Analysing the Strategy to Counter Extremism of the Federal Government of Germany

Autor: Ina Schmidt » Kategorie: 01/2017, Aktuální číslo » 03. 07. 2017

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In July 2016, the Federal Government of Germany adopted the first Strategy to Counter Extremism and Promote Democracy which is valid interagency, reacting to the recent rise of extremism not only in Germany but all over Europe. Ensuring the functionality of such strategies requires their constant assessment and improvement. The following paper analyses the mentioned Strategy by applying it to a case of right-wing radicalisation that took place in Germany before the mentioned Strategy has been adopted. As a case study, the National Socialist Underground from Germany has been selected, which was a far right terrorist cell that had radicalized in the 1990s and over several years murdered 10 people, not being caught for a very long time. In her earlier analysis, the author identified factors of radicalization that apply to the case of this terrorist cell. These factors are used in the following paper as a basis to evaluate the recently adopted Strategy Against Extremism. The goal of the paper is to analyse if implications that arise from the NSU case have been incorporated into the new Strategy so as to avoid similar cases of extremism in future.


In July 2016, the Federal Government of Germany passed the first Strategy for the Prevention of Extremism and the Promotion of Democracy[1] (in the following referred to as Strategy) which addresses different kinds of extremism in Germany, suggests prevention measures and aims to strengthen the democracy in the country. With respect to far right extremism, the Strategy was described as a reaction to the increasing number of refugees which provoked the rise of right-wing sentiments in the German population as well as to the earlier discovery of the terrorist cell National Socialist Underground (in the following referred to as NSU).

The NSU was a far right terrorist cell which had been active in Germany from 1997 to 2011 and consisted of 3 main members. In November 2011, two members of the NSU, namely Uwe Böhnhard and Uwe Mundlos, committed suicide in their caravan, leaving behind a video in which the NSU took responsibility for 10 murders that happened since 2000 in Germany (Generalbundesanwalt 2012). These murders were until this date not even suspected to have been conducted out of an extreme right motivation. The last member of the terrorist cell, Beate Zschäpe, was on the flight for several days after the suicide of Böhnhard and Mundlos, and finally was arrested by the police and imprisoned (Jansen 2014). The following official investigations unveiled the extent of the terrorist cell which was active over years and conducted several bank robberies, bomb attacks and murders as confessed in the video (Generalbundesanwalt). Even now, 5 years after their discovery, the investigations and the court procedure with Beate Zschäpe are still going on. Recently, a new piece of evidence was found which brought the case back into the media and raised a set of new questions.[2] This new developments however do not affect the earlier conducted analysis of the process of radicalization of the terrorist cell, as this analysis concerns the beginning and the formation of the NSU.

The NSU is representing an extreme example of radicalization which took place in Germany; similar cases shall be prevented by the recently adopted Strategy to Counter Extremism in future. The potential of this Strategy to successfully counter radicalization shall be analysed with respect to the introduced case study. The aim of the study is to analyse, if the NSU case and its suggestions about the radicalisation process of extremist groups were sufficiently embodied into the new Strategy to evade similar cases in future and learn from past failures or shortcomings. In other words, it should be evaluated, if and how the Strategy reacts to a recent case of radicalisation. The paper is based on definitions of radicalism, extremism and terrorism. Then it identifies factors of radicalization for the concrete case of the NSU based on the radicalization factors suggested by Daniel Köhler (Köhler 2014) and by the project “Transnational Terrorism, Security and the Rule of Law (TTSRL 2008), drawing on an earlier analysis of the author (Schmidt 2015). In order to evaluate the established and planned countermeasures and prevention strategies, the Strategy of the federal government to counter extremism and promote democracy will then be introduced and analysed. This Strategy has been passed by the Federal Government in Germany on the 13/07/2016 and is the first Strategy of such kind which applies to several resorts of the Federal Government at once (Bundesregierung 2016). As the discovery of the NSU dates back already 5 years and the Strategy is at least partly also a reaction to this earlier case, it is expected to cover factors of radicalization as identified in the case study.

