© Photo by Boris Thaser (Flickr), CC BY 2.0 license / https://www.flickr.com/photos/boristhaser/29839249393/

© Photo by Boris Thaser (Flickr), CC BY 2.0 license / https://www.flickr.com/photos/boristhaser/29839249393/

Extremism prevention: some remarks on the German experience

by Kurt Edler



After the experience of the National Socialist regime in 1933-1945, the founders of the Federal Republic of Germany established a Rule of Law which included a systematic prevention of any form of Nazi comeback. The 1949 constitution prohibited all anti-democratic activities within the new parliamentary system. The members and followers of the old Nazi party were millions. After the unconditional surrender of the Hitler regime, the allied forces started a programme of re-education to ensure the narrow and difficult path from dictatorship to democracy.

The political heritage of those days led to a particular awareness of the temptation of totalitarianism. The student rebellion of 1968 was fostered by a feeling that the old spirit of the Nazi time never has been really defeated. It took forty years until a president like Richard von Weizsäcker, in a famous speech (1985), defined the end of the Hitler regime not as “defeat”, but as “liberation”1.

Alongside this historical background, the public agreement to condemn the Nazi crimes grew constantly and was little by little enshrined in legislation and court practice. Combatting extremism meant the combination of criminal prosecution, banning of symbols and signs, interdiction of party activities, moral exclusion, prohibition of extremist media and a system of “Erinnerungskultur”(remembrance culture). In Germany, holocaust denial is a criminal offence. Every German pupil has to deal with the burden of the Nazi past. In the education system, there is a virtually unanimous consensus about the specific German responsibility for that dark part of history. However, the fascination of totalitarian ideologies continues to influence young people and has become even more popular than in former years. Traditional forms of official instruction are less effective than one may think. This is apparent in new ideologies like jihadism, but also in renewed right-wing currents.

Looking back on our experience of extremism prevention in Germany, I would state that the crucial point is a well informed dialogue amongst youngsters. People of the same generation are closer to an individual between 14 and 19 years than anyone else. In Hamburg, where I was officially responsible for extremism prevention in schools, no case of jihadist recruitment was revealed by teachers or other adults. In every case where we were lucky to intervene in time (in co-operation with the police), the first hint came from sisters, brothers or peers, rarely from parents or other adult relatives.

This experience leads me to the following strategic advice for both education and youth sectors: a basic knowledge of the specifics of anti-democratic ideologies and their history should be provided to both young people and all staff in formal and non-formal education.

There should be no blind eye for any extremist orientation, albeit right-wing or jihadist or left-wing extremism. It is very instructive to compare differences and similarities of culturally heteronomous ideologies. In every extremist ideology a friend-or-foe distinction is an inevitable pattern. Beyond that, there is always a justification for the use of violence in the name of the particular ideal (race, nation, class, religion).

A critical understanding of ideology is indispensable for making others aware of the background of a problematic position. But the practical influence on young people mostly comes from a personal relationship. The recruiting actor disguises himself as a “brother”, a buddy or a hearty messenger of a wonderful alternative to the mainstream way of youth life. This persuasive approach contains the promise of a new circle of amiable people interested in the final questions of our time. Not seldom the young person is bribed with a material advantage or even a sum of money.

The interesting question therefore is how to prepare peers to become supportive peers. Peer-to-peer prevention needs experience-based information about the ways and tricks of extremist propaganda and recruitment. On this basis, a set of necessary skills for resistance can be trained. But let us be careful und humble - each situation is different. There is not a list of the seven golden rules to successful self-protection. The awareness of how ideological persuasion is put into effect is important. Nevertheless, we can specify some competencies indispensable in this context. One basic aspect of these competencies is empathy for the vulnerable individual and possible situations in the future. The experience of ideological submission has to be reconsidered and transferred into exercise cases[2] for the prevention teaching and training. That’s why every report of a renegade on his or her own involvement is so valuable for us. Reflecting the German experience - a scheme or profile of the especially endangered young person becomes apparent. Vulnerability comes from a personality structure with low self-confidence, an experience of discrimination, the desire for revenge or the wish to get out of a delinquency adventure in one’s own life. The positive opposite is an early acquired democratic resilience3.

