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Dealing with right-wing violence since 1990

This stop is an intermediate station in close proximity to the former location of Kassablanca at Villengang 2a (today a retirement home). Here, we will address the handling of right-wing violence in the early 1990s.

As outlined at Eichplatz square, the right-wing violence of the 1990s had a prehistory in the GDR. From 1990 onwards, however, right-wing extremist attacks in the former GDR became more frequent and more violent. 

For Jena in 1990, several attacks on safe spaces for young people who saw themselves as left-wing have been documented. The Young Community ( JG Stadtmitte), the Autonomous Youth Centre in Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse and the Kassablanca sociocultural centre, then still at Villengang 2a, were attacked several times, the rooms vandalised, and the furniture destroyed.

But we knew that we could not defend the whole area

The squat in Karl-Liebknecht-Straße

The squat in Karl-Liebknecht-Straße was uninhabitable after the break-in in May 1990. The residents had to move into emergency housing in the Kassablanca for several months. To protect them from further attacks, wooden wedges were kept there so that the doors could be quickly barricaded from the inside. In an interview for the website, a former resident of Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse 58 who was 18 at the time retrospectively recounts the night of 2-3 October 1990: 

We had agreed for 2 October that we would go to the Kassablanca. There we communicated via radio with people who were on the road and looked where which gatherings were, where which groups moved to and how. But we knew that we could not defend the whole area. We just had to limit ourselves to controlling important objects and not letting anyone in. [...]

I think they went to East Jena and then to Kassa or the other way around, I don't know exactly. I think they came to the Kassa afterwards. But the Kassa was always very well defended. We had a nice foyer where the cloakroom was. There was a large closet as a drop-off point for the cloakroom. Our truncheons were in there. As soon as the alarm was raised, so to speak, people came to the cloakroom and didn't pick up their clothes, but a club. Then they went out and sorted it.

Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ), 23 October 1990

However, people who looked like the enemy according to a right-wing extremist worldview were also the target of attacks. Numerous incidents are documented for 1991 alone, including an armed right-wing-motivated attack on a Vietnamese man in broad daylight at Jena's marketplace. 


Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ), 15 March 1991

Not only in recent times has there been an increase in attacks on students and foreign citizens in Jena. These are accompanied by police incompetence (…)

In March 1991, the Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ) reported an armed assault. The Vietnamese man was beaten up by four attackers, stabbed in the head and robbed. In July of the same year, TLZ reported an attack on an Ethiopian student at Salvador Allende Square in East Lobeda. Both men had to be treated as inpatients.

The attacks were characterised not only by their brutality, but also by the fact that they took place in highly frequented public places. The attackers obviously did not fear any intervention from passers-by.

In a press release in May 1991, the Friedrich Schiller University student council delivered a damning indictment of the local security authorities and the local government, after two of its members had been attacked in their apartments by right-wing radical skinheads. The student council criticised the „inability“ of the police to process reports and the „helplessness“ of the city administration in dealing with right-wing radical violence.

It is not only recently that there has been an increase in attacks on students and foreign citizens in Jena. They are accompanied by an incompetence of the police to process reports and a helplessness of the city administration to deal with this problem. The situation has become so tense that some students no longer dare to walk through the city centre at certain times of the day. This is understandable, since often even different clothing can warrant an attack.

Press release of the FSU Jena student council, May 1991, ThürAZ, collection: Tilo Schieck, sg.: P-ST-K-02.03.

Press release of the FSU Jena student council, May 1991, ThürAZ, collection Tilo Schieck, P-ST-K-02.03.

The Student Council's evaluation assumed that the victims of the violent acts filed charges, but in many cases this did not happen due to fear or lack of trust in the police. 


The police were unable to cope with the steep incline in violence. In October 1991, a Jena police department employee complained that staffing levels were insufficient and employees undergoing further training were missing for duty. Victims of right-wing violence report that in the early 1990s there was little trust in the police and they had to provide their own protection.

The police handling of right-wing radicalism in the course of the transformation in 1989/90

In the early 1990s, the police often ignored the political aspect of right-wing extremist assaults. A statistic from the Jena police records a fivefold increase in assaults in Jena between 1989 and 1991, but does not name any political motivation.

Excerpt from the minutes of the security conference held on 22 October 1991, ThürAZ, collection: Thomas Grund, sg.: P-GT-K-14.11, p. 4.