How to approach radicalism

Although radicalism and extremism are often used as synonymous there is a significant difference in meaning between these two terms. Shortly, extremism is directed against the constitutional democratic state and aims for the rise of a dictatorship and the end of democracy, while radicalism, though criticizing the established forces, is located at the end of the democratic continuum, still supporting the democracy as such (Mares 2014). Terrorism is amongst others characterized as the “demonstrative use of violence against persons, threat of more violence, intimidation, communicating the acts of violence to a larger audience, the political motivation of the act and others” (Schmid 2011).

The term radicalism was for example by Bötticher and Mares described as a comprehensive term which includes also extremism and in its core terrorism (Bötticher, Mares 2012; See Picture 1). In the framework of this paper, radicalization should be understood as the development from a radical into a terrorist according to model developed by Bötticher and Mares. Also the European Survey of Youth Mobilization (British Council, St. Andrews University 2011: 7) defines radicalization as the acceptance of violence or other undemocratic means to reach ones’ goals and more general as a social process which is experienced by the radicals that transform into terrorists.

Picture 1: Model Radicalism, Extremism, Terrorism according to Bötticher and Mares

Factors of radicalization in the case NSU

In a previous work concerning this terrorist cell the author identified main factors which contributed to the radicalization of the NSU (Schmidt 2015), which shall be shortly introduced in the following text. Based on these factors the Strategy of the federal Government to prevent extremism shall be analysed to evaluate its potential to counter radicalisation in similar cases in future. The identified radicalization factors are based on two theoretically works on this topic. On the one hand, there is the European Union Study on Transnational Terrorism, Security and the Rule of Law (TTSRL), and on the other hand the work by Daniel Köhler on individual radicalization processes, which was done in cooperation with the EXIT project from Germany (Köhler 2014).

The research is based on primary sources which were individually evaluated and analysed. Both public newspaper sources about the NSU which refer to their early years and describe the social environment and contacts of the members and the official records of the court procedure and the investigations were used. Further the Strategy to Counter Extremism released by the Federal Government of Germany was analysed.

The identified factors – which are also based on general concepts of radicalization – might be considered to apply not only to the radicalization processes of far right groups as the NSU but as being accurate also for other types of extremism. Though the developments might take place in different frameworks and with different backgrounds, the basic processes are similar. Of course, there are a lot of additional factors that contribute to radicalisation processes as well; the article however focuses on the ones that could be verified by the selected case study. It provides therefore an insight into the Strategy based on one particular perspective that might also be further verified in future studies. In the following these identified factors will be introduced shortly, first in the context of the case study and then in an abstracted form in order to further work with them.

A) Exclusion from legal opportunities due to radicalization of attitude

Böhnhard, Mundlos and Zschäpe used to spend lots of their free time in a youth club and were also active there before they committed the first crimes and disappeared into the underground. When their attitudes were getting more and more radical and this radicalized attitude became visible for example in the clothing and behaviour, they were excluded from this club which was not willing to tolerate their radicalized behaviour any more (Cieschinger et al 2013). When they turned away from this youth club their attitudes became even more radical, soon after they disappeared into the underground (Döbert 2011).

When being excluded from legal structures, people are becoming more likely to search for other opportunities, which are most likely more radical than the foregoing, as the radicalized attitude of the concerned individuals must be tolerated by the new institution.

B) Change of the location, cut of old connections

One member of the trio had rented a garage in their hometown which the NSU used as a place to store radical right propaganda materials as well as TNT and other components required to create small bombs. During a control the police discovered the materials stored in the garage and issued arrest warrants for the three members. However, they were informed about it, escaped to a different city and got new, falsified ID-cards to avoid being caught by the police (Cieschinger et al 2013; Radke 2013).Caused by the change of the location, Böhnhard, Mundlos and Zschäpe lost the contacts with their family which further spurred their radical attitudes as their families did not share them and were not likely to tolerate these attitudes in a too radicalized form (Hünniger 2014). However, through the relocation of their children the families lost their possibilities to influence them. Also, as the NSU members suddenly were in a new city they lost their old friends and had to establish new social contacts.

