The threat of far-right extremism in Germany: A matter of child protection

This blogpost was originally posted as a publication on the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism’s website.

On 7 December 2022 German authorities arrested two dozen members of a right-wing terrorist organisation associated with the Reichsbürger (citizens of the Reich) for plotting an armed coup to overthrow the state. The events made headlines across the world, leading many to ask how such an organisation, whose members included figures from across the social spectrum, could have come to be. But right-wing extremism (RWE) has been growing in Germany for some time, reaching its two decade-high in 2021, when Germany’s interior minister acknowledged that “right-wing extremism is the greatest threat to security in our country.”

This Perspective argues that while the level of organised right-wing extremist and terrorist activity in Germany undeniably poses a national security issue, it has also caused serious challenges to child protection efforts. Above all, it puts at the top of the agenda the question of how frontline practitioners should engage with children living in environments where family members are linked to RWE. This is profoundly important both for the welfare of children exposed to RWE, and for efforts to counteract a broad range of harms to children in the future.

The EU-funded PREPARE project (for which ICCT is a partner) aims to enhance the well-being of children growing up in families with links to violent extremism (jihadist and far-right) in Europe. It does so by identifying their unique risk and resilience factors, and by developing targeted support for practitioners who are working with these children. Based on systematic literature reviews and in-depth interviews with experts, front-line practitioners, and  relatives of violent extremist individuals, the PREPARE project has generated the most comprehensive knowledge base to date about the experiences and needs of children raised in families with links to violent extremism.

Drawing on the preliminary findings of the PREPARE project, this Perspective explores the unique vulnerabilities that children may face as a result of their family members’ involvement in RWE groups and discusses the challenges that front-line practitioners may encounter when working with children and their RWE parents. While the recent case in Germany has put the Reichsbürger in the spotlight, this Perspective ultimately encourages more attention to the well-being of children in family’s where there are links to violent extremism.

Growing up in right-wing extremist communities

Social workers, child welfare services, educators, and health professional are increasingly encountering children raised in families with links to violent extremism. While Germany’s action plan against right-wing extremism proposes a holistic approach to curbing extremist activity and radicalisation, it does not consider the role of front-line practitioners and child welfare services. The action plan includes measures to destroy extremist networks by drying up their financial sources, by disarming extremists via measures that allow for the revocation of weapons permits on the grounds of involvement in right-wing extremist activities, by removing enemies of the constitution from civil service positions, and by clamping down on the distribution of illegal extremist content online. Additional efforts include educational measures to debunk conspiracy theories, to open spaces for critical discussions, and to foster political education. While this action plan also includes measures to qualify multipliers (individuals who can transmit knowledge and skills to other practitioners) at schools and in youth and adult education, it does not consider approaches to equip other frontline practitioners with the expertise to meaningfully support children raised in violent extremist networks. Interviews I conducted with experts in Germany revealed a strong need for this, as frontline practitioners often lack both experience and expertise in identifying how a child may be uniquely impacted in such an environment, and ways to support the children of violent right-wing extremists.

It is important to acknowledge that not all children of right-wing extremists are at risk of harm, or indeed radicalisation. However, a growing body of research finds that they may be more likely to be exposed to a range of risk factors inherent to growing up in right-wing extremist communities (that is, factors that may cause some negative impact on the child’s healthy development, including Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs). Moreover, PREPARE interview participants noted that the specific vulnerabilities of children of right-wing extremists often go unnoticed by social workers, especially when they do not show signs of radicalisation themselves. This means that they are less likely to receive any targeted, state-led support.

Our research has shown that children growing up in right-wing extremist communities in Germany are likely to be exposed to a wide range of  (ACEs). These may be directly linked to or influenced by their family’s involvement in extremist networks, and can have a detrimental impact on their well-being and development. The accounts of the some individuals who succeeded in exiting the scene provide a glimpse into the bleak realities for some of these children, especially those associated with the Völkische Sielder (Völkish Settlers). The testimonies of Tanja Privenau and Heidi Benneckenstein reveal what a childhood in this sect-like neo-Nazi community can entail. They tell stories of emotional and physical abuse and neglect, paramilitary training camps, ideological indoctrination, death threats, and coercion. While children from many types of troubled families may face ACEs, in right wing extremist communities ACEs may be shaped by the parent’s ideology, or the associated networks and exposures related to that group.