As the Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ) observed in April 1990, the police made a point of stating that they „basically do not make any political differentiations, but [...] provide order and security for the citizens.“ As late as May 1990, the police cited the criminal offence „rowdyism“, which masked the political motivation of right-wing extremist violence.

„Right-wing radical hooligans were up to no good“, Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ), 25 April 1990

The equation of right-wing and left-wing violence and the accompanying depoliticisation and trivialisation of right-wing radical attitudes and actions were reproduced in part by the regional media. In an article in the TLZ in June 1990, the author stated: „In our society today, it is possible, with good will, to accept and tolerate fringe groups. But in order to counter an escalation between the 'right' and 'left', a lot of patience is needed from all sides.“

„Radicalism - Element of Democracy also in Jena?“, Thüringische Landeszeitung (TLZ), 27 June 1990

Dealing with right-wing radicalism in schools

The accession of the GDR to the Federal Republic and the resulting abolition of centralised structures created uncertainty and confusion not only among the police, but also in schools. The curriculum was to be de-ideologised and realigned in terms of content, and new school subjects were to be introduced. In the 1990/91 school year, the GDR school structures still existed on an interim basis; it was not until March 1991 that the Thuringian state parliament passed a provisional education law.

The headteacher of the Rosa Luxemburg School (later Lobdeburg School) in Alt-Lobeda, Barbara Wrede, who was appointed in 1991, reports on the beginning of the 1991/92 school year:

It was really absolute chaos at the school. [...] The students really thought they were allowed to do anything now, that the great freedom had begun. So it was all over the place in terms of discipline, too.

Interview with Barbara Wrede, 21.07.2021

Original soundbite Barbara Wrede

During the transformation of 1989/90, many teachers were primarily concerned with the structural and content-related upheavals in the school system. Some teachers deliberately kept a discussion about the increasing violence and the spread of right-wing extremist ideas among young people out of the schools.

Other teachers specifically dealt with violent confrontations between right-wing extremist and dissident youth in everyday life in student projects. One example of this is Bernd Rönnefarth, who, as a music teacher at the integrated comprehensive school „Grete Unrein“ rehearsed the musical „East Side Story“ with students in 1993.

„East Side Story“, Treffpunkt, 01.05.1993

Demanding social spaces

In the course of the early 1990s, right-wing youths in Jena also became increasingly self-confident. In a filmed group discussion in 1993, right-wing youths from the youth centre Treffpunkt in Lobeda Ost demanded that they be given their own rooms, analogous to the Autonomous Youth Centre in Karl-Liebknecht-Straße.

In the group discussion on the topic of "violence" in the youth centre Treffpunkt, one of the participating young people said:

When I look at Mr. Röhlinger, our strong mayor of Jena, for example, he makes some houses available to left-wing youths, where they can go in. I just experienced that again the other day, where they get in there, and we as right-wing oriented young people - if you can call it that - we don't get a house.

I think that's totally silly, really. But when I look at East Jena, for example, and see that there was a house there - or whether it still exists - and that there are flags hanging there saying „No Nazis“ or something, it's so provocative.

Discussion group on the topic of "violence" at the youth centre Treffpunkt, 1993

The openly demanding attitude of the young people from Treffpunkt reflected on the one hand their feeling that a significant part of society was behind them or shared their attitudes. Racist pogrom-like riots such as those in Hoyerswerda and Rostock-Lichtenhagen, which were openly supported by parts of the local population, had contributed to this.

However, media coverage had also contributed to this by presenting abuse of the asylum system as a danger and stoking racist resentment. One example is the front page of the 9 September 1991 issue of Spiegel, which used the metaphor of  the „the boat is full“, eight days before the pogrom-like riots began in Hoyerswerda.

Front page of Spiegel, 09.09.1991

Right-wing extremism and xenophobia among East German youths

Studies from 1989 to 1991 show that a general distrust of migrants was widespread not only among the population as a whole, but also and especially among the East German youth in the transition society.

In a study by the Leipzig Central Institute for Youth Research on „Right-wing extremism and xenophobia among East German youth“ in Saxony, in which 2,794 schoolchildren, trainees, students and young workers were surveyed, only 56% of the respondents said they would „voluntarily sit next to a foreigner.“ Only 32% said they would be willing to invite a „foreigner“ to their home. Even fewer respondents could imagine marrying a „foreigner“.