Those who want to recruit such a person are often trained in approach techniques and necessary rhetorical patterns to address and impress their victim. It depends on the individual if and to what extent ideology is the key factor. The motives for joining and adherence considerably differ. For example, young women joint ISIS because of a wedding promise. Young men went to jihad realizing their fantasy of becoming a famous warrior. We should never underestimate the power of an emotional bond and the feeling of being obliged to one’s group even after the first severe doubts already have emerged. Another important factor hindering individual desistence and defection is the lack of positive counter-narratives. The involved person has lost his or her belief in the ability of getting out of the mess.

Hence, a solid teaching and training of prevention competencies always comprises the necessity of authentic case reflections. The ability to dissuade a radicalized young person depends on the willingness to listen and understand. Often it is difficult to start a dialogue. It is crucial to retain one’s own judgement or philosophical conviction. Successful prevention takes time. All too often it is not clearly to be seen. Thus pedagogical competence building in this field depends on discipline and self-control. Eagerness, impatience and indignation are the stumbling blocks on the way to prevention success. It is also important to be willing of getting involved with a young person in difficulties. A dialogue has always to be personal, trustful and professional, as I tried to show in an article on how to discuss with radicalised students4.      

The ability to play a role as prevention agency relies, for schools, teachers and youth workers, on the capacity of founding good human relations and communicating on a solid basis of trust, respect and interest. The more these systemic competencies are developed, the more there is the possibility to cope with a process of radicalisation without the immediate intervention of any security agent. In the first years of my prevention activities for the Hamburg authorities, I had often to deal with teachers already in panic because of a single utterance from a student which could have been interpreted, in a more relaxed mood, as sheer juvenile provocation. The responsibility for internal handling of a case can be taken if the institution has developed professional routines of co-operation with other authorities. Youth centre managers, school headmasters and school boards are responsible for developing special training programmes for their staff. Preventing and combatting extremist influences should always be an executive function. A communal youth institution should bring together its partners in the neighbourhood. Voluntary relationships beyond the school sphere can be an important advantage in establishing a prevention forum structure. In this way, the design of a map of possible prevention partners in the region - for instance non-governmental organizations tackling problems of discrimination or cultural conflict - could be helpful.

In Germany, the co-operation between education and security services is relatively relaxed because of the well-defined duties of the former and the established restraint of the latter. Under a critical view comparing the prevention practice of several states in the world the authors of a study published in the U.K. come to a relatively mild estimation of the German way.5 It became apparent that education and youth institutions should develop a framework of pragmatic and concrete co-operation rules with the local authorities. One reasonable aspect of such a framework is to avoid an uncontrolled information flow (without security importance) from inside the institution and, at the same time, a pedagogically disturbing interference from police or other security responsibles. On the other hand, there has to be a great pedagogical awareness for facts or developments concerning the criminal law.        

In all countries where the rule of law is stable, where citizens’ liberty is guaranteed and where there is no extremist or anti-democratic influence in the government, a trust-based co-operation agreement between education and security responsibles can be established. If prevention wants to include a multi-perspective sight of the problems, the participation of non-governmental and youth organisations is a crucial criterion. All serious players in the fields of intercultural education, anti-discrimination, refugee projects and religious anti-extremist initiatives have to be included. Such a co-operation is only sustainable if all professional participants feel committed to the basic values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. 

1 Available at http://bit.ly/1EwltpY

2 Kurt Edler: Islamismus als pädagogische Herausforderung. Stuttgart (Kohlhammer) 2015.

3 Kurt Edler: Demokratische Resilienz - auf den Punkt gebracht. Kronberg/Taunus (Wochenschau-Verlag) 2017.

4 http://www.theewc.org/Content/Library/Research-Development/Literature/Discussions-with-Radicalised-Students

5 Kurt Edler: Review of the Book: Christopher Baker-Beall; Charlotte Heath-Kelly; Lee Jarvis (Ed.). 2015, Counter-Radicalisation. Critical Perspectives, London / New York: Routledge. http://www.jsse.org/index.php/jsse/article/view/1570/1621

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