While the suicide of Privenau’s daughter in 2010 sparked concerns about the well-being of children in right-wing extremist circles, state interference on the grounds of Kindeswohlgefährdung (the endangerment of the child’s well-being) is a complex process. While it is particularly difficult to identify when the exposure to extremist ideology constitutes an endangerment to the child’s well-being, it may be the case that parents’ extremist ideology leads to decisions that consequently can harm their children. One extreme example of this in the Reichsbürger circle concerns a wanted extremist who had kept their underaged children in an underground dwelling that he built as a hideout. Upon the detainment of their father, the two siblings were placed under the care of the German youth welfare services. However, most other cases of child abuse are less obvious. In one example that was raised in the PREPARE interviews, neighbours and kindergarten teachers of Völkische Siedler children observed them stealing food. It emerged that they had been deprived of food by their parents as punishment. However, when these incidents were reported to the local counselling service for far-right extremism, the witnesses were unable to prove that the children were starving because they appeared physically healthy. Experts confirm that it is often difficult to prove that the ACEs of children in violent right-wing extremist families constitute endangerment to their well-being. However, this is the only legal ground on which the child protection service can intervene in family life – a separation of children from their parents is always considered the last resort and, in most cases, preceded by less invasive protective measures including counselling, support, and assistance with parenting.

PREPARE’s systematic literature review on the lives of children in families linked to violent extremist right-wing communities, which included a focus on Germany and German-language publications, suggests that many of the experiences shared by Privenau and Benneckenstein are far from unique. For example, several important studies on the social structures of the Völkische Siedler highlight that children are subjected to an instrumentalised upbringing that can pose a significant threat to their right to free development and to the expression of their personalities. Experts confirmed that parents linked to right-wing extremist groups may seek to indoctrinate their children ideologically, for example by exposing them exclusively to far-right music, neo-Nazi literature, and toys; and by trying to instil fear, prejudice, and hatred against specific ethnic groups, religious minorities, disabled persons, and individuals from sexual minorities. Right-wing extremist parents may also employ an extremely authoritative pedagogy, which relies on emotional and physical abuse to achieve subordination and obedience.

The literature also reveals that some right-wing extremist parents make a conscious effort to isolate their children from democratic environments and multicultural influences. For example, they may limit their social interactions to those with other “pure” German children. Despite governmental efforts to prohibit the organisation of neo-Nazi youth camps, journalists and researchers have found significant evidence of their ongoing existence. In these camps, children may be subjected to survival, combat, and in some cases even weapons training, are drilled into obedience, and are ideologically indoctrinated. Not all the above outlined means of ideological indoctrination constitute child abuse, and they do not necessarily result in ACEs. Yet these examples support the argument that children raised by RWE parents may be exposed to a range of unique risk factors that may harm their physical and mental wellbeing, and that practitioners should be aware of these.

The challenge of supporting children in RWE environments

Interviews with professionals consulted for PREPARE suggested that, for a variety of reasons, it is particularly difficult for social workers and front-line practitioners to meaningfully support children exposed to right-wing extremism in their families. As home-schooling is prohibited in Germany, schools are often the only spaces where children growing up in sect-like right-wing extremist communities get the opportunity to escape from their parents’ authority, experience democratic values, and connect with non-extremist adults and peers.