The „Action Program against Aggression and Violence“

In the early 1990s, youth policy debates about right-wing radicalism were shaped by concern for the 'uprooted' youth in the new federal states. Nationalism, racism and the resulting violence were played down as symptoms of the „disintegration“ of young people due to the consequences of the transformation. Understanding for the supposedly insecure young people, who were willing to resort to violence, led to a disregard of the political motivation and thus to the depoliticisation of radical right-wing violence.

Within the framework of youth welfare measures, general practice demanded that the focus should not be on repressing radical right-wing orientations, but rather on supporting young people in coping with life. This guideline was found in the policies of „accepting youth work.“

The approach was developed in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s when dealing with violent, and later drug-addicted, youths. In the late 1980s, educators working with Franz-Josef Krafeld at the University of Applied Sciences in Bremen applied it to working with „young people in right-wing youth groups.“

At the beginning of the nineties, the approach reached the new federal states, among other places through further training. The idea was to avoid „lecturing“, „mediating“ oder „enlightening“ the young target group - also with regard to political attitudes.

Under the direction of Dr. Angela Merkel, the Federal Ministry for Women and Youth developed a programme in 1991 based on the basic principles of „accepting youth work“: The „Action Program against Aggression and Violence“ (AgAG). Beginning in 1992, the ministry used the programme to provide targeted funding for projects involving young people with a propensity for violence and violent behaviour in „hotspot regions“ in the eastern German states. In December 1991, the federal government announced the provision of 20 million Deutschmarks for „target group-oriented funding“ to counter „young people’s extremist, xenophobic and violent riots.“

In Thuringia, projects in Eisenach, Erfurt, Jena, Nordhausen and Weimar were funded by the Action Program. The projects in Jena were attached to three institutions: to the Winzerclub in Winzerla and to the youth centre Treffpunkt in East Lobeda, both maintained by the government office for youth welfare, and to the Young Community Centre.


Angela Merkel in 1992 at the youth centre Treffpunkt in Lobeda

In Winzerla and Lobeda, community social workers worked with right-wing-oriented youths, but also with radical right-wing youths. A few months after the opening of Winzerclub, the then manager reported at the end of 1991 that there was an „increase in problems of violence at and in the club,“, that „more and more skinheads“  were coming to the club as regulars, and that 'normal' youths were being pushed out. Social workers would accompany the „problematic“ youths.

From November 1991 onwards – an increase in problems of violence at and in the club

Beginning in 1992, AgAG-funding intensified this problem by focusing on the target group of right-wing youths. For many other youths who were not violent or held radical right-wing attitudes, the youth centers Winzerclub and Treffpunkt became fear zones. Even passing by could take a lot of effort and lead to attacks.

The situation at Treffpunkt in East Lobeda, which was visited by Angela Merkel in 1992, was similar to at Winzerclub. At the end of 1992, the TLZ quoted the director at the time as saying that it was a „rumour“, that Treffpunkt was a „right-wing“ club and off bounds to „non-right-wingers“. However, Treffpunkt was an important base for community social work with right-wing and radical right-wing youth. The staff member in charge had his office there, and the club's rooms could be used by radical right-wing youths as a place to stay and meet.

Contemporary criticism of the „Action program“

Shortly after the action program was announced, the focus on right-wing perpetrators of violence led to accusations of neglect of other young people, especially migrants, and others potentially affected by right-wing violence. Contemporary criticism also pointed to the fact that the program actually encouraged violence, since the young people received attention when they behaved violently.

The policy’s treatment of right-wing radicalism as purely a youth problem was also addressed. It was argued that this trivialised the problem, pushing it into the realm of youth work, and thus distracted from overall societal and institutional causes of right-wing radicalism.

The „accepting“ approach – breeding ground for the emergence of the NSU complex

The „accepting“ approach, which accepted the formation of gangs and provided social spaces, enabled right-wing youths to network with like-minded people. In Jena, it meant that the later right-wing terrorists of the NSU and their comrades-in-arms were initially able to meet and network unhindered in the youth centres Winzerclub and Treffpunkt.

Accompanying right-wing youths

Since some of the newly appointed community social workers - also in Jena - originally came from youth work in the Protestant Church, the principles of Open Church also flowed into the accompaniment of right-wing youth.

In addition, the social workers were guided by the new Child and Youth Welfare Act, which established the social integration of disadvantaged young people as the goal of youth social work.

The social workers accepted the right-wing youths, even though they themselves rejected right-wing radicalism and violence. They wanted to build trust with them so that they could then bring about changes in their attitudes and behaviour. They were concerned - analogous to the approach of  „accepting“ youth work - with helping young people to work through their problems together. The problems they caused for others took a back seat to this.

