Stories have the capacity to change minds. At their best, they can be totally engrossing—captivating to the point of altering attitudes and, every so often, deep-rooted beliefs. But while narratives can enlighten and educate, they also have the dangerous potential to misinform and mislead.
Six months ago, I was in Germany for my undergraduate thesis project, researching far-right political parties (one of which recently received up to 27.5% of the votes in a state election) and their extremist counterparts (neo-Nazis and white supremicists). I was there to understand why the fascist talking-points that Nazis used in the 1930s-40s are reappearing in popular culture everywhere, even in Germany, despite its status as one of the most self-conscious countries for fascism-awareness, civic engagement, and recognizing past mistakes.
In the decades during and before WWII, the primary narrative in Germany was that Jews were responsible for all of the nation’s social problems; that they were stealing the white Germans’ wealth, that they were locked in a competitive struggle of birth-rates, that they controlled the press and an output of fake news, that they were raping white women. Today, the same storyline has been revived, just with additional “perpetrators.” The xenophobic rhetoric now extends beyond anti-Semitism to Islamophobia. After millions of refugees were granted asylum by the German government in 2015, the German far-right primarily considers Muslims, Turks, and Middle-Eastern immigrants as their enemies.
During the second week of my trip, I traveled to Berlin to interview a member of EXIT Germany, a non-profit organization designed to help neo-Nazis transition into mainstream society, so that I could understand how Germany was responding to this growing far-right ideology.
My contact—Fabian Wichmann—sat on the curb of a quiet suburban Berlin street, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette in front of EXIT’s unmarked office building. He wore army-fatigue cargo shorts, Birkenstock sandals, and a black shirt with a skull and crossbones that had a single teardrop in the right eye socket. As he stood to shake my hand, he took one last puff and flicked the cigarette into the street.
Inside the modest and discreet office, Wichmann explained that EXIT was nearing its 20-year-anniversary, having been established in 2000 through a unique partnership between a former policeman and a former neo-Nazi. Since its founding, EXIT has helped over 500 radicalized far-right extremists leave the movement and integrate into mainstream society, and the organization has received several awards for its low recidivism rate (which is approx. 3%). One likely explanation for the extremely low relapse rate among converted neo-Nazis is EXIT’s emphasis on ideological reconstruction.
“We have a definition of what it really means to ‘exit’ or ‘deradicalize’ that isn’t only to change the environment or behavior or clothing, but also to leave the ideology behind,” Wichmann explained. Since ideology is what “gives the violence a goal” and leads to dangerous behavior, EXIT focuses on changing ideology during the sometimes months-long process of helping people leave Nazi communities.
If anything, this ideological excavation is tedious and takes small-steps. “It’s not like ‘today we’re having a lesson on anti-Semitism,’” he said. “It’s more like we try to make these reflections a part of the normal counseling process… so when I speak with him about the process of leaving, I also speak about political narratives and ideas, about his past, about his way into the scene, and why he did so.”
For Wichmann, the most effective way to combat neo-Nazis’ false or skewed beliefs is by providing them with “alternative narratives.” If someone blames Jews for the social problems in Germany, for example, Wichmann said that he would ask them to consider other possible explanations for those problems. “It’s not like I tell him answers,” he said. “It’s just that there are different ways to see or talk about the problem, so we try to give more solutions and more explanations for the problems.”
It’s these alternative viewpoints—the different ways of telling the story—that make the biggest ideological change in former neo-Nazis. Ultimately, Wichmann told me, narratives help extremists to see “not just black and white, but the area in between.”
While this is just one piece to the puzzle (the exit process often involves a multifaceted approach tailored to the needs of each individual), alternative narratives comprise an important part of the deradicalization process for far-right extremists. Because far-right extremists tend to choose easy solutions for systemic problems, alternative narratives work to move away from stereotypes and acknowledge the more complex explanations for social problems.
Just a few weeks after I met with Wichmann, I spoke at length with an American white nationalist as a part of my research. A small part of our conversation was about racial inequality and violence—he told me that in the U.S. “black people aren’t doing well as a people” because they developed a “gang subculture.” To support his claim, he cited that African-Americans were responsible for 50% of the violent crime in the U.S. despite being only 13% of the total population. In response, I gave him an alternative narrative and explained that this issue was socio-economical, not cultural or racial—it’s not that African-Americans are inherently violent, it’s that people in poorer conditions have higher rates of violence. Historical injustices—segregation, redlining, lack of access to capital, restricted education, and more—have created generational wealth gaps between ethnicities that have absolutely nothing to do with a “gang subculture.” “Possibly true,” he conceded, despite returning to what seemed like a set of scripted beliefs shortly after.
Nevertheless, that brief reflective moment helped me understand the power of stories. I recognized that I gave someone with extremist ideology an explanation he had never been exposed to before, and that he genuinely considered, even if only briefly, this new narrative. It was a testament to the potential of dialogue—of listening and being listened to—and how each person plays a role in society by what they choose to share, by what stories they tell, and who they share them with.