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Overlooked and underrated: women in right-wing extremist groups in Germany

Right-wing extremism continues to be perceived by mainstream media and statutory organizations as a predominantly “male problem” since the stereotypical view regards white women as non-violent, peaceful, loving and caring individuals. This is highly misleading. 

Heike Radvan Carmen Altmeyer
2 September 2014

Photographs of the three accused in the Bosphorus serial murders. Beate Zschäpe on the left. Ddpimages/Wikimedia. Fair use.During the last 25 years, there has been a marked increase both in the number of active right-wing women as well as a growth in the number of women‘s groups in the right-wing extremist scene in Germany. The possible roles and positions which can be assumed by women have also expanded: from activists, street fighters and gang leaders to local government politicians, demonstration coordinators and internet activists.

Many right-wing families settle in the rural areas of eastern and western Germany, with ultra-nationalist families often concentrated in specific regions. “Right-wing women seek to influence the social environment of these areas by assuming roles in local government or simply by becoming ‘friendly neighbours’”, explains Esther Lehnert from the Expert Center on Gender and Right-Wing Extremism of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation from Germany. Individuals often cannot be identified right away as neo-Nazis.  

In recent years, the number of young women from the National Democratic Party (NPD, the most important German right-wing political party) choosing careers in the health, education and social sectors has increased. Similarly ultra-right-wing mothers have been getting more involved in parents’ organisations at schools and kindergartens. This development is not by chance. Even in 1998, Udo Voigt, then head of the NPD, advocated a specific focus on these social themes. Much later, in 2006, NPD party members were encouraged to get even more involved in German daily life: for instance in local initiatives, sports clubs and the voluntary fire service. Following the NPD’s Women’s Congress of 1996, its female members redoubled their engagement in kindergartens, schools, youth centres, sports clubs as well as nursing homes.

The aim of these women is to gain trust, forge relationships and networks, as well as to establish a sense of normality around the right-wing scene. When staff at educational and social institutions are confronted with the identity of extreme right-wing women, they are usually taken by surprise. Often right-wing women work with them for a long time before their political identities are exposed. When this occurs, the institutions naturally find themselves under pressure to react quickly and there is not always a consensus within the staff team about how such situations should be handled. “Under such circumstances it is essential that professional support is sought straight away”, Lehnert advises.

The Expert Center on Gender and Right-Wing Extremism has been working on the topic of right-wing women for several years and has advised many institutions on how to proceed in such cases. In March 2014, it published a brochure called Overlooked and Underrated: Women in Right-Wing Extremist Groups in Germany, which focuses on the serious misrepresentation of women in right-wing extremist groups. The brochure shows that there is a very low level of awareness concerning the racist, anti-Semitic and right-wing extremist attitudes of girls and women in German civil society, within the social work and public education sectors, in the media, as well as within local government.

Women were, of course, actively involved as perpetrators in the twentieth century German National Socialist movement, holding a variety of positions and functions. And even after the end of World War II, women assumed positions in right-wing extremist organisations and political parties in West Germany. Some were ideological masterminds and propagandists working in leadership positions. Some also participated as members of militant (and even terrorist) groups. The general public is often not aware of this at all.

By way of example, one of the two case studies included in the report takes a closer look at the rise and fall of the now infamous right-wing terrorist Beate Zschäpe. Although her racist, even violent activities, were known to the social services and police departments, she was always viewed as little more than a side-kick and therefore not the focus of serious investigation.

The consequences of underestimating the role of women in right-wing organisations are clear and, in the case of the victims of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) murders, severe. The Expert Center on Gender and Right-Wing Extremism therefore recommends that the topic of right-wing women be included in the professional training of police officers, journalists, educators and social workers. It has successfully trained many professionals and continues to offer these professional trainings.

Moreover schools, kindergartens, sports associations and other organizations should develop and implement a so-called “democratic principle”. This is an assertion of democratic values and should include procedures for how the organization will recognise right-wing ideology and how it will respond to it.

Another problem is that the level of hostility targeted at women in general, and mothers in particular, who wish to leave right-wing extremist groups is underrated. This is an area of concern for which urgent steps need to be taken. In Germany there are various privately- as well as state-funded programmes for former right-wing activists who wish to exit the scene. To date, none of these programmes have focused specifically on the needs of women, even though these situations require gender-specific approaches, for example when mothers with children try to leave the scene. Professionals in various fields, for instance divorce courts and social welfare offices, lack awareness of their needs and are simply not trained to deal with these scenarios. Therefore, the conceptualisation and implementation of exit programmes for neo-Nazis need to be gender-specific and gender-sensitive. State-funded programmes should always include gender-mainstreaming strategies.

There is an urgent need for a gender-sensitive approach in all strategies and actions to prevent and counter right-wing extremism, because otherwise, they are bound to fail. Institutions and organisations must develop policies to deal with right-wing extremism at a strategic level instead of merely responding to individual cases as if they were “one-offs”.


This article was translated by Sharon Dodua Otoo.

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