Research on Neonazi-milieu: „The snooping hurt me“

Journalist Andrea Röpke researches Neo-Nazi groups and was spied out by the intelligence services. She is not intimidated.

She monitors Neo-Nazis and has therefore attracted the attention of the intelligence services Foto: Andrea Röpke

taz: Ms. Röpke, do you think we’ll manage a whole interview without talking about your area of expertise – Neonazis?

Andrea Röpke: That would be a challenge, wouldn’t it? I am very interested in the well-being of calves. We can talk about animal cruelty.

Why the well-being of calves?

When you travel through the countryside you see these plastic constructions where calves only have one meter of space. They are separated from their mother at birth. That upsets me. I’ve photographed that.

Have you researched this field?

No, but I know a colleague who is into it, so every now and then I have guaranteed photo evidence. My own topic, which we would like to avoid, takes up enough of my life.

Can you still get away from it all sometimes?

Yes, by sailing or going for a bike ride. I am a nature freak. I always find it funny when the people I research accuse me of being a crazy loner who cannot have anything to do with nature, the country, or family. They have no idea.

You consider it very important that nothing is known about your private life.

51 years old, freelance journalist and author tackling far-right extremism. She has won many awards for her research. In January, her book “Yearbook of far-right Violence 2017: Chronicle of Hate” was released by Knaur Verlag.

In a time of social networks, the danger that somebody might find out something is especially great. I can take responsibility for what I do myself. But when those around me are jeopardized, I can’t excuse it – even if they stand by everything I do.

Have they already been targeted?

Many times. During my research my colleagues and I have been spat at, pelted, and harrassed by Neo-Nazis – and parts of my camera were destroyed. Once I was beaten up. Since Pegida’s mass demonstrations the people on the street have been emboldened. In Leipzig a command was given for far-right extremist hooligans to attack us journalists.

Are you particularly unpopular amongst Neo-Nazis?

For the far right we are seen as an attack, they take things personally. They want to work together with large newspapers or TV crews, so they are attacking the specialized journalists instead. Certain names lend themselves to that. In the meantime, however, almost all media representatives are really feeling the hate on the streets. The major TV channels send TV teams to far-right demonstrations only when accompanied by security teams. That is something freelance journalists cannot afford.

Are you not worried?

Yes, sometimes. For example at the Hogesa riot in Cologne in 2014. There were far more people there than we expected – over 5000. The extremely aggressive Nazi hooligans of the Bremen “Standarts“ were there, and their leader gave commands. It wasn’t long before bottles and stones were being thrown – a police car was overturned right in front of me. They were everywhere, you couldn’t move. Over 40 officials and journalist colleagues were injured.

What drives you to carry on researching the Neo-Nazi scene?

It’s a job I like doing. I enjoy ploughing intensively through a topic and am very free to do it. What drives me is the conviction that it’s an important task.

In January 2017 your “Yearbook of Far-Right Violence“ was published. Was last year worse than those before it?

Far-right violence has been exploding since 2015, and it didn’t diminish in 2016. There has been everyday violence in the midst of our society for a long time, in the shadow if Islamic terror, which is perceived to come from abroad. Crimes such as the National Socialist Underground murders, the killing spree in Munich, or the Reichsbürger movement shootings, are quickly forgotten.

If you get deep into the Neo-Nazi mindset, in chatrooms and publications, do you then develop a fascination for the unfathomable?

It isn’t a fascination. If you spend weeks reading material directly from those involved in the NSU trial, or examining what is being distributed by Neo-Nazis, rockers, and hooligans in social networks – a setting which is male-dominated and sexist -, then I am shocked. I am shocked by the dynamics of hatred and the extent to which the mainstream uncritically goes along with it.

You place your research focus on the far-right-wing of society. What about the racism of those in the political centre?

My research has also changed since 2013. With Pegida and the AfD, we are now directly confronted with the hatred of those around us. Such as a financial officer torching a future refugee accommodation centre, or three young people from the Hameln area throwing a Molotov cocktail into refugee children’s rooms. Teachers, lawyers, and judges are pushing the AfD’s hatred. The far-right movement is now far more diverse.

How did you arrive at this topic?