Every young person has the right to make mistakes and to mess up.

Thomas Grund , who had been involved in the Open Church at the Young Community since 1971 and was employed as a community social worker in Winzerla from March 1991, stated in an article on Open Church in Jena in 2002:

Without accepting the young person as he or she is, nothing can move forward; this is the basic prerequisite for developing sustainable relationships with key carers who are not constantly changing. This is the only way to achieve long-term success. [...]

Without continuity, no relationship of trust can develop. And without trust, apart from superficial leisure activities, nothing else is possible - but the young people don't need us for that, they can do it themselves. [...]

Acceptance does not mean to let them do it, but to accept people as they are, with their mistakes. And every young person has the right to make mistakes and to mess up.

Grund, Thomas: Jena: 30 Jahre Offene Arbeit, in: Eisert-Bagemihl, Lars/ Kleinert, Ulfried (eds.): Zwischen sozialer Bewegung und kirchlichem Arbeitsfeld. Annäherungen an die Offene Jugend(-)Arbeit, Leipzig 2002, p. 160.

Another community social worker, who also worked with right-wing oriented and right-wing violent youths in Jena, retrospectively described his approach as follows:

I believe that a debate is always necessary first [...]. So, I have to deal with them, that's the only chance to bring about change. By forcing them out and saying: you’re not allowed in here, then they will continue outside. Then they'll just get more people. I have to be better than them in terms of argumentation to convince people that this environment is not attractive [...].

[...] It was more about overcoming the problems they had in order to create change. I think that's been the method, yes. So, only when I can strengthen someone in their personality, strengthen them through social work, then they don't have to scare grandmas with their B-jacket anymore. That's how it is, they won’t need it anymore.

Background interview with the social worker, 12.03.2021

The goal of achieving change was based on the assumed premise that youths were responsive to social pedagogical interventions. In this sense, the social workers saw themselves as „socialisation helpers.“ ​​​​​ They assumed that right-wing youths could be reintegrated into society if alternative worldviews and ways of acting were modelled for them.

Right-wing attitudes were perceived as symptoms of what were believed to be underlying social and economic problems among young people.

They were there from the start

The approach of bringing about change solely by building trusting relationships with the young people and by exemplifying ideological alternatives failed with those young people who were firmly entrenched in their radical right-wing attitudes and in some cases did not engage at all in conversations with the social workers. This can be seen in this review of 1991 by a former employee of Winzerclub, who uses the example of the core NSU trio:

They were neither in the club team nor did they talk to us. They always kept their distance, but they were there regularly. So they already used this place, yes. But they didn't talk to us, and especially Mundlos, Böhnhardt and so on, they didn't talk to us. Ms Zschäpe had already become radicalised at that time, or radicalised I don't know, she also kept out of it, because with the stupid social workers and so on - no, that was quite clear: they're all left-wing farts, you can't talk to them. [...]

They were there from the beginning, when the club was opened. Yes, so they were always there, they were always onlookers, but actually they came to recruit new people [...]. They came from Winzerla, so they owned... they also owned the centre to some extent, because they were also a set group.

Background interview, 12.03.2021

Only non-compliance with the house rules, including the ban on spreading obviously right-wing extremist propaganda, led to the refusal of admission to the youth clubs or to a ban from the house:

[...] There were some youths there of Böhnhardt, Mundlos & Co’s sort. Yes, some of them had slight criminal tendencies, some of them were extremely politicised, we threw them out, there were house rules. There were house rules, and one rule was: Political stuff - out. If you ran around with any stuff on your clothes, you could stay outside.

Background interview, 12.03.2021

These restrictions did not lead to a change of audience. Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt were banned from Winzerclub in 1993, but in 1995/96 a right-wing rock band called „Vergeltung“ (Retribution) was able to rehearse there and neo-Nazi Ralf Wohlleben was able to celebrate his birthday there with like-minded people in 1996.

To this day, the controversy over who bears what responsibility in the area of youth policy and youth work continues to reverberate. Especially community social workers who were directly confronted with right-wing extremist youths are heavily criticised. However, they themselves often assume, also here in Jena, that they were able to prevent other followers and sympathisers from entering the right-wing scene.

Ultimately, „accepting youth work“ must be assessed as jointly responsible for the emergence of the NSU complex. However, the focus on the responsibility of youth policy and social work must not lead to the dismissal of other social factors of origin and responsibilities.

Text: Katharina Kempken


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