This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: What is really my punishment is that I have to live with this, that I could ever hate so much.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, exit from hatred.
THOMAS GRUMKE: The last step has to be reflecting on the ideology and being a part of democratic society again. You know, that’s where we can talk about having made an exit out of the movement.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Neo-Nazis in Germany stood and cheered after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Experts don’t believe Islamic extremists and the neo-Nazi movement are connected. But they do have something in common: hatred, particularly for the United States. It’s been 11 years since Germany was reunified. In that time there has been a rise in right wing extremism among German youth. After a series of racist attacks last year the government has launched what it calls “The fight against the right” campaign.
PORTER: The German government estimates the neo-Nazi movement has 50,000 members and is growing. Now two nationwide programs are aimed at luring neo-Nazis away from violence. Common Ground Correspondent Alexa Dvorson reports from Berlin on the story of two former neo-Nazis and their reentry into civil society. The story contains strong language.
ALEXA DVORSON: Since moving to Berlin this spring, Gunda Hernandez has kept a hectic schedule, with a simple explanation.
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: If we don’t stand up against the Nazis they might rise again. I am afraid. We just cannot go back to sleep anymore, you know. Because the Nazis are not sleeping.
[Gunda Hernandez speaks briefly in German at a meeting and is applauded]
DVORSON: Meet the new Gunda Hernandez, former neo-Nazi. One day she’s meeting a local journalist from a Turkish newspaper; the next she’s off to Munich to testify at a Green Party hearing. After that it’s a half-day train ride to her home town for an appearance at an antiracist culture festival. And somewhere in the midst of all this she wants to return to school and get a diploma to study social work, to better arm herself in an antifascist campaign.
HERNANDEZ: The worst thing is that there is this new right wing movement. People who say, “Ah, we’re not like the old Nazis.” But they are. That’s what annoys me so much. They try to say, “Ah, we don’t want no Hitler. But we want a National Socialist Germany.” And that’s what we have to warn people from and tell people, “Don’t believe it. It’s the same old hate.”
DVORSON: Gunda, now 36, is all too familiar with this “same old hate,” because it hijacked her behavior and ran her life until a key event snapped her out of it a couple of years ago. She grew up in a small town near Mainz in western Germany, where the Nazi past was viewed largely with indifference.
HERNANDEZ: Our history teacher said, “Ah, I’m not really interested in that Holocaust stuff. Just watch the movie, Holocaust,” you know. He told us in the year 1933, Hitler came to power and stuff like that, but he never really discussed the problems with us. He wasn’t interested in it. I said, “Oh, it’s not my business.” When I asked my mother about Nazis her answer was, “Oh, that’s such a long time ago.” And if you don’t know things you might adopt very wrong things, and that’s what I did.
DVORSON: Gunda and her partner Matthias now work with Exit, a private initiative that helps neo-Nazis leave the right wing scene and make the transition to civil life. Exit helped Gunda and Matthias move to Berlin, where they’re still unpacking boxes in an inexpensive flat that needs a lot of renovating. Matthias is doing most of it himself.
MATTHIAS: We have to change our address because it was too dangerous.
DVORSON: No soul searching for symbols necessary here. As Matthias knocks down the walls in the hallway with a hammer, coating the place with dust and crumbs of plaster, it’s an obvious metaphor for the two of them renovating their lives. It’s been a long journey for both of them to this conversation in their new living room. Gunda’s checkered biography would make a therapist’s head spin. She dropped out of high school and got pregnant not long afterward with a right wing extremist in the NPD, Germany’s far right nationalist party. She later married an American soldier, hence her last name, Hernandez. After years of suspicion she confirmed only last year who her own father was. She’s on minimal terms with mother.
HERNANDEZ: My problems started when I was 17. My best friend died of an overdose of drugs and I didn’t get no help. I never came over the death of my friend. I used to live in the States. I was here. I was there. I lost care and custody for my daughter for a couple of years. I wasn’t able to say “I need help.” I was running away from myself. That’s what I was doing. And this long run away from myself ended 1999, in the arms of the Nazis.
DVORSON: A sense of belonging you were looking for? Or something else?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I wanted to, I wanted to have a family. Finally wanted to have a place where I was accepted, where everybody says, “Yeah, come to us. Do something with us,” you know.
DVORSON: You couldn’t get that from your own family?
HERNANDEZ: No. I, I don’t really have a family. But I’m not a victim, OK? I’m responsible for that shit, what I did. Nobody else is.
