Focusing on the Victims – Moving away from analyzing a »perpetrator society« to promoting development of solidarity with the victims

by members of »Opferperspektive e.V.« (Victim Perspective)
We, the authors of this article, are a 4-member team called »Victim Perspective«. There are now 6 people working for the association. Our counseling center in Potsdam works together with 4 other (youth) projects in Brandenburg, which look after victims of extreme-right violence in their own local regions. Since the middle of 1998, we’ve been organizing help and support for people who have become victims of extreme-right or racially motivated violence in Brandenburg. We started this work when we realized that we no longer wanted to accept the permanent marginalization of and threat to certain sections of the population.

Almost every week people are attacked by assailants who are motivated by right-wing extremism and hate of everything supposedly »ungerman«. Insults and threats are commonplace. Physical attacks are not unusual. They are directed especially against people from other countries, but also against the disabled and homeless and against alternative youth. In politics, social work and the media, the behaviour of the extreme-right offenders is mostly explained in terms of their bad career perspectives, a lack of youth facilities and parental mistakes, and calls for action are made in these areas. Their victims, on the other hand, and the urgently needed changes in their living conditions, are all too often ignored.

The aim of the project, Victim Perspective, is to help those affected not to assume a passive victim’s role, but to become active and develop new perspectives with other people. This includes initiating or promoting the development of solidarity with the potential victims by raising public awareness of what their lives are like. Our goal is not only to enable people to sympathize with the fates of single individuals. It’s also about recognizing the dangers posed to democratic civil society by marginalization. Solidarity with the victims of extreme-right violence and the simultaneous development of initiatives that are directed against marginalization efforts offer active alternatives to powerlessness and fear. Creating organizations against marginalization decreases the influence of extreme-right ideology, deprives extreme-right violence of society’s alleged approval and weakens extreme-right positions of power.

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

The social context of racist attacks

In 1998 the Brandenburg police counted 100 racist and extreme-right acts of violence. The estimated number of unregistered cases is high because many victims do not report to the police what has happened to them, or because the police simply do not file these reports. The offenders are mostly young men that belong to extreme-right cliques. It is the social climate of racism and ethnic nationalism, however, that makes attacks like these at all possible. Average Brandenburgers refuse to help people who have been attacked or they participate themselves in racist mobbing. Racism is not a marginal phenomenon, but comes from the very heart of society. According to surveys, over half the population think that foreigners profit from the social system and take jobs away from Germans. It’s no wonder that extreme-right violent offenders feel themselves to be the executors of the people’s will.

An extreme-right or racially-motivated attack does not only affect the individual victim. Although it is an individual that is directly hit, everyone is the target. Everyone that fits into the right-wing extremists’ concept of the enemy: migrants, alternative and leftist youths (or »parasites« in Nazi jargon), the disabled, the homeless, gays and lesbians. Fear spreads, and many people are intimidated. Dangerous places – a train station after dark, maybe, or a town square in front of a mall – are avoided. The country is pervaded by »no-go areas«. A lot of people can no longer move freely, some – especially refugees in »shelters« – live like they’re in prison; others – migrants in Berlin, for example – no longer go to Brandenburg.

Violence and extreme-right hegemony

These developments suit organized right-wing extremists down to the ground. What the victims refer to as »no-go areas«, they call »national befreite Zonen« (»nationally liberated zones«). The right-wing extremists, and no longer the state institutions, thereby exercise social control. They possess local hegemony, whether it be cultural, in that they act as forerunners of an ethnic-nationalist life style, or repressive, in that they persecute and intimidate people who don’t conform to their life style. The fight for hegemony is fought in almost every school, every youth club, in many villages and city districts, and the right-wing extremists are conquering more and more territory. In many places in Brandenburg, there is no alternative to the extreme-right mainstream. Being right-wing extremist is normal. If you don’t want trouble, you conform. Violence plays a central role in the establishment and maintenance of extreme-right hegemony. Threats of violence and targeted attacks are used in the attempt to drive out youths that don’t conform to the extreme-right mainstream.