Educators can thus assume a crucial role in contributing to the well-being and resilience of these children. However, they are also confronted with major challenges. Most information that we have about the emotional and developmental state of children in right-wing extremist networks comes from educators who have reached out to child protection services and local counselling bodies specialising in extremism and radicalisation. These teachers identified instances of child neglect, including children being sent to school without food as a punishment for disobedience, and without warm clothing as an attempt to “toughen them up”. They also observed conspicuous behavioural traits among children that led them to believe that these children’s well-being may be compromised because of their parents’ involvement in right-wing extremist networks. At the same time, our research also revealed that these teachers are often unsure how to respond in these situations. For example, as a result of their lack of expertise in supporting these children, they may try to evade any interactions with RWE parents.

While it is impossible to generalise from individual cases, educators, and extremism experts found that some children experience schooling as particularly challenging because they are instructed to keep secret their families’ right-wing extremist ideology. These children must constantly stay alert so not to reveal anything about their family activities and conversations, preventing them from meaningfully participating in the school environment. While these children may appear overtly obedient and adjusted, practitioners raised concerns that an inner conflict resulting from exposure to two completely contrasting value systems can cause severe emotional struggles. They observed that this has led to extreme introversion, depression, eating disorders, self-harm and aggressive outbursts among several children. Younger children in particular were found to display extreme behaviour like singing Nazi songs, drawing swastikas, encouraging other children to play ‘gassing’, or displaying hostile and discriminating sentiments towards disabled and minority children. Not only did this harm other children, but it also put these children themselves at risk of being excluded from activities by their peers and teachers.

Participants also noted that children that they suspect of being raised in right-wing extremist communities are often socially excluded, emotionally overstrained or exhausted, and unable to fulfil their full potential. This means that these children may be in need of support that is particularly focused on their social participation and development. However, our research suggests that a lack of expertise and preparedness among educators means that they may not recognize or understand these children’s behaviour, or may even expel them from their institutions.

Although educators and social workers may be best placed to support these children, they also face significant challenges when trying to work with their parents. Several practitioners in a local counselling organisation in Germany explained that most teachers and social workers have very little knowledge and experience that allows them to address issues related to right-wing extremist ideology and may even shy away from engaging with right-wing extremists. Moreover, educators and social workers have increasingly become targets of violent extremists. Educators who either tried to teach children of right-wing extremists democratic values or attempted to cooperate with extremist parents to improve their children’s wellbeing disclosed that they have been actively threatened, intimidated, yelled at, and insulted.

In other cases where parents associate with right-wing extremism were confronted by social workers and educators, they simply enrolled their children in another educational institution, or in more severe cases went as far as changing their names and addresses or even moving abroad to evade state interference. Equally worryingly, several parents reportedly sought to pressure educators to gain control over the curriculum and values of their children’s schools. Right-wing groups associated with the Reichsbürger and Völkische Siedler have also repeatedly attempted to establish their own educational institutions in Germany and in Switzerland. These attempts suggest that state-led interventions targeted at countering RWE have to go beyond the measures outlined in the government’s action plan. In particular, they reveal the need for the German government to counteract the creation of alternative educational structures where the intergenerational transmission of extremist ideology can flourish.

Enhancing the resilience of children in RWE environments

This Perspective demonstrates that those involved in RWE, such as those involved in the Reichsbürger plot, may actively seek to instil their beliefs and values in the next generation, and to use them to destabilise democracy and multiculturalism. This makes it all the more important that we can understand much more fully the methods employed by right-wing extremists to create spaces in which they can instrumentalise children for their ideological purposes, and to identify interventions that ensure these children’s well-being and social participation.

Research as part of the PREPARE project has already shown that the children of parents involved in violent RWE networks are likely to be exposed to a wide range of ACEs. As their parents are often well-connected, affluent, and not in need of state support, their offspring constitute a category of children that is particularly hard to reach, and indeed in many cases may not be engaging in illegal activities.

As Germany continues its effort to clamp down on RWE, it remains important not to reduce the issue to one of national security solely. The steady increase of right-wing activity raises important questions related to the ways in which the state can better equip front-line practitioners with the resources and training that they require to enhance the resilience and well-being of the children of violent far-right extremists.

Author: Lynn Schneider (ICCT/Leiden University)