"Exit from Hatred":
Ein Interview mit Gunda Hernandez
Samstag, den 17.11.2001, verunglückte Gunda Hernandez auf dem Bahnhof von
Bad Oldesloe tödlich. Gunda war eine Aussteigerin aus der Nazi-Szene, die
sich diesem Prozess mutig stellte und unermüdlich gegen Lüge und Hass
arbeitete. Das folgende Interview führte Alexa Dvorson für
Common Ground, ein wöchentliches
Radioprogramm in englischer Sprache.
Common Ground Radio -
Exit from Hatred
Interview: Alexa Dvorson
LISTEN TO THE PROGRAM
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: What is really my punishment is that I have to live
with this, that I could ever hate so much.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, exit from hatred.
THOMAS GRUMKE: The last step has to be reflecting on the ideology and
being a part of democratic society again. You know, that’s where we can talk
about having made an exit out of the movement.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and
the people who shape events. It's produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm
MCHUGH: And I'm Kristin McHugh. Neo-Nazis in Germany stood and
cheered after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Experts don’t
believe Islamic extremists and the neo-Nazi movement are connected. But they
do have something in common: hatred, particularly for the United States.
It’s been 11 years since Germany was reunified. In that time there has been
a rise in right wing extremism among German youth. After a series of racist
attacks last year the government has launched what it calls "The fight
against the right" campaign.
PORTER: The German government estimates the neo-Nazi movement has
50,000 members and is growing. Now two nationwide programs are aimed at
luring neo-Nazis away from violence. Common Ground Correspondent
Alexa Dvorson reports from Berlin on the story of two former neo-Nazis and
their reentry into civil society. The story contains strong language.
ALEXA DVORSON: Since moving to Berlin this spring, Gunda Hernandez
has kept a hectic schedule, with a simple explanation.
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: If we don’t stand up against the Nazis they might
rise again. I am afraid. We just cannot go back to sleep anymore, you know.
Because the Nazis are not sleeping.
[Gunda Hernandez speaks briefly in German at a meeting and is applauded]
DVORSON: Meet the new Gunda Hernandez, former neo-Nazi. One day she’s
meeting a local journalist from a Turkish newspaper; the next she’s off to
Munich to testify at a Green Party hearing. After that it’s a half-day train
ride to her home town for an appearance at an antiracist culture festival.
And somewhere in the midst of all this she wants to return to school and get
a diploma to study social work, to better arm herself in an antifascist
HERNANDEZ: The worst thing is that there is this new right wing
movement. People who say, "Ah, we’re not like the old Nazis." But they are.
That’s what annoys me so much. They try to say, "Ah, we don’t want no
Hitler. But we want a National Socialist Germany." And that’s what we have
to warn people from and tell people, "Don’t believe it. It’s the same old
DVORSON: Gunda, now 36, is all too familiar with this "same old
hate," because it hijacked her behavior and ran her life until a key event
snapped her out of it a couple of years ago. She grew up in a small town
near Mainz in western Germany, where the Nazi past was viewed largely with
HERNANDEZ: Our history teacher said, "Ah, I’m not really interested
in that Holocaust stuff. Just watch the movie, Holocaust," you know.
He told us in the year 1933, Hitler came to power and stuff like that, but
he never really discussed the problems with us. He wasn’t interested in it.
I said, "Oh, it’s not my business." When I asked my mother about Nazis her
answer was, "Oh, that’s such a long time ago." And if you don’t know things
you might adopt very wrong things, and that’s what I did.
DVORSON: Gunda and her partner Matthias now work with Exit, a private
initiative that helps neo-Nazis leave the right wing scene and make the
transition to civil life. Exit helped Gunda and Matthias move to Berlin,
where they’re still unpacking boxes in an inexpensive flat that needs a lot
of renovating. Matthias is doing most of it himself.
MATTHIAS: We have to change our address because it was too dangerous.
