On the Run From Hatred
She wore a tattoo of a Viking wielding an ax, screamed epithets at Jews and dark-skinned foreigners, reveled in the sinister glamour of the bygone Third Reich and married her second husband on Hitler’s birthday.
Tanja Privenau says she is done with black boots and venomous rage. Burning her pamphlets and scouring her tattoos, she is betraying what for 20 years had defined her: a neo-Nazi underworld run by racist millionaires and militant ideologues. She has split with her radical husband, changed her name and vanished with her five children into a new underworld. And for this she fears for her life.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 03, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Neo-Nazis in Germany: In Saturday’s Column One about a woman’s attempts to escape the world of German neo-Nazis, the name of late right-wing leader Michael Kuehnen was misspelled as Kuehen.
“I’m scared of violence against me,” she says, meeting at a restaurant so as not to reveal her address. “I’ve moved to a secret apartment. I don’t send my children to school because I don’t want my husband to kidnap them. I could wake up one morning and the car could be burned. You don’t easily walk away from these people.”
Concern over her children’s future gradually tugged her away from the dangling silver chains and raised fists of extremism. What as a girl was dangerous and exciting had turned into pointless fury.
Privenau no longer resembles the leather-clad tough of her youth. She is not barbed by earrings or pewter studs; there are no rants, no SS-inspired soliloquies. She is a 34-year-old mother with bobbed red hair, a green sweater and a long skirt; a woman with a cellphone in her purse and a divorce file in the courthouse.
“Something turned around in me about 2001,” she says. “I was meeting other parents. I saw the wider world. I think my picture of the human being changed. You start thinking about what you believe in. Why is there so much hatred in our thinking against the state, against foreigners?
“We didn’t evolve. We weren’t accomplishing anything. I was a mother and I didn’t want to hate anymore. I wanted my children free of it.”
It took years to forge the courage, but Privenau found sanctuary several months ago with a program called Exit, which shelters those seeking to break from the tribe-like world of seething right-wing politics. High-profile defectors such as Privenau, who once did paramilitary training in forests and led seven small neo-Nazi groups, disappear into new identities and places to live, similar to witness protection programs in the United States.
“Those wanting out feel emotional emptiness. They finally realize that hate-filled ideas amount to nothing,” said Bernd Wagner, a retired Berlin police officer who six years ago founded Exit, which has helped 220 people break away from extremist organizations.
“They have to rebuild lives and friendships,” Wagner said. “Many of them carry stigmas of their past. One guy had the number ’88' tattooed on his head. That’s the sign for Heil Hitler. They get depressed. They face threats. I would say Tanja is in high danger.”
Tanja’s husband, Markus Privenau, a leading German extremist, said in an interview he would grant only through e-mail that he left Tanja, not the other way around, and that she had entered Exit as revenge. He said Tanja had not changed her beliefs, but instead was collecting money by joining a propaganda campaign against the radical right.
“She wants to turn her exit into cash, and for that she even gets involved with Jews. Anyone who knows how much Tanja reviles Jews has to wipe his eyes in astonishment over this,” he wrote, adding that his wife had recently been vilified by Germany’s main right-wing extremist party. “Her whole exit is built on a lie and condemned to fail.”
Tanja Privenau’s young fury found its outlet in the indelible sin of the Nazi era. Her parents’ divorce when she was a child left her like a knot in a pulled rope. Looking for meaning, she sifted through a history most Germans had tucked deep away. The icons and Nazi mystique of the 1930s, powerfully enshrined in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries, flickered across her consciousness, pushing her further from her family.
Privenau’s father lost contact with her years ago. He remarried and had other children. He declined to discuss his daughter, saying he didn’t want to revisit past trouble. Her mother, who Privenau says lives with a prominent right-wing extremist, did not respond to an interview request.
Her inspiration had a seductive voice. She remembers seeking comfort in the rousing tales of her grandfather, a World War II veteran who, like many of his time, was left to sort through pride, denial and anger in a nation ruined by the deeds of a man with an odd, twitching mustache.
“My grandfather was my idol,” Privenau says. “He told me about life as a soldier. I had to write an essay in school once about the bad things the Reich did. Back then you didn’t question that the Reich was bad. That was all they taught.
“My grandfather was personally attacked by what I wrote. We discussed it. He denied he knew about the murder of the Jews, but at the same time, he’d say, ‘I don’t know why those Jews didn’t listen. They were told to leave and if they didn’t it was their own bad luck.’ ”
“Your ideology doesn’t come on like a light switch. It gradually grows on you. I was how my grandfather molded me. He used words like ‘Lebenskampf,’ the ability to fight through life. He quoted Hitler, who used to tell the German youth to be hard as Krupp steel, tough as leather and swift as a racing dog.”
Thirteen years old and intellectually curious, Tanja Privenau, had no friends in school and drifted toward the fuming souls on the fringes. She attended a “comrade meeting” of the National Democratic Party -- the remnant of Hitler’s political machine -- in the city of Hanover. The NPD was seeking political respectability while acting as a quasi-umbrella for neo-Nazis, skinheads, white supremacists and motorcycle gangs such as the Hells Angels.
“It was great,” says Privenau, who quit middle school because her teacher was a Jew. “At that age you have the urge to do something rebellious. They just didn’t sit in the pub and talk. They had energy and vitality. You could see their organization structure, and over time they became a family. You feel at home. I felt euphoric.”
