!”
On her book tours, Hempel has noticed that there is still a big need for public education on these matters. She was approached by several parents who told her they had concerns about their own child, but had not spoken to anyone about it, because they were ashamed and felt helpless.
Sometimes neo-Nazis and people from far-right organizations come to her readings, and Hempel does not avoid talking to them. Mostly, she says, her experience has been positive, because it’s been easy to expose their hate-filled ideas. “Then these groups quickly discredit themselves,” says Hempel. By the end of the evening, she says, elements of society that often stay silent emerge stronger.