DVORSON: No soul searching for symbols necessary here. As Matthias
knocks down the walls in the hallway with a hammer, coating the place with
dust and crumbs of plaster, it’s an obvious metaphor for the two of them
renovating their lives. It’s been a long journey for both of them to this
conversation in their new living room. Gunda’s checkered biography would
make a therapist’s head spin. She dropped out of high school and got
pregnant not long afterward with a right wing extremist in the NPD,
Germany’s far right nationalist party. She later married an American
soldier, hence her last name, Hernandez. After years of suspicion she
confirmed only last year who her own father was. She’s on minimal terms with
HERNANDEZ: My problems started when I was 17. My best friend died of
an overdose of drugs and I didn’t get no help. I never came over the death
of my friend. I used to live in the States. I was here. I was there. I lost
care and custody for my daughter for a couple of years. I wasn’t able to say
"I need help." I was running away from myself. That’s what I was doing. And
this long run away from myself ended 1999, in the arms of the Nazis.
DVORSON: A sense of belonging you were looking for? Or something
HERNANDEZ: Yeah, I wanted to, I wanted to have a family. Finally
wanted to have a place where I was accepted, where everybody says, "Yeah,
come to us. Do something with us," you know.
DVORSON: You couldn’t get that from your own family?
HERNANDEZ: No. I, I don’t really have a family. But I’m not a victim,
OK? I’m responsible for that shit, what I did. Nobody else is.
DVORSON: Gunda is still coming to terms with what she did two years
ago. She desecrated a Jewish cemetery not far from where she used to live.
HERNANDEZ: I really did. With my daughter, we climbed across the wall
at night. She was 15 then, 16. We were so full of hate, you know. When
you’re inside this Nazi mentality you want to do something. You need to show
people, "We don’t want you here. We don’t want Jews here in Germany." And
nobody, none of us knew a Jew. But everybody wanted to do something against
them. A good friend of mine….
DVORSON: Even those who are dead?
HERNANDEZ: Yeah! Of course! If you don’t honor the dead people you
have no kind of acceptance for the living.
DVORSON: So what happened?
HERNANDEZ: After I did that I started realizing that my whole life
was going down the drain. That something was very, very wrong.
DVORSON: Oh, wait. After you were caught or after you just did the…
HERNANDEZ: No, after I did it. After I did it. I was looking in the
mirror. Not in the mirror in the bathroom; in this inside mirror. Mirror of
my soul I always say it. I saw myself and I hated what I saw. It was not a
human being, it was just somebody who was so full of hate that he could
climb a wall and desecrate a cemetery. And I said, "No, you can’t go on in
that scene. One of these days you will go out and kill somebody."
DVORSON: For two months Gunda had no one to talk to about this. At
the time all her friends were neo-Nazis, including Matthias, so she broke up
with him. Through an Internet chat room she found a psychologist at Exit who
helped her get a grip on her life. Eventually Matthias quit the scene, too.
We’ll hear more from him later. And the two of them got back together. When
the police raided their flat it came as a relief to Gunda. She’d only
resisted turning herself in earlier because she’d feared the consequences
for her daughter. During the raid she confessed her crime, which went to
trial. She was handed a suspended sentence, 16 months in prison, with three
years probation. She has visited members of the Jewish community in Mainz to
apologize personally for desecrating the cemetery.
HERNANDEZ: I apologized, but no living person can forgive you for
what you did. Only the dead people could because the graves belong to the
dead people, you know? Gabi Preller, from Weiden, she says, "You are
forgiven." But [Hernandez is crying] I can’t really forgive myself that.
Because I’ve found so many good ideas in Jewish philosophy, you know. I’ve
found friends, love. And I used to hate these people without knowing them.
And that’s, that’s basically the judgment I have to live with. That’s the
verdict, you know. That’s the real punishment. Not that I am on probation.
Not that I have financial problems. What is really my punishment is that I
have to live with this, that I could ever hate so much.
THOMAS GRUMKE: She looks back and she’s very ashamed of what she has
DVORSON: Thomas Grumke helps run Exit, the organization that helped
Gunda and about 20 other neo-Nazis break out of the scene.