There are many examples of this process: A »neutral« youth club, which holds monthly »Independent Discos«, is visited regularly by groups of extreme-right skinheads who threaten the attendees and organize serious attacks against the youth club. The youth club leader wants to deal with the violence by trying to integrate the extreme-right skinheads into the club activities. Their presence changes the situation in the club. The behaviour of the right-wing extremists, their slogans and the strength of their group, lead to the young people who don’t think like them being forced to decide whether to conform or to stay away. Because the people who remain in the club are not interested in them, the Independent Discos are stopped. Public criticism of the youth club leader (who is a well-respected figure in the city) by the youths who have been attacked is not permitted. Letters to the editor are not printed. The youths feel abandoned by the city and eventually back down. A youth club that used to be »neutral« is increasingly dominated by the right.

Public reaction and its consequences

This example allows us to see another aspect of the problem: the process by which the non-right is driven out is played out before the public eye, but the public does not see what is happening. When the young people who have been attacked try to gain public attention, they fail. No one seems to stand up for them. They’re written off as leftists or left-wing extremists. Threats on the one hand and deliberate ignorance on the other combine in the end to successfully drive out young people who represent philosophical approaches that are democratic and emancipatory. Society is left on the one hand with young people who feel it’s better to take no position at all, and on the other with extreme-right-oriented youths.

The effects of an assault on the social environment of the victim

In view of society’s deliberate ignorance, an extreme-right-motivated assault has consequences beyond the injury and threat of an individual that extend to the general community under attack. The people affected understand very well that, apart from rare cases of assaults motivated by revenge, the assault is not directed at them personally. Individuals are attacked as representatives of all those who do not want to conform to the extreme-right consensus. The feeling of being under threat spreads fast.

Failure to develop solidarity with the victims

Violence as a means of establishing and maintaining extreme-right hegemony is only successful because so many people remain passive and look away. Nonconformist youths, foreigners, emigrants, etc., are not only beaten up, but are left to fend for themselves, both during the attack and after. When a refugee is attacked, the question is asked why »people like that« are on the streets at night. A teacher that is actively involved against the right and gets beaten up so badly by extreme-right skinheads that he has to go to the hospital is not visited there by his colleagues or his bosses. As he is lying on the ground, he is told that he should stay out of the anti-fascist movement.

The act of violence is a demand to act in accordance with the perpetrator’s world view. Everyone is being made to understand that they have no chance against the perpetrators because no-one will support them. Lack of solidarity works to confirm this. Failure to develop solidarity with the attackees also affects the perpetrators. It confirms their sense of society’s secret approval of their actions.
This indifference and lack of solidarity with the attackees has other consequences: the impression is made that society is afraid of extreme-right thugs. It seems as though no-one wants to confront them, as though they were invulnerable. Their »success« provides them with new converts. Who doesn’t want to be on the winning side? Power is attractive. They’re greeted with respect on the streets. They don’t have to worry about ostracism.

How do attackees deal with these experiences?

For the attackees, the failure of »bystanders« to react both during the attack and afterwards is like a second injury. They too feel this indifference to be approval of the extreme-right perpetrators. Foreigners and nonconformist youths feel even more ostracized and confirmed in their mistrust of German society.

An attack causes the victim to feel insecure, resulting in sustained feelings of vulnerability and of being damaged. Depending on the individual’s psychological constitution and his or her degree of social integration, dealing with psychological injuries usually takes longer than the relatively quick healing of bodily injuries. For refugees who find themselves in a hostile environment that they cannot escape because of legal restrictions, symbolic gestures can mean a lot after being attacked: spontaneous sympathy, public avowals of solidarity, flowers sent to the hospital where they are staying. All these things can help them win back their self-confidence and sense of security. Democratically oriented youth culture can be promoted by offering programs and activities in youth facilities that are aimed at them. In so doing, we can make it clear to them that they too should be a part of this society. Victims as well as extreme-right perpetrators would be clearly shown that these acts of violence will not be tolerated and certainly are not welcome. But when ostracism remains a social reality, the development of a democratic civil society is bound to fail.

Learning processes for counselors

Intervention in the form of concrete help for victims of extreme-right violence is one way for the members of victim counseling centers to put their antiracist and anti-fascist ideals into practice. As opposed to only seeing the problem of right-wing extremism from a rationalist/analytical angle, dealing directly with the consequences of extreme-right violence allows people to develop empathy with the victims and deepen the emotional roots of their anti-fascist convictions. It is often the people who are themselves threatened by extreme-right violence, either because of their involvement in social issues or because of their nonconformist cultural orientation, that can be persuaded to develop and act upon their feelings of solidarity with victims of extreme-right violence. Talking to other victims of extreme-right violence helps one to recognize the connections between different concepts of the enemy in extreme-right ideology. Attacks on foreigners or on so-called »parasites« are similar in that the act of violence is not directed against an individual. Seen objectively, every act of violence against an individual is part of an extreme-right strategy of ostracizing and driving out groups of people they don’t like.

