SCHLEIFE, GERMANY - Felix Benneckenstein was a rising star on Germany’s far-right scene, a young songwriter whose rousing guitar anthems made white nationalism sound romantic and rebellious.
But when fellow neo-Nazis attacked a friend, Benneckenstein found the doubts he’d ignored for years coming to the surface.
“It was a rude awakening,” he recalled. “You have an idea of what’s wrong with the world and believe you’ve discovered hidden truths. ... And to then realize that everything you’ve done to yourself and others in the past years was built on lies is a bitter moment.”
When extremists want out
After almost a decade on the far-right fringes, the 30-year-old is now part of a small but effective network of former neo-Nazis helping people to leave the scene. Spread across Germany, they work closely with an organization called EXIT that provides quick, unbureaucratic advice to extremists who want out.
At a time when extreme nationalism is on the rise in Europe again, EXIT has helped hundreds of neo-Nazis start a new life, according to its founder Bernd Wagner, a former East German police detective. He says EXIT has an edge over government-run programs because those answering its hotline have dropped out of the far-right movement themselves.
These former neo-Nazis call themselves the Action Group and try to gather at least once a year. At the recent meeting, about a dozen people, mostly young, mostly male, came to talk about their past and brainstorm ways to reach out to those still inside the neo-Nazi scene.
“It does a lot for people that they can talk about the old days, not like old warriors who’ve won battles but about the mistakes they made in their lives,” Wagner said. “They’re still looking for direction in a highly complex and diverse reality.”
Getting in is easy
That includes people such as Falk Isernhagen.
Bespectacled and slight, he felt he was an outsider as a white kid in a mostly migrant neighborhood of Berlin. When older white students at his high school invited him along to football games, he was grateful.
Soon he was marching alongside them at far-right demonstrations. Then he offered to run their website.
Isernhagen left when the pressure from his comrades became too much. Shortly after making the call to EXIT, he was attacked by unknown assailants and ended up in hospital, under police protection.
Instead of just turning his back on the far right, he chose to help others find their way out, too. “I felt I’d done enough damage so I wanted to make up for it a bit,” he said.
Genuine sympathy and music
Benneckenstein was 13 when he came into contact with white nationalism. At first it was more teenage rebellion than genuine sympathy that drew him to the extreme right.
“I found the Nazi scene abhorrent. My little brother has Down Syndrome and of course I knew what happened to disabled people under Hitler,” he recalled.
But Benneckenstein enjoyed the music his new friends were listening to, and like many young Germans, he felt his generation was being unfairly penalized for their grandparents’ mistakes. He fell for historical revisionism, to the extent of denying the Holocaust.
Soon his friends were bombarding him with information. First they radicalized him. Then he radicalized others.
A few months after his friends were attacked by other neo-Nazis, Benneckenstein found himself in jail. It was the last straw. He and his girlfriend called EXIT seeking help to leave the far-right movement. Since then Benneckenstein has become the go-to guy for remorseful neo-Nazis in Germany’s southern state of Bavaria.
Members of the Action Group, of whom there are now almost 40, say they recognize those theories in the current debate over Germany’s immigration policy. The country has seen a surge in attacks against migrants over the past two years amid an unprecedented influx of refugees.
To former neo-Nazis like Benneckenstein, such developments are worrying.
“I’m hardly concerned by the refugees, but I am concerned by the mood that’s resulting from this,” he said. “Everyone can see how the political picture in Germany is changing at the moment.”
Some of the Action Group’s members have come a long way since leaving the far right.
By his mid-20s, Stefan Rochow had risen from teenage activist to leader of the National Democratic Party’s youth wing, responsible for recruiting new members and shaping the party’s ideology. Outwardly he blamed foreigners and mainstream politicians for his country’s woes, but inside Rochow was gripped by doubt.
With the help of his girlfriend and a Catholic priest, Rochow eventually managed to leave the party, a process that took three years.
These days he’s busier than ever. Aside from running his own business in the northern city of Schwerin and helping convert neo-Nazis, Rochow works in a cafe Wednesday afternoons helping refugees from Syria and Iraq adapt to life in Germany.