She was spirited and easily molded. Racist slogans became her angry mantra: “Foreigners out.” “The Holocaust is a lie propagated by Jews.” “Germans must be pure and the pride of the state restored.”
Privenau joined the NPD’s Young National Democrats. But the organization wasn’t incendiary enough, she says. “I was looking for the language of my grandfather.”
She discovered his echo in the Free German Workers Party, a small, violent group that sponsored skinhead concerts to enlist new recruits, unsuccessfully attempted to organize a guerrilla movement and once proclaimed its intent to “gain control over all powers” in Germany. Its street rallies turned to bloody skirmishes between right-wing extremists and left-wing anarchists who marched in counter- protests. Privenau stood on the front lines, hurling rocks through smoke and tear gas.
“The times were very brutal,” she says, estimating that she was arrested 200 times while attending rallies. “There was optimism in the right-wing cause. They really believed they could change society.”
Her commitment offered a rare opportunity for a woman in the male-dominated right-wing movement. Her boyfriend headed a small fascist group near Hanover. Privenau started appearing in newspapers. She organized bowling evenings, lectures and paramilitary training exercises that reminded her of childhood days when her grandfather led her on survival marches in the Alps.
“The radical seed was in me,” she says. “But I guess I became like the seething village dog and even my grandfather didn’t like my radicalism. He thought I had gone too far and was too angry.”
In 1986, when she was 15, her mother had her committed to a juvenile detention center.
“I ran away after a few weeks,” Privenau says. “With the help of neo-Nazis, I stayed two weeks in Hamburg and then traveled to Denmark. I was completely in the scene and I lived underground until the summer of 1988, when I surfaced and gave birth to my first child.”
The father was her boyfriend from Hanover. Arrested for right-wing activities, his commitment began to waver. Social workers tried to reform him, and his wealthy parents eventually lured him away from extremism with money.
“I couldn’t live with someone who was not political,” Privenau says. “I left him immediately. The scene embraced me. They gave me cash. One guy who helped me a couple of times was a millionaire. The right wing is more than just shock troops. There are influential people with money who stay in the background.”
Privenau and the neo-Nazis were facing increasing pressure by the mid-1990s. Firebombings and attacks by extremists had killed more than 30 immigrants. The country moved to crush the inklings of a Nazi revival.
Meanwhile, she and others watched as one of their most revered leaders, Michael Kuehen, who had kept his homosexuality a secret, died of AIDS. The revelation chinked the morale of a movement that was rabidly anti-gay. Further questions about right-wing ideology were arising in a newly reunited Germany. Although Adolf Hitler, Rudolf Hess and the Third Reich were idolized, many right-wing extremists believed that the past no longer defined contemporary struggles against globalization and alleged American-Jewish conspiracies.
Privenau was restless when she started dating Markus Privenau in 1997. They had known each other for years -- kindred political spirits, she says. They were married April 20, 1999, the 110th anniversary of Hitler’s birth. Privenau says her husband drifted toward the less extreme NPD while she had children and joined a network of small radical cells.
“After the outlawing of some right-wing parties, I thought, why belong to a party?” she says. “The groups I joined were angrier than the NPD. I trained a lot of people and gave lectures on how the German secret police operate.”
The scene was linked by ideology, but there was growing eclecticism. Privenau marketed her talks to groups such as Blood and Honor, Hammer, a biker gang known as Bones, and a newer “dark wave” movement characterized by satanic and gothic fascinations. Some of these factions had their own music, dance styles, art and fashion, but they all favored movies such as “Braveheart” in which heroes fought for their land against daunting odds.
Her furor and radicalism began to have consequences for her children. Her eldest daughter was expelled from a private school for mouthing her mother’s beliefs in class. Privenau’s demeanor was further softened when she trained to become a physical therapist to better care for her son, who is disabled. She spent more time away from the scene, wearing different clothes, masking her past.
Privenau decided to leave the only world she’d known since she was a girl. “I tried to drag my husband out,” she says, “but he saw my reversal as a betrayal.”
She adds, “They hate me because I, as a German mother, took five children from their right-wing scene.”
On his Web page, Markus Privenau equates his wife with a spy who has to “hate [her] own past in order to be able to look into a mirror. Now the traitor has been pushed so far [she] is willing to publicly empty the excrement bucket over her former comrades.”
A close friend, who feared reprisals from right-wing groups and asked not to be named, says Tanja Privenau may never slip the grip of her neo-Nazi past.
“It’s a closed system. You can’t just leave as you want. These people are not disgusting. They are nice and likable, educated and well-read, at least the ones I’ve met. But I have realized how conspiratorial they are. If you associate with them, it’s hard to keep your independence. You cannot just say ‘Bye, bye.’ ”
With curving streets and neighborhoods rebuilt from war grit, Dresden is a good place to disappear for an afternoon. Privenau orders hot chocolate, checks the faces entering the restaurant.
She has so many stories. Year by year unravels. Tanja the street fighter, the organizer, the writer, the ideologist, and then Tanja the wife, the mother, the defector with the tattoo of the Viking hiding beneath her sweater. She is having the image removed, but has run out of money, and it hangs on like a faint stain.
Her cellphone rings. A man tells her another hiding place is ready. The waiter brings the check. Privenau walks toward the train station with a new address in her pocket.
Times staff writers Petra Falkenberg and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.