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The World | COLUMN ONE

On the Run From Hatred

In her youth, Tanja Privenau embraced the mystique of Germany's dark past. Now she seeks sanctuary and fears that neo-Nazis will find her.

April 29, 2006|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

DRESDEN, Germany — 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.

"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.

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.

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.

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