DVORSON: Gunda is still coming to terms with what she did two years ago. She desecrated a Jewish cemetery not far from where she used to live.
HERNANDEZ: I really did. With my daughter, we climbed across the wall at night. She was 15 then, 16. We were so full of hate, you know. When you’re inside this Nazi mentality you want to do something. You need to show people, “We don’t want you here. We don’t want Jews here in Germany.” And nobody, none of us knew a Jew. But everybody wanted to do something against them. A good friend of mine….
DVORSON: Even those who are dead?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah! Of course! If you don’t honor the dead people you have no kind of acceptance for the living.
DVORSON: So what happened?
HERNANDEZ: After I did that I started realizing that my whole life was going down the drain. That something was very, very wrong.
DVORSON: Oh, wait. After you were caught or after you just did the…
HERNANDEZ: No, after I did it. After I did it. I was looking in the mirror. Not in the mirror in the bathroom; in this inside mirror. Mirror of my soul I always say it. I saw myself and I hated what I saw. It was not a human being, it was just somebody who was so full of hate that he could climb a wall and desecrate a cemetery. And I said, “No, you can’t go on in that scene. One of these days you will go out and kill somebody.”
DVORSON: For two months Gunda had no one to talk to about this. At the time all her friends were neo-Nazis, including Matthias, so she broke up with him. Through an Internet chat room she found a psychologist at Exit who helped her get a grip on her life. Eventually Matthias quit the scene, too. We’ll hear more from him later. And the two of them got back together. When the police raided their flat it came as a relief to Gunda. She’d only resisted turning herself in earlier because she’d feared the consequences for her daughter. During the raid she confessed her crime, which went to trial. She was handed a suspended sentence, 16 months in prison, with three years probation. She has visited members of the Jewish community in Mainz to apologize personally for desecrating the cemetery.
HERNANDEZ: I apologized, but no living person can forgive you for what you did. Only the dead people could because the graves belong to the dead people, you know? Gabi Preller, from Weiden, she says, “You are forgiven.” But [Hernandez is crying] I can’t really forgive myself that. Because I’ve found so many good ideas in Jewish philosophy, you know. I’ve found friends, love. And I used to hate these people without knowing them. And that’s, that’s basically the judgment I have to live with. That’s the verdict, you know. That’s the real punishment. Not that I am on probation. Not that I have financial problems. What is really my punishment is that I have to live with this, that I could ever hate so much.
THOMAS GRUMKE: She looks back and she’s very ashamed of what she has done.
DVORSON: Thomas Grumke helps run Exit, the organization that helped Gunda and about 20 other neo-Nazis break out of the scene.
GRUMKE: In the moment she did it she had this whole belief which justified this act. But if this belief system is gone, the whole justification is gone. So she looks back and says, you know, “How could I have done this?” You know, if you don’t believe anymore that the Jews are the root of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy the white race then you don’t really know why you should go to a cemetery and commit a crime like this. So the reaction you saw is only possible if this ideology is not there anymore.
DVORSON: Some of Gunda’s new hard-earned wisdom might sound like a page from a 12 step program for Nazis Anonymous. Just substitute alcohol with the Nazi’s hatred and racism and you get the same dangerous slippery slope.
HERNANDEZ: Dangerous because they offer easy solutions for big problems. And if you run away from yourself it’s not you who are responsible for the shit what’s going on in your life, it’s the others, it’s the foreigners, it’s the Turks, it’s the Arabs, it’s the Jews. That’s what they say. That’s just a scapegoat mentality. You need a scapegoat, you know. That’s what Nazis thrive on.
DVORSON: I ask you something, might be a little provocative. Do you think that your grandparents felt similarly? And maybe that’s one reason why it sort of fell into your consciousness somehow? Were they Nazis?
HERNANDEZ: My grandparents were people during the Third Reich. They had their jobs, their house, their vacation, and they didn’t want to see the bad things. Like many people don’t want to see the bad things. Just closed their eyes and said, “Oh, it’s gonna be all right. He will know what he does, Hitler.” You know, like that. Nobody in my family was in the Resistance or something like that, no. Spielburger, you say. Bigots. Yeah? Bigots.
