In the wake of the right-wing terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, countries across the globe are scrambling to improve surveillance and monitoring of right-wing extremists. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced an immediate review of New Zealand’s security agencies, with 250 police officers investigating why the terrorist was not on any security watchlists. But is better intelligence the right response to right-wing terror?
There may be no better place to look for answers than Germany, where decades of work to rebuild democracy after the Nazi era—along with the need to respond to a wave of right-wing extremist youth engagement in the 1980s and 1990s—has led to what is now unquestionably the broadest and most comprehensive approach to combatting right-wing extremism globally.
What the German approach makes clear is that a national strategy focusing predominantly on surveillance and monitoring of extremists will never be enough. Successfully countering right-wing extremism requires deep integration of that work into the strengthening and protection of democracy itself.
Framing extremism prevention as part of broader democratic practice directly integrates it into the mandates of a broad range of federal, state, and local actors. Domestic German intelligence agencies are literally called offices for the protection of the constitution (Verfassungsschutz), which situates security work within a charge to protect democracy. German police are trained to assess crimes for right-wing extremist motivation. Teachers have a mandate to prevent right-wing extremism as part of their broader obligation to reinforce democratic values, which often manifests through direct engagement and counter-argumentation with right-wing extremist youth in classrooms.
This requires significant investments in teacher training. A recent three-year pilot project in Dresden, for example, offered intensive coaching for vocational school teachers to improve their knowledge of right-wing extremist youth culture and to collaboratively develop pedagogical strategies for engaging right-wing youth in classrooms. Similar trainings, seminars, and workshops are widespread and consistently frame schools’ engagement with right-wing extremism as part of the broader promotion of democratic values and practices.
Making intelligence, prevention, criminal enforcement and deradicalization work part of shared regional and national strategies to strengthen democracy clearly communicates that prevention of extremism is not just a niche approach to combat a fringe group, but is rather part of the entire nation’s obligation to the greater good.
This approach makes it easier to situate counter-extremism work within comprehensive public education about the dangers right-wing extremism poses to a healthy democracy. It makes ensuring an informed citizenry a community responsibility, rather than relegating it to narrower groups, such as history and social studies teachers. In Germany, federal and state agencies for civic education, along with local organizations, provide a constant stream of public education about extremism, radicalization, and violence prevention, offering regular events, workshops, subsidized books, and materials to the public as well as specific trainings for teachers, social workers, parents and others.
In this way, counter-extremism work is integrated into every region and small town. There are hundreds of federally-funded NGOs, state agencies, local organizations, initiatives, and projects nationwide working with schools, youth centers, and communities to provide outreach, counseling, and rehabilitation support to at-risk youth and drop-outs from far right scenes. There are local “mobile advisors” for right-wing extremism across the country, offering trainings, consultations and on-the-ground advice based on local, regional, and state needs.
This includes free and confidential counsel for anyone concerned about right-wing extremism in the local area and advice on addressing immediate crises as well as long-term prevention strategies. One local mobile advisor’s website, for example, offers support for situations such as right-wing extremist youth trying to take over a local youth club, trying to organize a right-wing concert, or when right-wing or hateful incidents happen in workplaces or schools.
Thematic diversity is present too. Public and private funding supports research, arts- and theatre-based programs, and public debates to increase awareness and critical engagement among the general public. A national network of churches and religious associations pursue right-wing extremism prevention as part of broader missions to promote respect for human rights, an inclusive society and to be places for “everyday democratic culture” (demokratische Alltagskultur).
Importantly, the German approach recognizes that effective interventions require meeting at-risk youth where they are. Scores of preventative programs are situated in the places where at-risk youth are most likely to encounter extremist messaging. At least a dozen of these initiatives target online radicalization alone. There are anti-racist programs for soccer clubs, including initiatives to organize soccer tournaments against racism and violence and efforts to advise sport halls against renting space to right-wing extremist groups. There are programs for teachers in vocational schools, and a network of mixed martial arts schools that commit to counter-radicalization and counter-radicalization work in a variety of ways, such as promising to have an on-site, trained mentor who can recognize signs of radicalization and intervene. Federal and state agencies maintain searchable databases to enable easy access to programs and expertise.
This principle—of meeting people where they are—applies even to Holocaust memorial work, which is a part of everyday practice in Germany. Spaces to remember victims of right-wing violence are integrated into ordinary life, in the names of streets and in the simple Stolperstein—cobblestone—memorials placed outside residences from which Holocaust victims were deported. Through such everyday confrontations with lived history, the consequences of right-wing extremism become integrated reminders in daily German life.
Most of the rest of the world—including France and the U.S.—treats counter-extremism as a law enforcement problem. This work is critical, of course. But countries that rely primarily on intelligence efforts to counter violent extremism will always be playing catch up, because even the best monitoring systems are at best a band-aid solution—leaving plenty of openings for violent individuals to slip through.
France, the U.S., and other countries would do far better to model counter-extremism efforts on the German approach—by acknowledging that preventing extremism is not just a law enforcement mandate. We all contribute to environments in which extreme views flourish or are expunged. Situating de-radicalization and prevention strategies within broader democracy- and civil society-building efforts helps ensure extremism remains marginalized and makes clear that we all have a role to play.
The German approach isn’t perfect, and it hasn’t solved right-wing extremism, which is rising in Germany, just as it is across Europe. It requires resources, and there is duplication and competition across local initiatives, which could be better coordinated. Moreover, the emphasis on preventing right-wing extremism has arguably overshadowed the need to promote diversity and inclusion as part and parcel of democracy too. But as imperfect as the German approach may be, an attack like the one in New Zealand is made less likely by integrating counter-extremism into broader democracy-building efforts.
We can start by recognizing that prevention of extremism and the protection of democracy go hand in hand. This means finding ways to integrate the values of democratic culture into everyday life such that every individual feels an obligation to promote inclusivity, protect minority rights and fight racism wherever it exists. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern already knows this. In a speech to a Christchurch high school just days after the shooting, she told students that preventing future extremist violence will require “every single one of us” to commit to combatting racism, which “breeds extremism.”
Preventing another white supremacist attack, in other words, is more than the work of a specialist few. It is part of everyone’s obligation to a thriving democracy.
Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss is the Head of Outreach at CARR and Professor of Education and Sociology at the American University in Washington, DC. Her profile can be found here:
© Cynthia Miller-Idriss. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
A French language version of this article can be found here.