By the change of the locality the old connections to the society outside the radical scene, (most important the family as long as they do not tend into the same direction themselves) get cut; in the new location the individuals are less likely to establish new contacts with non-radical people.

C) Support from the radical scene

When the actions of the NSU became more radical and more professional (first attacks and strikes), they received a lot of financial and bureaucratic help from the far right scene without which they probably would not have been able to murder foreigners and rob banks over years without being caught. The financial support was collected at concerts and other actions of the far right scene (Radke 2013) and there was even a Nazi-version of the game Monopoly (called Pogromly, for more information see Hengst 2014) which was sold by and among supporters in order to earn money to support the NSU financially. Also with respect to bureaucratic aspects the members of the scene supported the NSU, providing for example help to find and rent a flat and organizing new, false ID-cards. Without this material and practical support from a bigger circle of people Böhnhard, Mundlos and Zschäpe would most likely not have been able to continue living as they did (Cieschingeret al 2013).

It is unlikely for a small radicalizing group to be active if there aren’t established structures that support them and on which they can rely. Without help from established networks such a small group is not likely to be successful in the long run and also not in some bigger framework, as they are most likely not able to sustain themselves and stay undiscovered over a longer period of time.

D) Creation of a parallel life

After their escape to another city and their moving to a new flat the NSU members established a parallel life to cover up their criminal activities. Their neighbours who were interviewed as part of the official investigations described the NSU members as friendly and calm people, not anticipating their criminal activities. Mainly the woman of the trio, Beate Zschäpe, held up this illusion and met frequently with the neighbours for coffee, chatting about their everyday worries. Among the neighbours she was known only under a false name; however, she was perceived as a friendly person and was accepted by everybody (Casjens et al 2013).

To be successful and able to operate in democratic structures without raising suspicion the terrorists have to pretend normality which is likely to result in the creation of a parallel life. Otherwise they would raise the suspicion of their neighbours. By establishing a parallel life, maybe even including the usage of a false name and participating in the daily life of the community they are able to live undiscovered among the other citizens and raise no suspicion.

Analysis of the Strategy for the Prevention of Extremism and Promotion of Democracy

The Strategy for the Prevention of Extremism and Promotion of Democracy (in the following referred to as Strategy) has been adopted on the 13.07.2016 as the first strategy of this kind in Germany which is valid interagency. It strongly relies on the cooperation of the federal government, the state and the local governments and focuses on the locations which are crucial for the prevention of extremism as communes and districts, institutions, schools, youth clubs etc. Further the online presence should be strengthened, parents and teachers shall be supported and people who want to leave extremist groups shall receive help to do so (BMFSFJ 2016). Already in the introduction of the Strategy the investigation committee of the NSU is mentioned, whose recommendations had been expedient for the policy of the Federal Government (Bundesregierung 2016: 1). Also later in the Strategy the NSU and its investigation committee are referred to (e.g. Bundesregierung 2016; 12). Far right extremism is a central concern of the Strategy; however, the document relates also to other types of extremism as for example far left extremism, Islamic extremism and others (Bundesregierung 2016; 12).

After referring to its general approach, naming the strategic partners in the prevention and giving a general overview on two of its main programs, the Federal Government establishes different areas of action in its Strategy which will be closer described in the following chapter.

1) Political education, intercultural learning and democracy strengthening

The Strategy suggests to further develop pedagogic methods in order to be able to counter different forms of extremism more appropriately. Especially the rural areas are taken into consideration as the further cooperation between local and regional cooperation partners shall be strengthened. Also the awareness for democracy should be emphasized for which various different measures are to be established, ranging from Online-dossiers over seminars and lectures for teachers to competitions for students and class trips to Israel (Bundesregierung 2016; 19). Additionally, the networks between young people shall be strengthened and a critical confrontation with the past of Germany should take place (Bundesregierung 2016; 20).