DVORSON: You don’t hear such frank admission every day in Germany. But it goes a long way to explain how such belief systems are passed from one generation to the next, if they’re not addressed. Many say that’s at the root of today’s problem with young neo-Nazis. Like Gunda, Matthias also absorbed some of his Nazi mindset from his grandparents, much of it unconsciously. As a child in a mostly Catholic town of 16,000 near Frankfurt, he remembers how his grandmother used to sing two songs as she cleaned the stairway in her apartment building. One was Holy God We Praise Thy Name. The other was Heute Gehört uns Deutschland. That was a well known Nazi song whose refrain went, “Today Germany is ours; tomorrow the whole world.” Matthias’s father was a factory owner and strict authority figure. His mother stayed mostly in the kitchen.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] My mother was small as a simple housewife. You couldn’t really talk with her about politics. She’s say the Nazis were bad, but she didn’t know why. She just repeated whatever they said at school. And when my father, my grandfather talked about the Third Reich they said, “Ach, it wasn’t all so bad what Hitler did.”
DVORSON: Matthias learned to look up to people in uniform. He was attracted to their power and respect. At the same time, he and his two brothers competed for their father’s affection. In hindsight, Matthias thinks he took his father’s conservative values a step further to try and win more attention and approval from him. But he stresses he didn’t drift into the neo-Nazi scene: he entered it very deliberately at the age of 21, joining several right wing radical organizations where he quickly climbed ranks. He didn’t go around beating up immigrants, the homeless, or the disabled-a typical skinhead activity. Matthias was in the ideological wing of the neo-Nazi scene, known as Scheitel, named after Hitler’s hairstyle. He wrote letters of support to right wing extremists in prison. He recruited youth to join the far right nationalist party, the NPD. Then he went hard core.
[sound of chanting at a large demonstration]
DVORSON: He vandalized a synagogue. He painted swastikas on a leftist book shop and he showed up at a skinhead concert in an outlawed uniform worn by Hitler’s troops. Like Gunda, he later confessed to all three crimes. Matthias had bought into Nazi propaganda down to the tips of his jack boots.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] When I was in the scene I was an absolute anti-Semite. I followed the typical neo-Nazi line of denying the existence of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. I knew there were concentration camps but I thought the information was exaggerated. And on the other hand, I approved of the extermination of the Jews because I was totally convinced that they were-how should I say it-a kind of a Volkschadling-that was Hitler’s term-a plague of the people. That’s just what they say in the Nazi scene now. They’re convinced the Jews are behind everything.
GRUMKE: That’s how deep it goes. It goes much deeper than just plain nationalism. You know, it’s fundamentally racist and it comes with all the conspiracy theories. Of course anti-Semitism is still very much alive and a very vital part of the ideology. And so it’s a conglomerate of all these beliefs.
DVORSON: Thomas Grumke wrote his Ph.D. about the white supremacy movement in the US before joining Exit a year ago. Modeled after a Swedish organization of the same name, Exit is part of a private initiative launched by the German weekly magazine Stern in response to a 60 percent increase in right-wing crimes here last year.
MCHUGH: The story of former neo-Nazi Gunda Hernandez and an unexpected admission, next on Common Ground.
MCHUGH: Of all the statements in recent German media reports about neo-Nazi violence, one is haunting. A leader of the anti-fascist front said in these words, “We lost 10 years.” He was criticizing the German government and society for refusing to take the problem seriously over the past decade.
PORTER: We return now to Berlin and “Exit From Hatred,” with Common Ground Correspondent Alexa Dvorson.
ALEXA DVORSON: Thomas Grumke is convinced no effort to reduce right wing extremism can succeed without serious prevention work: teaching tolerance, learning from history, and promoting a democratic civil society.
THOMAS GRUMKE: If we just react and try to solve the problems that are already gone wrong, you know, this can never be enough. You already have skinheads, you know they are 12 years old, 13 years old-you know, they call them “baby skins.” And they are already introduced into the right-wing extremist scene, you know. Especially by way of listening to music and so on. Also, we have to address problems of general society. I mean racism in general society is definitely a problem. How can it be that a 15-year-old or 16-year-old is so fascinated by these ideas if he possibly doesn’t already have a certain belief system.
[sound of driving rock music]
DVORSON: This contraband skinhead song appears on an outlawed CD that was seized by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
[sound of driving rock music, now accompanied by vocals]
DVORSON: The words to this verse, a protest against German guilt for the Nazi past, amount to something like this: “My grandpa was a killer; that’s what they said in class. I told the teacher, “Take those lies and stick them up your….” Well, you get the idea. Another verse is slanderous toward political and economic refugees, with a call to literally kick them out of the country. Heinz Fromm, director of the intelligence agency, heads a new government program similar to Exit. He describes the neo-Nazis contagious social disease as “classic loser-it is with a fascist twist.”
