Jule Grahmann had heard enough from her classmates.
Fellow students at her high school in Erfurt, a small eastern German city, would say mean things about Syrian refugees who’ve resettled in the country. And there were the comments in history class when other students would talk “in a very mean way” about World War II.
Outside of school, she’s heard trash-talking on the soccer field, aimed at nonnative German players.
“Most of them wanted to make fun but sometimes it escalated to conflicts between parents,” Grahmann said.
It inspired Grahmann, 18, to start an anti-racism group at her school last year with a handful of other classmates. The group tries to raise awareness about being respectful of one another through workshops and other projects.
“I think this is the problem: Lots of young people don't think of their opinions and of their comments in a real way. They sometimes aren’t aware of what they do to others.”
“I think this is the problem: Lots of young people don't think of their opinions and of their comments in a real way,” she said. “They sometimes aren’t aware of what they do to others.”
Germany’s ability to combat extremism and teach tolerance has been tested over the past half-decade, as there’s been an increasingly prominent far-right element and further diversification of Germany (about a quarter of Germans have immigrant backgrounds).
There’s been a renewed wave of anti-immigrant politics, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic attacks.
Anti-government protests have been a regular event in Berlin and other big cities for the past year by those opposed to the coronavirus lockdowns. At a protest in late August, demonstrators rushed the steps of Germany’s parliament building, the Reichstag, but were turned away by police before trying to enter.
The strategy for combating far-right extremism and preaching tolerance in Germany has long focused on racism while it’s still schoolyard taunts — before things escalate or turn violent.
Grahmann gets support from The Network for Democracy and Courage, or NDC, one of several organizations in Germany confronting racism.
“In school, especially when you talk about politics, or when you talk about refugees, this is when those thoughts come up,” said Anika Färber, a trainer for NDC.
Färber goes into schools to lead discussions with young people.
“They are attentive, they listen to you, they participate,” she said of the youth, though there’s also plenty of awkward silence.
At school, children are a captive audience — and their teachers carry a lot of influence, activists say. But what they hear outside of school, namely at home, is the biggest challenge.
“Young people act out the racist attitudes of their parents or what they hear around,” said Silke Baer, co-founder of Cultures Interactive, another anti-racism nonprofit.
And so, organizations such as Cultures Interactive and NDC try to reach children before hateful views and beliefs are hardened.
“I’ve learned pretty quickly that it’s pretty much impossible to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced. Especially if their family shares their views, if their friends share their views, it’s pretty much impossible.”
“I’ve learned pretty quickly that it’s pretty much impossible to convince someone who doesn’t want to be convinced,” said Gio Hoffmann, another trainer with NDC. “Especially if their family shares their views, if their friends share their views, it’s pretty much impossible.”
But a few days of discussions in school has to counterbalance not just what’s heard at home, but also what’s on social media.
Michael Brenner teaches history at American University in Washington, DC, and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany. He says it took a few decades after World War II for Germans to start the process of confronting their past, but says Germans have been working long and hard at it.
“Germany has done, I would say, a very good job in facing its own past, in making very clear that the Holocaust and how it came to [be] — both the Nazi rule and the Holocaust has to be taught in schools,” he said.
Having survivors speak to younger generations of Germans was an anchor for teaching about the Holocaust that worked well, Brenner said, but few survivors are still alive today.
Society has changed since Germany enacted a post-war philosophy of confronting its past in the 1970s, says Cornelius Strobel of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, and so the teaching strategy needs to as well.
“School books still teach a very static view on the Holocaust and how that affects our society,” Strobel said.
As an example, he said curricula need to be updated to acknowledge and address systemic oppression.
Extremism and the mainstream
Felix Steiner from Mobit, an organization that works to combat hate crimes, says there aren’t necessarily more racist people in Germany, but it’s gotten easier to share racist messaging, and it’s becoming more commonplace as extremist ideology enters the mainstream.
“You don’t need anything, you just need a computer, or a mobile phone now. And you’re in contact with these people,” he said.
He says the boots- and trench coat-wearing neo-Nazis of the 1990s have given way, and now, members of the far right-wing political party Alternative for Germany, for example, wear business suits and spread their ideology on social media and even video games.
“It's a way to get in, and then, you're confronted with all this racist stuff and anti-Semitic stuff and so on.”
“It's a way to get in, and then, you're confronted with all this racist stuff and anti-Semitic stuff and so on,” he said.
There have been several high-profile arrests of police officers and soldiers who were connected with extremist groups and in some cases, were accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
Social media is “like a fire accelerator,” Strobel said.
Completely putting out the fire will be hard — the AfD consistently wins about 10% of votes in elections, according to researchers, and was popular among younger voters in regional elections in Thuringia, in the eastern part of Germany, last year.
There are not a lot of studies on the extent of extremism among German youth today. But researchers say what they do know is that there’s a small but persistent element. And it can turn dangerous if left alone.
Grahmann is hopeful that her school group is making a positive difference. Their efforts have sparked further activities on the subject — the seventh-grade class now even has its own podcast about political issues. Getting people talking is one way to start solving the problem together, she said.