I studied Political Science in Bremen and always thought about what I should do with it. I didn’t want to enter the civil service. Then there was a course: “NS perpetrators’ careers after 1945“ I found that really exciting. I hit the books and looked up where the NS perpetrators are today, whether they have money or companies and whether they had been subject to legal action. Some were active in Bremen and Lower Saxony. I came across the “Stille Hilfe“.

What was the “Stille Hilfe“?

An ex-Naxi club for “prisoners of war and interned persons“ with headquarters in Rotenburg. For my research I received help from the region, from antifascists, and at that time from the Association of Persecutees of the Nazi Regime. That was led by Willy Hundertmark, a distinguished expert in Bremen. I sat for weeks in the archives. Little by little I was able to unearth more and more. I was even introduced to an SS man’s circles by impersonating a sympathiser, and then attended SS meetings. That was creepy.

The research sounds elaborate.

Today I don’t mind if I need years to cover a topic. It is only important that to me that I see it through. Through the Bremen TV journalist Egmont Koch, who commissioned me as a researcher, I came across Nazis old and new.

Were you politically active?

I was at occasional demonstrations, but never in a group or as a party. As I come from the countryside, from very conservative conditions, I had to develop slowly. I was never really supposed to do my A levels, let alone go to university. So I had to hold my ground and worked a lot in some factories during my studies. As a result I had little time for the traditional student life.

Do you use your family history?

No. Politics didn’t play a role in my parent’s house, and as a woman, as a girl, I was the first to get involved in politics. I was expected to complete an office apprenticeship first. So I actually studied to become an office administrator first.

In 2015 you received the Paul Spiegel prize awarded by the Central Council of Jews in Germany. How many prizes had you won by then?

I don’t like to say. I often think there are such great colleagues who have really done a lot, who get involved and who should also be awarded prizes. But the prize came after being discredited by the intelligence service in Lower Saxony. Their snooping hurt me so much that I could happily accept the prize.

It was established that the surveillance by the intelligence service was wrong, and you received an apology. Are you still bothered at all?

Absolutely. I was illegally monitored for six years, and even the police dutifully supplied information. The threat of exposure sometimes deterred informants, they felt threatened. There was solidarity in the editorial departments, but also restraint.

To what extent?

I am always the one who is annoyed about the subject and who disagrees with the authorities. If it was once classified as critical journalism, I was now seen as someone biased to the left. Perhaps I’m not a “normal“ journalist, and I do write for left-leaning media. But, due to the surveillance, I was placed on the extreme left of politics, I was made out to be a opponent of the state and democracy. That was damaging to my reputation.

What has changed since you began your work?

In the 1990s it was taken for granted that journalists find a topic and the research would be completely free and independent. Today, editorial staff are no longer able to deal with certain topics, especially if the authorities do not verify the findings. Meanwhile we rely too heavily on information provided by security authorities.

Can you tell us an example of that?

Definitely, lots of examples. In 2011, it happened to me while I was researching the importance of women in the Neo-Nazi scene for my book Mädelsache. The authorities said we were hysterical. Then Beate Zschäpe came along.

Do you go to a Nazi event every weekend?

There are times when I do, but I’m also a hedonistic person and I still need joy in my life – so I have to keep a lot of time for my private life. There was one time, however, when I couldn’t go to a wedding because I was at an SS meeting instead. I felt so bad about that.

What was so important about that meeting?

I had been preparing it for a long time. That was also the case with the Heimattreuen Deutschen Jugend (a Nazi youth group). I got the crucial call: “There’s a camp here, tents, something’s going on.“ Then I am unstoppable. The moment things get dangerous, it’s not like me to let other people go instead.

The Heimattreue Deutschen Jugend, who trained and drilled children to be Neo-Nazis, was, along with other groups, banned after your investigation in 2009. Is that your greatest coup?

Coup? Not really. It was definitely important to point out the organised way Neo-Nazis were bringing up children. I still see children at lots of Neo-Nazi festivals or at conspiratorial meetings – at one I saw a girl with a shirt which said “Aryan Child“ on it. My two colleagues and I are still looking into this topic.

Do you believe that there will ever be less hatred?

I believe we can achieve a lot by improving awareness. Even if a lot of people are currently resistant to the idea. The current trend is really quite shocking.

Einmal zahlen

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