HEINZ FROMM: [via a translator] They feel disadvantaged and they try to compensate for it. So they say, “I’m better than the others because I’m German.” And it makes them feel strong and powerful. Then they snap the Nazi ideology because it’s so provocative. When they start mouthing off with that they get attention. “Finally, someone’s taking a look at me. I’m making headlines,” they say. The newspapers are full of this. Even if they are negative headlines at least they are in the spotlight. That makes them feel important and meaningful. And this helps them counteract this feeling of being cut off, having no future.
DVORSON: The new government backed hotline for potential neo-Nazi dropouts got a lot of headlines, too. The press office reported they received 500 calls in the first six weeks. But most of them turned out to be journalists, teachers, social workers, and a few parents. Heinz Fromm Says the so-called dropout program is currently handling about 120 cases. That’s not much considering a target group of 50,000. But Fromm is patient. Besides, the government is keen to be seen doing something more than the hand wringing it did last summer. After a thorough screening process a caller who has demonstrated readiness to lead the neo-Nazi scene can get job training placement and limited financial support to move to another city if necessary. There’s no cash reward for denazifying, nor can anyone bypass justice if they’re charged with criminal activity. Fromm considers a case a success if someone stops acting out fascist beliefs through violence. But he draws the line there.
FROMM: [via a translator] Our objective is to give concrete help and advice. But it’s not brainwashing. We can’t change people’s opinions. That’s not part of our program. Everyone must decide for themselves what they want. And we can assume those who do want to get out already have some doubts about their previous attitudes. What we try to do is support this process and help them leave the extreme right wing milieu entirely. But there’s no agenda to try and change their worldview. We couldn’t achieve that anyway. It’s not part of our task.
DVORSON: That’s the big difference between the government’s program and Exit, as Thomas Grumke explains.
GUNKE: We are not so much focused on re-socialization. We are much more focused on what we call “re-democratization.” Which means, we are not interested to have people who say they have given up the activities of the right wing movement. They have a nice apartment, a nice car, a nice job, but they still have exactly the same ideology. This for us is not a success. We want to make sure that the exit is done first of all concerning the ideology, you know. So, stopping being an activist in the movement is not the last step. The last step has to be reflecting on the ideology and being a part of democratic society again. You know, that’s where we can talk about having made an exit out of the movement.
DVORSON: How can one prove that? How can one assess someone’s re-democratization?
GRUMKE: Yeah, that is, of course, a vital point. And I’m afraid nobody can actually really prove this. But we are following the people quite a long time, usually. And we make sure that they are not drifting again back into the old structures. Nobody can make a 100 percent sure. But we try to make 95 percent sure. It’s hard to explain. But I think you can tell.
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: We must be sure that this person is not faking.
DVORSON: Gunda Hernandez has her own screening system.
HERNANDEZ: When the person did something wrong, something against the law, hurting people, spraying swastikas, or whatever, he must say, “I did it and I will take the punishment for it.” “I did it and I want to change my whole life.” It’s a long hard road. It’s not that you just say, “Oh, I was Nazi and not anymore.” You must really show from the inside that you can’t feel like it no more.
DVORSON: You have such a friendly face. And such a nice smile. And I, I know you’re a different person now and you have said that several times. But I can’t imagine or even feel where any of this hatred could have come from.
HERNANDEZ: Neither can I nowadays. But I had a different face story in that time. I had a different face. You know. If you think you’re above the rest, then you only love the ones close to you and you can hate others. And I can’t do it no more. Getting rid of hate is the best thing what can happen.
DVORSON: If Gunda’s break with the past started as an emotional earthquake, the moment of truth for Matthias was more an intellectual landslide. After Gunda left him he started challenging his own belief system. Could it really be possible, he asked himself, that an agrarian country like Poland could have started World War II by attacking heavily armed Germany in 1939? That was the Nazi version of history he’d subscribed to. It wasn’t long before he also saw the folly in the idea of a German superior race and a Jewish worldwide conspiracy. His common sense finally won out.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] For the first time since the age of 14 I started questioning all these things. That was it. My conscience just couldn’t take it any longer. So I got right on the phone and told my comrades, “I can’t do this anymore. Everything you’re doing is full of crap. I’m outta here.”
DVORSON: At that moment Matthias became a traitor to his former friends. Both he and Gunda were put on a hit list. Matthias was despondent.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] After I quit the scene I fell into a depression. I’d totally cut myself off from the rest of the world. I was in complete despair because this Nazi scene had become a kind of an ersatz religion for me from the time I was a teenager. And all at once it was gone. Everything I believed in evaporated overnight. I took one step, and another, and within a week my whole worldview was shattered. After that I felt suicidal. If Gunda hadn’t come back to me I don’t know what I would have done.
