Report >> Author: Julia Glathe (FU Berlin)

Abstract Author: Mihai Varga (FU Berlin)

Germany’s de-radicalisation framework: Reconciling the ‘militant democracy’-approach with consistent support for civil society  

Since 2015 at the latest, the threat of radical political violence has once again become highly present in Germany. With the sudden increase in the number of irregular migrants after the Syrian war and other conflicts in the Middle East, extreme right-wing forces have successfully tapped into latent xenophobic sentiments among the population and in mobilising masses against migration, Muslims and other minorities, creating a climate of fear and aggression that culminated with attacks on refugee homes in 2015-16. Alongside right-wing extremism, Islamism has repeatedly been at the centre of public attention on radicalisation ever since the 9/11 attacks in New York. However, apart from one serious terrorist attack in December 2016 on a Christmas market in Berlin, jihadist terrorism remains a rather latent threat in Germany. 

Reflecting on this context, the “Report on de-radicalisation and integration legal policy framework” in Germany provides an overview of the constitutional principles and legal and policy framework that guide state measures against radicalisation. It presents the historical underpinnings of Germany’s modern day policy approach to deradicalisation. This is linked to the concept of ‘militant democracy’, developed in the former Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and aiming to prevent extremism before any attacks on the democratic order actually take place. This ‘militant democracy’ concept builds on a specific interpretation of National-Socialism as the unintended product of an overtly tolerant Weimar Republic. In line with this interpretation, the ‘militant democracy’ approach seeks to preventively suppress “extremist” activity before concrete criminal acts occur.

Germany’s preventive approach allows the possibility to restrict fundamental rights such as the rights to freedom of assembly, of expression, and of religion, if the democratic order is threatened. Therefore, the approach is in strong tension with the constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights in the Basic Law. However, various decisions of the Federal Constitutional Court document that political parties benefit from strong legal protection even when clearly having a radical political orientation. In accordance with the protection of fundamental rights, even the far-right national-socialist National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) cannot be banned insomuch as according to a 2017 ruling by the Constitutional Court the NPD’s low electoral support hardly qualifies it as an immediate threat to democracy. The right to freedom of expression has also been protected time and again, even when it substantiated serious insults, which in turn attack the personal rights of those affected.

A major challenge currently exists in particular with regard to dealing with insults and threats in social media. In the spring of 2021, the Criminal Code (StGB) was significantly tightened to make it easier to prosecute insults and threats on the Internet. However, thanks to the protection of freedom of expression, there are still significant legal gaps that radical actors exploit to disseminate hate speech. We therefore recommend further reflection on how hate speech on the Internet can effectively be countered.

Using the examples of two case studies, the report demonstrates the significant role of civil society in preventing radicalization and promoting democracy and points to the specific challenges of deradicalisation efforts in the fields of right-wing extremism and Islamism. The first case is the originally Berlin-based Violence Prevention Network (VPN), an NGO specialising in the prevention of right-wing and religious extremism, and working in six federal states with radicalised individuals in prisons or preventively in schools and communities. The second case is the Alliance of Islamic Communities in Northern Germany e.V. (BIG e.V.), operating in three federal states with the help of 800 volunteers to prevent religious radicalization. The two case studies indicate that since the 1990s, government programs have been continuously launched to provide project-based funding to local and nationwide NGOs with the purpose of strengthening democratic attitudes in society and reintegrating radicalized individuals. However, the project-based funding structure translates into a major inconsistency problem as it leads to funding gaps and thus staff and competence losses. In addition, funding requirements push actors to keep creating innovations instead of simply continuing functioning projects. For this reason, we recommend establishing permanent funding for civil society structures, for example, within the framework of the Democracy Act, which has already been drafted but not yet adopted.

Moreover, we point critically to the narrow focus on extremists as operating by definition outside of the state, a vision that constitutes an overarching problem of the German approach to democracy protection as it leads to blind spots, overseeing extremist structures embedded within state authorities. Given the countless scandals in the past that have highlighted the existence and entanglement of extremists with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, we recommend greater transparency and independent monitoring of these agencies as well as a differentiated political discourse on everyday racism and exclusion in public institutions. Extremism is not only a problem of the political extremes, as prejudice often arises in the middle of society and is legitimized primarily by mainstream actors. The question of how to deal with the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) remains open and must be discussed further without falling into the commonplace idea that in democracies, all sides must engage in dialogue. Furthermore, there is a need for continuous scientific research that communicates and engages with the broad public. In particular, research on racism has been severely neglected in Germany for a long time and is now gradually being taken up by the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research (DeZIM), among others. Such research efforts need to be expanded and multiplied in order to be able to deal politically with the new challenges for German democracy in an evidence-based manner.