GRUMKE: In the moment she did it she had this whole belief which
justified this act. But if this belief system is gone, the whole
justification is gone. So she looks back and says, you know, "How could I
have done this?" You know, if you don’t believe anymore that the Jews are
the root of a worldwide conspiracy to destroy the white race then you don’t
really know why you should go to a cemetery and commit a crime like this. So
the reaction you saw is only possible if this ideology is not there anymore.
DVORSON: Some of Gunda’s new hard-earned wisdom might sound like a
page from a 12 step program for Nazis Anonymous. Just substitute alcohol
with the Nazi’s hatred and racism and you get the same dangerous slippery
HERNANDEZ: Dangerous because they offer easy solutions for big
problems. And if you run away from yourself it’s not you who are responsible
for the shit what’s going on in your life, it’s the others, it’s the
foreigners, it’s the Turks, it’s the Arabs, it’s the Jews. That’s what they
say. That’s just a scapegoat mentality. You need a scapegoat, you know.
That’s what Nazis thrive on.
DVORSON: I ask you something, might be a little provocative. Do you
think that your grandparents felt similarly? And maybe that’s one reason why
it sort of fell into your consciousness somehow? Were they Nazis?
HERNANDEZ: My grandparents were people during the Third Reich. They
had their jobs, their house, their vacation, and they didn’t want to see the
bad things. Like many people don’t want to see the bad things. Just closed
their eyes and said, "Oh, it’s gonna be all right. He will know what he
does, Hitler." You know, like that. Nobody in my family was in the
Resistance or something like that, no. Spielburger, you say. Bigots. Yeah?
DVORSON: You don’t hear such frank admission every day in Germany.
But it goes a long way to explain how such belief systems are passed from
one generation to the next, if they’re not addressed. Many say that’s at the
root of today’s problem with young neo-Nazis. Like Gunda, Matthias also
absorbed some of his Nazi mindset from his grandparents, much of it
unconsciously. As a child in a mostly Catholic town of 16,000 near
Frankfurt, he remembers how his grandmother used to sing two songs as she
cleaned the stairway in her apartment building. One was Holy God We
Praise Thy Name. The other was Heute Gehört uns Deutschland. That
was a well known Nazi song whose refrain went, "Today Germany is ours;
tomorrow the whole world." Matthias’s father was a factory owner and strict
authority figure. His mother stayed mostly in the kitchen.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] My mother was small as a simple
housewife. You couldn’t really talk with her about politics. She’s say the
Nazis were bad, but she didn’t know why. She just repeated whatever they
said at school. And when my father, my grandfather talked about the Third
Reich they said, "Ach, it wasn’t all so bad what Hitler did."
DVORSON: Matthias learned to look up to people in uniform. He was
attracted to their power and respect. At the same time, he and his two
brothers competed for their father’s affection. In hindsight, Matthias
thinks he took his father’s conservative values a step further to try and
win more attention and approval from him. But he stresses he didn’t drift
into the neo-Nazi scene: he entered it very deliberately at the age of 21,
joining several right wing radical organizations where he quickly climbed
ranks. He didn’t go around beating up immigrants, the homeless, or the
disabled-a typical skinhead activity. Matthias was in the ideological wing
of the neo-Nazi scene, known as Scheitel, named after Hitler’s
hairstyle. He wrote letters of support to right wing extremists in prison.
He recruited youth to join the far right nationalist party, the NPD. Then he
went hard core.
[sound of chanting at a large demonstration]
DVORSON: He vandalized a synagogue. He painted swastikas on a leftist
book shop and he showed up at a skinhead concert in an outlawed uniform worn
by Hitler’s troops. Like Gunda, he later confessed to all three crimes.
Matthias had bought into Nazi propaganda down to the tips of his jack boots.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] When I was in the scene I was
an absolute anti-Semite. I followed the typical neo-Nazi line of denying the
existence of Auschwitz and the Holocaust. I knew there were concentration
camps but I thought the information was exaggerated. And on the other hand,
I approved of the extermination of the Jews because I was totally convinced
that they were-how should I say it-a kind of a Volkschadling-that was
Hitler’s term-a plague of the people. That’s just what they say in the Nazi
scene now. They’re convinced the Jews are behind everything.
