Reaching out to extremist youth

So-called patriots on their way to disrupt national day celebrations at the Rütli meadow Keystone

Outreach worker Samuel Althof, who has spent five years among young extremists, tells swissinfo personal problems often lie behind militant behaviour.

This content was published on November 7, 2005 - 11:59

The spokesman for Action Children of the Holocaust says that by dealing with these problems the pressure group has helped more than 40 far-right and far-left extremists abandon militancy.

The Basel-based group was, as the name suggests, founded by children of Holocaust survivors.

Over the past 15 years, its members have been involved in a number of campaigns against racism and anti-Semitism. Now their main focus is on extremism prevention.

The "internet-streetworking" project, which involves approaching young extremists in a bid to help them find a way out of the scene, works in collaboration with Basel University's youth violence research project.

swissinfo: Why is it important to target both the far-right and far-left scenes?

Samuel Althof: Because far-right and far-left extremists are related to each other. Each side uses the other to justify their existence. If you just work with the far right, you don't get in touch with the whole problem.

swissinfo: How significant is the far-right scene?

S.A.: If you judge it by media coverage, the problem seems to be very big. But if you look at the facts, you have about 1,200 far-right activists in Switzerland. A minority of them are hard-core activists who have developed their own closed ideology.

Other people in the scene come and go. You have a lot of people showing up at concerts or events who do not have a deep involvement or fixed ideology yet. These young sympathisers are the ones we work with.

What is very important is that there is no strategic working alliance between the far-right groups in Switzerland now. They are trying to establish it but up to now have not been successful. So you cannot say that we have a national problem. But we sometimes have local problems that can be very dangerous.

swissinfo: And on the far-left?

S.A: There are more people, over 3,000, and they have a very well functioning network. These groups have a strategy of violence in their politics.

swissinfo: How do you approach people who are attracted to these groups?

S.A.: We use the internet but we also go into the scenes or get information from parents, instructors and classmates.

When we work through the internet, we watch them for a long time and collect information about them. A typical experimental extremist has none of his own content on his website. His website has copy-pasted content from many places.

With these so-called nationalists, you can reach them if you start to engage with them but we never argue with them in a political way.

We always discover complicated family problems and usually we find that there is a weak or absent father.

It can also happen that the young person has experienced real problems with young foreigners at school. They may have been beaten up or bullied and they get no help to get along with the foreign children so they start to become racist. They have no coping skills and start to use black and white views. They fall into a racist trap.

swissinfo: What is the attraction of the neo-Nazi ideology and imagery?

S.A.: It is the power of identification with the aggressor; this has a lot of power. To put it simply, these people are trying to go from being a loser to a winner.

By taking something that is taboo in society, they show that they are strong. They also use it to shock their parents and keep them at a distance.

swissinfo: Do you have much success in convincing them to change their minds?

S.A: We never try to convince anybody. If we did this we would push them deeper into the mindset because our assessment of these young far-right people is that the external behaviour is not the problem.

We have learnt that they have problems behind this and that's what we talk about. We try to build opportunities for them to leave the scene, to find a win-win situation by leaving it behind.

swissinfo: What is your advice to a parent who finds their child has drifted into an extremist scene?

S.A.: Even if your child is behaving in a way you don't like, you have a responsibility as a parent to accept him. If you don't, you make it worse by giving him grounds to be like he is.
Parents have to enter into a critical dialogue with their children - there is no point in throwing them out of the house. Rather than attacking the behaviour, you have to talk about it.

Key facts

A 2004 national report on extremism in Switzerland estimated that there were 1,000 far-right extremist activists and 2,000 far-left extremist activists in Switzerland. The report defined the scenes as follows:
Left-wing extremism is a broad church including adherents of communism, Marxism, Leninism, socialism and anarchism.
An extreme-right attitude is characterised by extreme nationalism linked to xenophobia, along with aggressive racism and anti-Semitism.

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In brief

Action Children of the Holocaust has been involved in a number of campaigns against racism and anti-Semitism.

It also conducts research and co-founded the Swiss contact organisation for the children of Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution, which has built up an archive.

Three members of the organisation work exclusively on extremism prevention, dealing with cases all over Switzerland.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

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