»Right-wing extremism makes headlines when it can sell papers. That’s always been the case.«

Frank Jansen has been reporting on the causes and effects of right-wing extremism for the Berlin newspaper, Tagesspiegel, since 1990. In his reports and features, he has discussed what motivates Nazi skinheads, but his primary concern has been with publicizing the way the victims live and die. In an interview with D-A-S-H, he explains why extreme-right violence is so difficult to fight in East Germany and why media coverage of right-wing extremism has disappeared in many places.

D-A-S-H: In September 2000, the Tagesspiegel, together with the Frankfurter Rundschau, published the widely respected chronicle, »Giving the victims a face.« The editors had investigated numerous deaths since 1990 and documented the whole extent of extreme-right violence in the fates of the 93 people who had been killed by right-wing extremists. How many more victims have there been in the past 2 years?

Frank Jansen: We’re working now on a new chronicle. In the last year we’ve researched the cases of 4 fatalities. In addition, there are a series of unsolved cases which we suspect have extreme-right associations. This year 2 more cases have been added to the list, so that we can say with certainly that there have been 99 victims of racist violence since 1990.

The latest report of the Federal Office for the Defense of the Constitution indicates a clear decline in extreme-right violence. According to the report, there weren’t any extreme-right violent acts in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2001.

That’s nonsense, of course. In 2001 a new classification method was introduced, which was a great improvement, but some Bundesländer only grudgingly agreed to it. Until then, the only extreme-right acts of violence that were registered were those that directly endangered the basic order of liberal democracy. When a drunken youth beats up a homeless person, they usually don’t want to bring about the fall of the constitution. That’s why acts like these were left out of the statistics. With the advent of the reform, victim groups were defined for the first time. Now when a homeless person is attacked for unknown reasons, the police can initially assume extreme-right motivations and report the incident as an extreme-right act of violence.

In that case, we wouldn’t expect a decrease in the statistical number of extreme-right acts of violence, but an increase.

In Brandenburg, there actually were more extreme-right acts of violence and, above all, propaganda offenses registered. On the whole, though, there’s a lot of resistance to the reform in the new Länder (former East Germany). Driven by fear that increasing numbers would cause them to be defamed as Neonazi strongholds, some Länder have tried to fudge the numbers. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in 2001, the police counted about 40 acts of violence with right-wing motivations, but did not categorize them as extreme-right. But because the Federal Office for the Defense of the Constitution supposedly – or perhaps really does – only asks for the extreme-right acts of violence, the capital city of Schwerin decided not to declare any extreme-right acts of violence. The numbers of right-wing-motivated, but not necessarily extreme-right, crimes in other Bundesländer are not represented in the statistics of the Federal Office for the Defense of the Constitution.

*Otto Schily [Germany’s Minister of the Interior] attributed the numbers to the success of the government’s efforts. In 2000, aid programs were launched at the federal and state level in order to support counter-right initiatives. Violent criminals were supposed to be shown through a mobilization of civil society that they’re not approved of. Have attitudes noticeably changed in local communities?

Hardly. When Manfred Stolpe [Cabinet Member under Schröder] explained in 2000 that he had underestimated right-wing extremism and saw this as a serious mistake, he spoke for many local politicians in Brandenburg. But the majority of the population, in my opinion, isn’t being reached by these programs against the extreme right. In a current study that surveyed one thousand West and East Germans each, the Free University in Berlin together with Leipzig University found a consistent ratio of 30% xenophobes in East Germany, while in West Germany extreme-right and anti-Semitic attitudes are on the rise. This is an ideal breeding ground for violence. Neither politics together with the media, nor independent counter-right initiatives have succeeded in breaking the fateful connection between day-to-day racism and the violence practiced by young people who feel they are executing the public’s will. Young skinheads still feel sufficiently authorized by their social environment to attack people that they see as inferior.

The media have been quite involved, also on the political level, in the fight against right-wing extremism. What have they been able to accomplish?