GRUMKE: That’s how deep it goes. It goes much deeper than just plain
nationalism. You know, it’s fundamentally racist and it comes with all the
conspiracy theories. Of course anti-Semitism is still very much alive and a
very vital part of the ideology. And so it’s a conglomerate of all these
DVORSON: Thomas Grumke wrote his Ph.D. about the white supremacy
movement in the US before joining Exit a year ago. Modeled after a Swedish
organization of the same name, Exit is part of a private initiative launched
by the German weekly magazine Stern in response to a 60 percent
increase in right-wing crimes here last year.
MCHUGH: The story of former neo-Nazi Gunda Hernandez and an
unexpected admission, next on Common Ground.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are
available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web
site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the
Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a
wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on
MCHUGH: Of all the statements in recent German media reports about
neo-Nazi violence, one is haunting. A leader of the anti-fascist front said
in these words, "We lost 10 years." He was criticizing the German government
and society for refusing to take the problem seriously over the past decade.
PORTER: We return now to Berlin and "Exit From Hatred," with
Common Ground Correspondent Alexa Dvorson.
ALEXA DVORSON: Thomas Grumke is convinced no effort to reduce right
wing extremism can succeed without serious prevention work: teaching
tolerance, learning from history, and promoting a democratic civil society.
THOMAS GRUMKE: If we just react and try to solve the problems that
are already gone wrong, you know, this can never be enough. You already have
skinheads, you know they are 12 years old, 13 years old-you know, they call
them "baby skins." And they are already introduced into the right-wing
extremist scene, you know. Especially by way of listening to music and so
on. Also, we have to address problems of general society. I mean racism in
general society is definitely a problem. How can it be that a 15-year-old or
16-year-old is so fascinated by these ideas if he possibly doesn’t already
have a certain belief system.
[sound of driving rock music]
DVORSON: This contraband skinhead song appears on an outlawed CD that
was seized by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency.
[sound of driving rock music, now accompanied by vocals]
DVORSON: The words to this verse, a protest against German guilt for
the Nazi past, amount to something like this: "My grandpa was a killer;
that’s what they said in class. I told the teacher, "Take those lies and
stick them up your…." Well, you get the idea. Another verse is slanderous
toward political and economic refugees, with a call to literally kick them
out of the country. Heinz Fromm, director of the intelligence agency, heads
a new government program similar to Exit. He describes the neo-Nazis
contagious social disease as "classic loser-it is with a fascist twist."
HEINZ FROMM: [via a translator] They feel disadvantaged and they try
to compensate for it. So they say, "I’m better than the others because I’m
German." And it makes them feel strong and powerful. Then they snap the Nazi
ideology because it’s so provocative. When they start mouthing off with that
they get attention. "Finally, someone’s taking a look at me. I’m making
headlines," they say. The newspapers are full of this. Even if they are
negative headlines at least they are in the spotlight. That makes them feel
important and meaningful. And this helps them counteract this feeling of
being cut off, having no future.
DVORSON: The new government backed hotline for potential neo-Nazi
dropouts got a lot of headlines, too. The press office reported they
received 500 calls in the first six weeks. But most of them turned out to be
journalists, teachers, social workers, and a few parents. Heinz Fromm Says
the so-called dropout program is currently handling about 120 cases. That’s
not much considering a target group of 50,000. But Fromm is patient.
Besides, the government is keen to be seen doing something more than the
hand wringing it did last summer. After a thorough screening process a
caller who has demonstrated readiness to lead the neo-Nazi scene can get job
training placement and limited financial support to move to another city if
necessary. There’s no cash reward for denazifying, nor can anyone bypass
justice if they’re charged with criminal activity. Fromm considers a case a
success if someone stops acting out fascist beliefs through violence. But he
draws the line there.
FROMM: [via a translator] Our objective is to give concrete help and
advice. But it’s not brainwashing. We can’t change people’s opinions. That’s
not part of our program. Everyone must decide for themselves what they want.
And we can assume those who do want to get out already have some doubts
about their previous attitudes. What we try to do is support this process
and help them leave the extreme right wing milieu entirely. But there’s no
agenda to try and change their worldview. We couldn’t achieve that anyway.