2) Civil society engagement

This aspect refers to an active civil society and its cooperation with the state. There should be a federal civil society infrastructure for associations and clubs to provide them with better expert support on the topic extremism. Also “advisers on democracy” should be educated who will be active foremost in rural areas. Additionally, people which are (potentially) affected by extremism should be empowered (Bundesregierung 2016; 21). A fairly important area to strengthen the civil society is the sport, therefore the Strategy lines out to include contact persons into sport clubs and associations (Bundesregierung 2016; 22).

3) Counselling, monitoring, intervention

In this area the federal government suggests counselling offers to address victims of extremism and their families. Further the local protection and support of political and societal actors in case of extremist activities belongs to this area (Bundesregierung 2016; 22). Contact persons for victims will also be available during activities of far right groups in the public space and develop strategies against the dominance of these groups. At the same time, there will be social workers addressing young people which already are active in extremist contexts to help them distancing themselves from the scene (Bundesregierung 2016; 23).

4) Media and internet

As the internet is becoming an important recruiting area for extremist groups the Strategy addresses this area as well. To prevent radicalization on the internet, the possibility to publish youth endangering materials on the internet (national and international) shall be limited, together with the spread of the respective counter narratives over the web to suggest an alternative. The web should also be used to inform citizens about the topic of extremism. Additionally, the awareness on critical usage of media shall be spread in schools and universities by media pedagogues (Bundesregierung 2016; 25).

5) Research

There should be an increasing attention on extremism as a subject of research so as to better understand it and be able to counter it. Insights about extremism will be used to develop preventive strategies, educate citizens about the topic, further develop measures to strengthen democracy and support the work of information centres (Bundesregierung 2016; 26). Already now there are many different research projects all over the country, addressing different aspects of the extremism phenomenon which are shortly introduced in the Strategy (Bundesregierung 2016; 27).

6) International cooperation

As extremism has gained also a strong international component, the international cooperation should be strengthened in order to counter these tendencies effectively. In this aspect the Strategy lists several projects and co-operations which are already active (Bundesregierung 2016; 28). The communication between different countries about the prevention and the reaction to extremism should be strengthened in order to learn also from the successes and failures of the others (Bundesregierung 2016; 29)

With reference to the before outlined factors that contributed to the radicalization process of the NSU, mostly the first three areas of action appear to be important to counter similar tendencies in future. The first factor A) which has been identified was the exclusion from opportunities as a reaction to the beginnings of radicalization, which effectively might cause individuals to orient towards more radical alternatives. This factor of radicalization might be prevented through trained contact persons in clubs and bars as suggested in the first action area of the Strategy as well as by advisers on democracy. Such a contact person or adviser would be able to address young people and show them alternatives instead of just excluding them from the given context, offering no change for dialogue and orientation. Also, the social workers need to reach young people who are radicalizing as suggested in the third action area.

Radicalization based on the described factor C), the involvement of the radical scene into the radicalization of the cell might be countered in future by measures as suggested in point 3). By the twofold approach of addressing victims and also members of the radical right it might be possible to have in general a better overview about the scene, to prevent the establishment of terrorist cells as in the case of the NSU and to react to such developments in time. Further, the strengthening of the civil society and the placement of educated people in sport clubs might keep the extremist groups smaller and deprive them of the possibility to recruit new members. However, it has to be taken into account that these structures are already established and that it will at least take some time until the suggested measure will be working effectively.

The factor D), the creation of a parallel life which helped the NSU to keep up the appearance of normality could be addressed by a strengthened civil society, including for example educated contact persons who can be approached in case that somebody observes something unusual or has doubts about his neighbours. To make this approach work, the general education of the public on extremist structures is required, which is suggested in point 1) and also in point 4). Approach the radicalized individuals themselves with preventive measures only appears to be behind time during this stage of their radicalization as they are using the parallel identity to cover up their other activities, so their stage of radicalization might be considered fairly high.