The »Aufstand der Anständigen« [Uprising of the Respectable, a state-sponsored campaign against right-wing violence] that was announced in the summer of 2000 was initially purely a media issue. That changed when in November 2000 around 200,000 people marched against right-wing extremism in the streets of Berlin. The great majority of the population, however, remained passive. Then some serious mistakes were made. In particular, the hysteria surrounding the unsolved death of a child in Sebnitz in November 2000 damaged the credibility of the media. As a result, they largely backed off the subject of right-wing extremism. The Islamic attacks on the USA on September 11, 2001, caused right-wing extremism to retire completely into the background.

»Right-wing extremism in Germany is too dangerous. The issue cannot be allowed to be at the mercy of the media’s financial interests and only make headlines when the Nazis have struck again.« This declaration was made in August 2000 upon the founding of »Netz gegen Rechtsextremismus« [Network against Right-Wing Extremism], which was supported by numerous media organizations. Two years later, the project is on its last legs because none of its media partners is willing to continue financing it.

Right-wing extremism makes headlines when it can sell papers. That’s always been the case. The issue made headlines with the riots in Rostock and Hoyerswerda. When the police woke up and a few neo-Nazi organizations were outlawed, its popularity waned again. In 1996 a new wave of violence broke out, but it didn’t get the same level of attention as before. The media as well as the public had had more than enough and didn’t want to hear any more about right-wing extremism. Until 2000 even racially-motivated murders like that of the Mozambican, Alberto Adriano, in Dessau, were accepted as a part of daily life. It was reported and regretted, and then you returned to the order of the day. This changed abruptly with the assault in Düsseldorf in July 2000. Many factors came together here, resulting in right-wing extremism suddenly being recognized as a serious problem again: it wasn’t an assault with a baseball bat, but a bomb attack; it didn’t happen in the East, but in the respectable West; and people of Jewish extraction were affected.

In the press coverage, it was easy to come away with the impression that extreme-right violence was directly primarily at asylum seekers and migrants. It’s not generally clear that in Brandenburg, for example, half of the people attacked are alternative youth. Is the media drawing a distorted picture?

As far as the media is concerned, there is a macabre hierarchy of victims. Attacks on people of Jewish extraction are judged differently than attacks on Africans, leftists, punks or homeless people. The disrespect for some victim groups is absolutely unacceptable. I wish that the attention that is given – and rightly so – to Jewish victims as a consequence of Germany’s Nazi past would be given to all people that are attacked by right-wing extremists. The disrespect that is shown to other victims is also dangerous to Jewish victims because it means that extreme-right violence is only being seen as a partial problem and isn’t seen in its full dimensions.

Organizations devoted to protecting and helping victims of extreme-right violence complain that the public debates the perpetrators’ problems much more than those of the victims.

Media interest in the victims has increased somewhat since the summer of 2000. I also have the impression that the Brandenburger Ofperperspektive (Brandenburg Victim Perspective) and similar organizations are receiving a certain recognition for their work. The Bundestag has provided a fund of 10 million marks, from which some victims can be compensated quickly and without burocratic hassle. Others, however, cannot. There may be more cases in which people intervene when an African is attacked in the subway. They are still the exceptions, however, and not the rule. In view of deeply seated day-to-day racism, you can’t expect much empathy for the victims. There is certainly no reason to give the all-clear; extreme-right violence and racism remain persistent problems. Civil society doesn’t have the energy for a sustainable change.

Next article: Focusing on the Victims

Dossier #6: The campaign initiated by agOra, the Working Committee for Counseling Projects for Victims of Racist, Extreme-Right and Anti-Semitic Violence. This campaign is committed to unlimited residency rights for refugees and migrants who have become victims of racist violence.

  1. Residency Rights for Victims of Racist Violence
  2. The Campaign
  3. »Right-wing extremism makes headlines when it can sell papers.«
  4. Focusing on the Victims
    (Opferperspektive e.V.)
  5. The Victim Counseling Center ABAD
    (Friedrich C. Burschel and Rahel Krückels)
  6. Interview with Bundestag President, Wolfgang Thierse
  7. Regional Victim Counseling Projects
  8. Links