It’s not part of our task.
DVORSON: That’s the big difference between the government’s program
and Exit, as Thomas Grumke explains.
GUNKE: We are not so much focused on re-socialization. We are much
more focused on what we call "re-democratization." Which means, we are not
interested to have people who say they have given up the activities of the
right wing movement. They have a nice apartment, a nice car, a nice job, but
they still have exactly the same ideology. This for us is not a success. We
want to make sure that the exit is done first of all concerning the
ideology, you know. So, stopping being an activist in the movement is not
the last step. The last step has to be reflecting on the ideology and being
a part of democratic society again. You know, that’s where we can talk about
having made an exit out of the movement.
DVORSON: How can one prove that? How can one assess someone’s
GRUMKE: Yeah, that is, of course, a vital point. And I’m afraid
nobody can actually really prove this. But we are following the people quite
a long time, usually. And we make sure that they are not drifting again back
into the old structures. Nobody can make a 100 percent sure. But we try to
make 95 percent sure. It’s hard to explain. But I think you can tell.
GUNDA HERNANDEZ: We must be sure that this person is not faking.
DVORSON: Gunda Hernandez has her own screening system.
HERNANDEZ: When the person did something wrong, something against the
law, hurting people, spraying swastikas, or whatever, he must say, "I did it
and I will take the punishment for it." "I did it and I want to change my
whole life." It’s a long hard road. It’s not that you just say, "Oh, I was
Nazi and not anymore." You must really show from the inside that you can’t
feel like it no more.
DVORSON: You have such a friendly face. And such a nice smile. And I,
I know you’re a different person now and you have said that several times.
But I can’t imagine or even feel where any of this hatred could have come
HERNANDEZ: Neither can I nowadays. But I had a different face story
in that time. I had a different face. You know. If you think you’re above
the rest, then you only love the ones close to you and you can hate others.
And I can’t do it no more. Getting rid of hate is the best thing what can
DVORSON: If Gunda’s break with the past started as an emotional
earthquake, the moment of truth for Matthias was more an intellectual
landslide. After Gunda left him he started challenging his own belief
system. Could it really be possible, he asked himself, that an agrarian
country like Poland could have started World War II by attacking heavily
armed Germany in 1939? That was the Nazi version of history he’d subscribed
to. It wasn’t long before he also saw the folly in the idea of a German
superior race and a Jewish worldwide conspiracy. His common sense finally
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] For the first time since the
age of 14 I started questioning all these things. That was it. My conscience
just couldn’t take it any longer. So I got right on the phone and told my
comrades, "I can’t do this anymore. Everything you’re doing is full of crap.
I’m outta here."
DVORSON: At that moment Matthias became a traitor to his former
friends. Both he and Gunda were put on a hit list. Matthias was despondent.
MATTHIAS: [speaking via a translator] After I quit the scene I fell
into a depression. I’d totally cut myself off from the rest of the world. I
was in complete despair because this Nazi scene had become a kind of an
ersatz religion for me from the time I was a teenager. And all at once it
was gone. Everything I believed in evaporated overnight. I took one step,
and another, and within a week my whole worldview was shattered. After that
I felt suicidal. If Gunda hadn’t come back to me I don’t know what I would
DVORSON: That was a year ago. Now 25, Matthias has dropped the Hitler
hairstyle and mustache. He’s grown a reddish-brown beard that lends him an
almost teddy bear look, especially when he’s eating ice cream. This was his
first interview using his real name. He’s found a real niche working with
Exit. But he’s skeptical about the government program for Nazi dropouts. As
a former insider he can’t see how a right wing extremist who considers the
state an enemy would turn around and ask it for help. Back at the domestic
intelligence agency, Director Heinz Fromm admits he has no idea whether the
government-backed hotline will prove a success. And he warns against high
HEINZ FROMM: [via a translator] We’ll never get right wing extremism
down to zero in Germany. Certainly not with our history of National
Socialism. These things just don’t work that simply. But if we can limit it
to a marginal element then I think it’s controllable and we shouldn’t worry
about it as much as we do now with our young people. If we can get that far
the rest won’t be so difficult. But this has to be dealt with. The family
and the schools, for instance. Everything possible must be done so that the
stream of young people going into the scene can be reduced. That’s
prevention work. But it’s not our job. Somebody else has to do it.
