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The Fight Against Right-Wing Extremism Is a Question of Democratic Values

Education for an immigration society

Young people from different nations.

Having been a taboo topic for many years, Germany’s immigration situation has fostered xenophobic and right-wing attitudes among the public at large, and the problem now affects more than just society’s margins. A recent study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation makes clear that it has become a widespread malaise: Some 40 percent of Germans agree with the statement that the country “is becoming unrecognizable to a dangerous degree.” Such sentiments fuel violence, as can be seen in the continual increase in the number of violent, right-wing extremist acts over the past few years.

What is to be done? Responses that promise quick, easy solutions are illusory. Germany needs a long-term “twin-track” strategy. Speaking at the award ceremony for the 2007 Carl Bertelsmann Prize, which focused on the topic of “Civic engagement as an educational goal,” Chancellor Angela Merkel noted that the fight against right-wing extremism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and everyday violence requires preventative measures that go beyond merely strengthening young people’s self-esteem. What is needed is “a joint effort within a strong civil society, within which policymakers shoulder their responsibility.” Right-wing extremism cannot only be treated as a psychosocial problem, but must also be seen as a challenge for the entire political system as well as society at large, since it strikes at the country’s democratic foundations.

Thus, a successful “twin-track” strategy must make use of long-term, preventative measures in the educational system, on the one hand, and must strengthen overall democratic values, on the other. In the latter area, short-term, symbolic actions are important, especially those that help citizens demonstrate within their communities that they reject right-wing extremist attitudes.

As many in Germany often forget, right-wing extremism is not a specifically German problem. It is evident in every European nation. Thus, Germany should not be seen as an isolated, hopeless case; instead, it must learn how to combat right-wing ideologies from other democracies.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung has been promoting preventative responses in this area since 1995. Together with the Center for Applied Policy Research at Munich’s Ludwig Maximilians University, it has developed innovative educational programs geared toward promoting tolerance and democracy that have been successfully used in schools and youth organizations for more than a decade. The project “Strategien gegen Rechtsextremismus” (Strategies Against Right-Wing Extremism), which ran from 2002 to 2005, developed systematic responses for use in the educational sector and the media. The new initiative “Strategien gegen Rechtsextremismus in Europa” (Strategies Against Right-Wing Extremism in Europe), which is set to run from 2007 to 2009, picks up where its predecessor left off by examining the experiences other European nations have had combating right-wing tendencies and promoting democratic values.

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