Dealing directly with the situations faced by refugees who have been attacked helps people to see the relationship between racist violence, racist attitudes and institutionalized discrimination.
Once this is understood, active involvement with victims also offers the chance to redirect social discourse from isolated observation of (extreme-right) violence, which is the dominant approach in public debate now, to seeing right-wing extremism as a problem in all of its social aspects.

One of the questions behind all of these strategic deliberations is what motivates engagement against right-wing extremism and how to develop and maintain it.

For many anti-fascist youths, it was their own experience with extreme-right violence that inspired them to become politically active. If they are no longer directly confronted with it, or if they or their youth clubs are not affected, their desire to continue to be actively engaged often drops off.
Concrete support of victims of racist and extreme-right violence can extend young people’s political engagement and also build bridges to other worlds and ways of life. Practical work enables new alliances to be formed and helps overcome widespread marginalization and loneliness.

For a democratically oriented youth culture

Here, we would like to stress another aspect of supporting victims of extreme-right violence as an anti-fascist strategy, namely the stabilization of a democratically oriented youth culture that provides an emancipatory alternative to extreme-right-oriented youth culture. A youth culture that is an alternative to the extreme-right mainstream means that the youths of various different subcultures are immune to the right-wing extremists’ contempt for mankind, to the fascist cult of strength and to the collective myths of the extreme right. They themselves create an alternative, a lived counter-position to the extreme right. Self-determined engagement, autonomy and self-organization are important opportunities for the youths to learn and implement democratic values and approaches. Anti-fascism is thus embedded in a societal, emancipatory understanding of democracy. After all, this should not only be an alternative to the right, but also a positive expression of a civil democracy’s concept of self. (1)

(1) see also D-A-S-H Dossier #3: »Jugendarbeit gegen Rassismus« (only available in German language)

Elements of a democratic strategy

We understand the support of victims of extreme-right violence as part of a possible anti-fascist strategy against right-wing extremism and, instead of a conclusion, would like to outline what we feel to be its central elements:

First, we should mobilize societal solidarity with the victims of extreme-right violence, which to a large extent should comprise practical support for the victims. The aim of this solidarity is to make the consequences of the attack easier to bear and, most importantly, to thereby counteract intimidation. Furthermore, in the process of supporting the victims, a community can develop which can prevent further attacks and offer mutual support. The people supporting the victims will be confronted with the victim’s point of view. The attacks are analyzed in relation to day-to-day, institutional as well as non-instititutional discrimination and ostracism, allowing the violence to be understood in its social context. Learning processes are performed which illuminate the interrelations of violence with certain ideological patterns like ethnic nationalism, social Darwinism, authoritarianism and patriarchal dominance behaviour.

Secondly, an active alliance is necessary and praiseworthy. Experience has shown that when anti-fascist groups participate in local alliances against the right, they do not give up their independent positions and strategic approaches. Indeed, working in an alliance gives them the chance to encounter other arguments and strategies. Some alliances, however, serve as »token« or »alibi« events for the city government and political parties.

Thirdly, local alliances against the right can force the city government, political parties and the police to stop denying or playing down the problem of right-wing extremism. This necessitates criticizing discourses on right-wing extremism that relativize or deny the issue. Discussing extreme-right and racist attacks as marginal problems – as in the contexts of right or left-wing-extremism, youth violence, marginal groups, lone offenders, or perpetrators as losers in the struggle for modernization – hinders people from really dealing with the social causes and thereby prevents them from gaining a deeper understanding of the problem.

Fourthly, by giving victims support and strengthening alliances against ostracism, we can promote the breakdown of solidarity with the perpetrators and their environment. It is not understanding for the perpetrators that is needed, but rather a withdrawal of all respect for them. They must be made to understand through social disadvantages that racist violence can have no place in a society that claims to be democratic.

Out of: »Was tun gegen rechts«, edited by Jens Mecklenburg, Elefanten Press Berlin 1999. Reworked by Claudia Luzar (5.9.2002)

Next article: The Victim Counseling Center ABAD