DVORSON: Take Gunda, for instance. Because she’s still working
through her anger about her own past, she’d rather do prevention work than
deal directly with neo-Nazis. Soon she and Matthias will spend a week at the
Dachau concentration camp to talk about learning from the past at a seminar
for young people. They’ve already been to Auschwitz. Gunda’s apparent switch
from one extreme to the other might raise a few eyebrows. But she makes a
HERNANDEZ: You know that there are so many people who say, "I don’t
care no more." You need to care. It’s not the responsibility of the people
who are born after ’45. But it’s their damn responsibility that it never
happens again. That’s what people must understand. This is our
responsibility; that it never can happen again. And it’s started already.
Look what happened.
DVORSON: And she cites a litany of recent racist attacks, still on
the rise. About 40 right wing extremist crimes of one kind or another are
reported throughout Germany every day. Our conversation lasted much longer
than I expected. But now it was time to go. We were covered with dust as
Matthias continued knocking down walls in the background and the dog was
itching for a walk. As I was about to leave Gunda made a remark that stopped
me in my tracks.
DVORSON: [speaking to Gunda Hernandez] I can call you again?
HERNANDEZ: You can call me anytime. OK? I would like to hear from you
HERNANDEZ: And if you have to, you can ask me on anything what
you want to ask me. If there’s anything you need to know, you can ask
personal questions. I think if you really want to get to know people you
must ask questions that can hurt, you know. That’s the only way you can know
people, you know.
DVORSON: In that instant, she touched something in me she didn’t even
realize. For 15 years I’d kept my own background off limits as a journalist
in Germany. But something about Gunda’s honesty forced me out of this safe
little closet of my self-censorship. I told her I was Jewish. The tape was
still rolling but when she gasped and threw her arms around me in tears the
microphone cable slipped and made a loud screech. After shutting the
recorder off it took us a few moments to regain enough composure to speak.
HERNANDEZ: I was so happy that we met.
DVORSON: Umm hmm.
HERNANDEZ: And I hope you will be, one of these days, one of my
DVORSON: I hope it’s OK that I can share that. Because it’s kind of
changing history maybe a little, hmmm?
HERNANDEZ: It’s time that this happens. It’s time that history
changes and that people stop hating each other. [crying] And I’m, I’m just
glad that I could tell you this, that I, that it could get out, you know.
And sometimes when I’ve dreamed this and when I see this being standing
there on the wall jumping down and I say, "Stop! This is not you anymore."
This is this empty stare in the eyes, this Nazi stare. You know, when you
are a Nazi you lose your humanity so much that sometimes those people have
really empty eyes. Just like Hitler’s eyes were empty and cold, you know.
And many people don’t understand that when I talk about these things and I
think I can tell you about it. It’s something inside that happens when
people hate. They break apart, you know. The human soul hides inside these
people. It disappears. And that’s what hate does.
DVORSON: Thank you for being who you are.
HERNANDEZ: And I’m happy. I’m glad that I met you. But we stay in
touch. You promise?
DVORSON: I promised. Neither of us have felt quite the same since
that conversation. We’ve both been too busy to get together. But in her last
e-mail Gunda wrote she looks forward to meeting me again after her trip to
Dachau. I know we’ll have a lot to talk about. You’ve been listening to
"Exit From Hatred." For Common Ground, this is Alexa Dvorson in
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EPILOGUE: Producer Alexa Dvorson regrets to inform us that Gunda
Hernandez was killed in a train accident in Germany on November 17, 2001,
six months after the recordings in this program took place. Gunda and Alexa
had arranged to meet again November 18. Matthias reported Gunda had been in
excellent spirits after addressing a confirmation class in northern Germany.
She had begun to make peace with her past in realizing she could serve
others best by forgiving herself for her crime two years earlier.
© 2000 by The Stanley Foundation
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