Only the he factor B), change of the location in order to escape the police is not directly addressed in the Strategy. However, to address this factor seems to be rather a responsibility of the police than of a prevention Strategy as there were already arrest warrants issued which were not carried out. The duties of the police are though not addressed in the Strategy, whose main focus lies on the prevention of extremism (Bundesregierung 2016; 13). Of course, also the other contexts can be addressed in a different manner, for example by the police. However, the Strategy is providing different approaches which in some aspects even might be more sustainable as they focus on the education of the citizens, long-term developments and strengthening of alternatives.

Points 4) and 6) are not directly applying to the selected case study; however these points show that the Strategy of the Federal Government takes also recent developments into account. Point 4) refers to the internet and media, on the one hand pointing out the potential of the internet to spread materials to counter extremism and raise awareness, on the other hand the necessity to educate young people how to carefully and critically use the internet and other media. This point does not apply to the NSU as their radicalization took place in the 1990s when the internet by far did not had the same spread and influence as today so naturally it was no influential factor in their radicalization process. The last point 6), referring to the international cooperation of extremist groups and the necessity to counter them on an international level as well is of no interest in the case of the NSU as they were acting only in the framework of Germany according to the current insights. However, the international cooperation of far right groups is steadily gaining importance (Mares 2012), which is also connected with the rising importance of the internet.

Finally, including research on extremism into the Strategy as done in point 5) is absolutely necessary considering the significant developments in the field and the requirement to understand these in order to react appropriately. This point might be considered as the basis for a successful implementation of the Strategy and its further development as well as for addressing extremism in other contexts.

Referring to a more practical level, it should not be forgotten than though the Strategy of the federal government offers theoretical solutions and possibilities to address the different factors of radicalization, it always depends on each single case and its specific circumstances if the radicalization of individuals or groups might be prevented successfully. The structures provided by it have to be available in the right place and at the right time. Further, it depends on the involved individuals and their decisions whether to use this kind of offers or not. As the analysis showed, the Strategy does have significant potential to counter radicalisation and strengthen the democratic thought and the civic society. However, this available potential is still no guarantee that it is going to function in reality.


The paper took a look at the new Strategy to Counter Extremism and Promote Democracy which has been adopted recently by the Federal Government of Germany. To analyse and evaluate the Strategy, the radicalisation factors of a selected case study have been used as initial point. The goal was to find out, if the lessons learned from the case of the NSU are included into the Strategy and if it potentially counters such cases of radicalisation in future, as well as to evaluate if and how the Strategy reacts to actual cases of radicalisation. As expected, the Strategy does cover the primarily identified radicalisation factors; the exclusion from opportunities which was identified as crucial for the development of the NSU, might be countered by placing educated contact persons in the relevant contexts as suggested in the Strategy instead of excluding young people from opportunities. The involvement of the scene which also contributed to the radicalisation of the NSU is harder to counter as these structures are already established; however to deprive them of their recruitment opportunities the civil society has to be strengthened and educated. Additionally, victims and involved might be addressed by offering support and counselling and supporting members of the scene that would like to leave it. To educate the civil society and provide them the required information and contact addresses is also crucial with respect to the last identified factor of radicalization which was the creation of a parallel life; to address the radicals themselves with a prevention Strategy seems to be already too late at this stage of their radicalization.

Only one of the identified factors, the relocation of the NSU in order to escape issued arrest warrants, is not covered by the Strategy. This is however rather a responsibility of the police than a task that should be addressed by a preventive Strategy.

Also the Strategy exceeds the identified components of radicalisation by adding components that were of no impact during the radicalisation of the NSU in the 1990s but are of great impact for the developments today. These components are mainly the impact of the internet and the implications for its use following from this as well as the international cooperation of far right groups which requires international cooperation of their combaters to successfully fight them.




[1] Strategie der Bundesregierung zur Extremismusprävention und Demokratieförderung

[2]The DNA of one of the members, namely Böhnhard, was found next to the dead body of a girl which disappeared in2001. This discovery brought up lots of questions on a possible NSU was connected with the murder of the child and earlier hints on child pornography were strengthened (Klorrman 2016)