Can NPDs harm other people?

Right-wing extremism

Toralf Staud

To person

Born 1972 in Salzwedel, studied journalism and philosophy. From 1998 onwards, as editor of ZEIT, he observed the right-wing extremist scene and the NPD, among other things. Since 2005 freelance author and journalist in Berlin and Hamburg.

Talk to right-wing extremists? Just how

When it comes to the subject of right-wing extremism, editors are often unsure - especially when the subject is new journalistic territory for them. How should one deal with right-wing extremists? A guide from ZEIT author Toralf Staud.

NPD party congress in Berlin, 2006. (& copy AP)

It's easy to lose your temper in the hour of triumph: September 17, 2006, the evening of the state elections in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. When all the television specials are over, the NPD meets for an election party in a garden bar not far from Schwerin Castle to celebrate their entry into the state parliament. There are grilled knuckles, sauerkraut, pretzels and beer. Journalists are also allowed for half an hour.

There are some speeches from party cadres, the rank and file listen attentively. The rapporteurs are busy taking notes. Suddenly I am bumped into: "Bastard", hisses one of the strong guys from the NPD security service, who otherwise always pay close attention to correct behavior. "Is there a problem?" I ask back. The answer: "You are Toralf Staud, aren't you?"

It is not easy as a journalist to write about right-wing extremists. But the occasional little hostility or threat isn't what complicates it. Probably the greatest difficulty in reporting is the upturn in the topic, caused by spectacular election results or sensational acts of violence. There are weeks when the media is full of right-wing extremism, and then there is a break for months. At some point the waves of attention hit again, but practically none of the public knowledge from the previous cycle makes it into the new one. Over and over again, even 15 years after Hoyerswerda, Solingen and Rostock-Lichtenhagen, to Munich, Dessau and Potzlow, for example, radio presenters in interviews after a right-wing extremist crime ask whether this is an isolated case.

To write competently about right-wing extremism, you need good preparation, curiosity, patience and experience. And you certainly need variety, you should always write about other topics in between so as not to lose sight of the rest of the world and its beautiful sides alongside old and new Nazis. Four short theses:

1. Don't underestimate right-wing extremists, but don't overestimate them either

A Nazi is not automatically stupid, for example among the cadres of the NPD there are intelligent people with university degrees. This is a banal statement, but it is necessary in view of the image that journalists also make of right-wing extremists. The NPD is a tightly run party with a closed worldview and a clear strategy. As a journalist you have to know about that when you step into the scene.

A good part of the right-wing extremists are pretty stupid, the lack of halfway capable staff, for example, is the biggest problem of the NPD, incompetence and misconduct of their own people is the biggest stumbling block of the party. Texts that only make fun of it are just as dangerous as lurid magazine stories, the Nazis puff up into powerful demons and give the reader a cozy, gruesome shudder.

2. Treat correctly, but not buddy

It is difficult for a journalist to write about people he has not spoken to. This is also trivial, but it has to be emphasized again in view of the reluctance of colleagues to really deal with right-wing extremists. Anyone who wants to know what Nazis want cannot avoid interviews with them. The reason for this is not the old journalist rule "audiatur et altera pars" (Latin: "one hears the other side"), because "the right wing" is not simply "the other side", whose statements are on an equal footing with those of Democrats can bodies. But quite simply because a journalist needs first-hand information for good reports and descriptive reports.

Therefore right-wing extremists are first of all interlocutors like everyone else: the questioner should be curious and well prepared. And he has to stick to agreements - if a journalist promises his counterpart to submit interview statements again before publication, then he has to stick to it with right-wing extremists too. The journalist can be polite, but still ask critically (but of course, sometimes self-esteem requires sharply contradicting or breaking off a conversation). Professional correctness is very different from companionship. It makes a big difference whether you invite an interviewee for coffee or a beer.

Talking to right-wing extremists doesn't mean letting them speak. On talk shows, for example, NPD cadres should never sit on an equal footing with politicians from other parties. And so that such performances don't derail, the host must be extremely well prepared. When, on the evening of the Saxon state elections in September 2005, an overwhelmed TV presenter interrupted the NPD man Holger Apfel and pulled the microphone away from him, it only brought sympathy from the audience. When hordes of correspondents invade East German villages and small towns after a Nazi incident and describe actual or supposedly scandalous everyday situations, it often only leaves heads shaking and devastation. And has little informational value for the audience.

Inquiries, inquiries, inquiries ...

3. Be curious and open, but not judgmental

Toralf Staud, ZEIT editor and author of the book: "Modern Nazis - About the fascization of the German provinces". (& copy H.Kulick)
The three most important things in interviews with right-wing extremists are: asking, asking, asking. Even well-trained NPD cadres often go into a skid if you just persistently follow up. What do you mean by that? How do you envision that in concrete terms? Do you really believe that? Right-wing extremists often get caught up in contradictions, reveal the flatness of their arguments, and at some point fall into the jargon of the Third Reich. In order to be able to drill thoroughly, you have to have a fixed position yourself. Anyone who enters into interviews with right-wing extremists without judgment will fail. You have to know why plurality is better than a dictatorship or what is the basis of human dignity. It never hurts to think about things like this - but it's essential when talking to right-wing extremists.

But there is no point in fighting ideological battles in an interview. It is true that a Nazi sometimes starts thinking during a thorough conversation (because most of them rarely talk to people outside their close circle); but a journalist will not be able to dissuade him from his opinion and "convert" him. It makes just as little sense to pretend to be in interviews. I don't remember any conversation in the "scene" in which I had to pretend. Most right-wing extremists did not mind, on the contrary: They were often happy to be able to communicate. NPD cadres believe their party program has answers to all the world's problems. They think their worldview explains all problems and evils - and people just have to follow you and everything would be fine. You are like missionaries, so you want to talk to journalists. Even if they denigrate them at the same time as "liberalist enemy press" or "agents of world Jewry".

A study by the Bertelsmann Foundation two years ago came to the conclusion that reporting on right-wing extremists is mostly characterized by moral and emotional distancing. Presumably media doesn't work without morality and emotion. But much more important for good journalism is to analyze and argue.

4. Quote? Yes! But always classify, analyze, evaluate

Nothing is as revealing as quotations, also and especially with right-wing extremists. But nothing would be wrong to quote statements by right-wing extremists "just like that". Because they specialize in twisting words. Right-wing extremists use vocabulary differently from the rest of the public (sometimes on purpose, sometimes unnoticed). When a democrat speaks of "democracy", he (hopefully) means something different from an NPD man. For example, when a right-wing extremist says "Volk" or "Germans", he is implicitly excluding German citizens with "wrong" genes or ancestors. A careful journalist must communicate this to his reader, so he must always classify, analyze and evaluate quotes from right-wing extremists.

If the NPD presents itself as a social Robin Hood and polemicises against Hartz IV, then as a journalist you have to make it clear that their counter-concept is that of an inwardly cozy, but outwardly delimiting national community. If the party advocates environmental protection, one has to expose the underlying blood-and-soil ideology. It's not that difficult to unmask the NPD's program. Of course, reporting on right-wing extremism that exposes the content is tedious, and it is probably more fun to write about football. But I don't see any alternative.