DVORSON: That was a year ago. Now 25, Matthias has dropped the Hitler hairstyle and mustache. He’s grown a reddish-brown beard that lends him an almost teddy bear look, especially when he’s eating ice cream. This was his first interview using his real name. He’s found a real niche working with Exit. But he’s skeptical about the government program for Nazi dropouts. As a former insider he can’t see how a right wing extremist who considers the state an enemy would turn around and ask it for help. Back at the domestic intelligence agency, Director Heinz Fromm admits he has no idea whether the government-backed hotline will prove a success. And he warns against high expectations.
HEINZ FROMM: [via a translator] We’ll never get right wing extremism down to zero in Germany. Certainly not with our history of National Socialism. These things just don’t work that simply. But if we can limit it to a marginal element then I think it’s controllable and we shouldn’t worry about it as much as we do now with our young people. If we can get that far the rest won’t be so difficult. But this has to be dealt with. The family and the schools, for instance. Everything possible must be done so that the stream of young people going into the scene can be reduced. That’s prevention work. But it’s not our job. Somebody else has to do it.
DVORSON: Take Gunda, for instance. Because she’s still working through her anger about her own past, she’d rather do prevention work than deal directly with neo-Nazis. Soon she and Matthias will spend a week at the Dachau concentration camp to talk about learning from the past at a seminar for young people. They’ve already been to Auschwitz. Gunda’s apparent switch from one extreme to the other might raise a few eyebrows. But she makes a convincing case.
HERNANDEZ: You know that there are so many people who say, “I don’t care no more.” You need to care. It’s not the responsibility of the people who are born after ’45. But it’s their damn responsibility that it never happens again. That’s what people must understand. This is our responsibility; that it never can happen again. And it’s started already. Look what happened.
DVORSON: And she cites a litany of recent racist attacks, still on the rise. About 40 right wing extremist crimes of one kind or another are reported throughout Germany every day. Our conversation lasted much longer than I expected. But now it was time to go. We were covered with dust as Matthias continued knocking down walls in the background and the dog was itching for a walk. As I was about to leave Gunda made a remark that stopped me in my tracks.
DVORSON: [speaking to Gunda Hernandez] I can call you again?
HERNANDEZ: You can call me anytime. OK? I would like to hear from you again.
HERNANDEZ: And if you have to, you can ask me on anything what you want to ask me. If there’s anything you need to know, you can ask personal questions. I think if you really want to get to know people you must ask questions that can hurt, you know. That’s the only way you can know people, you know.
DVORSON: In that instant, she touched something in me she didn’t even realize. For 15 years I’d kept my own background off limits as a journalist in Germany. But something about Gunda’s honesty forced me out of this safe little closet of my self-censorship. I told her I was Jewish. The tape was still rolling but when she gasped and threw her arms around me in tears the microphone cable slipped and made a loud screech. After shutting the recorder off it took us a few moments to regain enough composure to speak.
HERNANDEZ: I was so happy that we met.
DVORSON: Umm hmm.
HERNANDEZ: And I hope you will be, one of these days, one of my friends.
DVORSON: I hope it’s OK that I can share that. Because it’s kind of changing history maybe a little, hmmm?
HERNANDEZ: It’s time that this happens. It’s time that history changes and that people stop hating each other. [crying] And I’m, I’m just glad that I could tell you this, that I, that it could get out, you know. And sometimes when I’ve dreamed this and when I see this being standing there on the wall jumping down and I say, “Stop! This is not you anymore.” This is this empty stare in the eyes, this Nazi stare. You know, when you are a Nazi you lose your humanity so much that sometimes those people have really empty eyes. Just like Hitler’s eyes were empty and cold, you know. And many people don’t understand that when I talk about these things and I think I can tell you about it. It’s something inside that happens when people hate. They break apart, you know. The human soul hides inside these people. It disappears. And that’s what hate does.
DVORSON: Thank you for being who you are.
HERNANDEZ: And I’m happy. I’m glad that I met you. But we stay in touch. You promise?
DVORSON: I promised. Neither of us have felt quite the same since that conversation. We’ve both been too busy to get together. But in her last e-mail Gunda wrote she looks forward to meeting me again after her trip to Dachau. I know we’ll have a lot to talk about. You’ve been listening to “Exit From Hatred.” For Common Ground, this is Alexa Dvorson in Berlin.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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