I met Dennis Kirschbaum nearly two years ago at a Muslim-Jewish conference in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. The 28-year-old German works with (among others) the Violence Prevention Network which runs de-radicalisation programmes in Germany. He also holds anti-racism workshops and teaches and studies politics, philosophy and ethics at Freie Universität Berlin.
That’s why it might be surprising to learn that Dennis was born into a neo-Nazi family, became part of a far-right gang and was encouraged to join both Hezbollah and the Islamic state – all before he turned 21.
He describes his long road to becoming the interfaith activist and de-radicalisation expert he is today.
Dennis Kirschbaum grew up in a neo-Nazi family. His grandfather served in the Luftwaffe, while a child some of his relatives moved to Norway to be surrounded by the ‘Aryan race’, and he would be given white power music as presents.
“I knew we were very right wing but I believed in family values, that we were on the right side of history, and that we had to fight for our rights as a German nation,” explains Dennis.
By the time he was 10 years old, Dennis had started to look for friends who shared the same values at school. He says that far-right sentiments were rife in his school, but he had trouble finding a group that would accept him with his brown hair, dark eyes and tanned skin.
“I didn’t look the part in the Aryan narrative so they would insult me, saying, ‘You’re a fucking Paki, you’re Arab, you will never be part of our group’.”
Paradoxically, the more they refused to include him and insulted him, the more Dennis was motivated to join a gang. After 9/11, what used to be a lot of talk turned into violence among the far right. By then Dennis was desperate to join a neo-Nazi gang and he believed he had found the solution.
“My plan was – and it was a shitty plan – that if I was the most violent person in the gang, they would have to accept me,” Dennis says, his tone incredulous as he recalls his past self.
Dennis says the plan worked and when the gang heard about his actions, they invited him into the fold. He claims that no-one died from the violence that the group meted out – but there were some close calls. He also admits that he severely lacked confidence at the time and that being in a gang was a way to ‘be strong’ and to have a clear enemy.
In such a self-destructive environment, of course, the violence eventually took its toll. Dennis recalls the guilt he felt late a night with a wince.
“When the person was on the ground bleeding, I may have thought it was a righteous action but deep in the night, I had an annoying voice in my head raising doubts – ‘our blood has the same colour, our tears are the same’,” he remembers thinking.
Much later, once he had converted to Islam, Dennis researched and found almost everyone he had attacked and asked for forgiveness. “It was not easy to track them but I now have close friends who had once been victims of my attacks – the first one was the hardest because I had no idea how you should start that kind of conversation.”
At the time though, while Dennis felt regret, he could not envisage a way of backing down without losing face or losing his identity. Instead he turned to heavy drinking and drugs. For the next five years, he continued his spiral of violence, alcohol and drugs and by the time he was 16 he could not even envisage reaching his 17th birthday.
“I was close to death, I knew I needed to change my life if I wanted to survive,” Dennis says, so he decided to quit “Cold Turkey”.
By that time Dennis had to switch schools because of his failing grades and found himself a minority, with most of the students being Muslim. He says he was looking for something that would prevent him from relapsing and that is how he discovered Islam.
“Islam has a strong frame with lots of rules – you have to respect people, it’s totally forbidden to be violent, to drink alcohol or to use drugs,” he says.
Dennis found a student who was religious to teach him everything he wanted to know and through his advice, converted to Shia Islam.
“Being Shia was pretty cool because they are really spiritual, they have a lot of religious practices you can do as a group and like every convert, I didn’t start at 60% or 80% but at 150%,” he says.
Dennis converted to Shia Islam in 2006, just before the Lebanon war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah and he soon became embroiled in its politics through the mosque he attended.
Dennis says the mosque had links to Hezbollah and they tried to convince him to go fight in the conflict zone. He says they used his past against him, telling him he was allowed to use drugs if he went for jihad and followed the example of the Hashshashin who allegedly used drugs while murdering people.
The Hashshashin were the most ancient order of assassins in the world, rooted in a branch of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, that operated from the 11th to the 13th centuries.
Dennis was devastated. “I thought I had found new friends and I knew there was a high risk of going back to drugs so I decided to leave the community – but I was in very deep, I had a lot of insider information and I started getting death threats.”
Dennis decided to leave the country and went to Turkey for six months, telling his parents he was going on holiday. He discovered Sunni Islam and began researching it. When he made it back to Germany, he wanted to find a community that focused on the “rational” rather than the “spiritual” and he fell into Hizb ut-Tahreer.
Hizb ut-Tahreer is an islamist group that does not advocate for violence but wish to establish an “islamic” caliphate by convincing leaders of the Islamic world to establish it.
“It’s not a violent gang but I would still call it a gang because they have their own rules and they’re very close, you can’t just join by going up to them and they’re not open minded,” Dennis says. He describes how he had to switch his phone and leave it outside the room during gatherings as part of their security measures.
Hizb ut-Tahrir fundamentally opposes *the* Islamic State (ISIS) but Dennis explains it can act as a gateway for youth that then join more extreme violent groups. “They push young people into the idea of a politically active Islam but a lot of young people get frustrated when they join and they see it’s all talk.”
Denis Cuspert was one young man Dennis met while he was involved in Hizb ut-Tahreer. Also known as Deso Dogg, the former rapper converted and they became close friends. However Dennis says Cuspert was one of the youth who got frustrated by the lack of action and joined Isis.
By then Dennis had left Hizb ut-Tahreer. “There’s a lot of repetition and after a while it gets boring – young people are looking for something more practical.”
Cuspert became infamous as a “gangsta jihadi” and was killed earlier this year during clashes with anti-Isis forces.
When these youth left Hizb ut-Tahreer to join Isis, they asked Dennis to join them several times but he refused.
“There was no way I was going to move to a country I was not familiar with, using a language I did not speak, and hold an AK 47 in my hands – I had experienced being a violent person back in the day as a right wing extremist, I didn’t want to join,” says Dennis.
Instead, he discovered a branch of salafism which he decided was “much more active” and Dennis joined when he was 21 years old. Salafists, sometimes described as ultraconservatives, follow a branch of Islam that considers Muslims must follow not just the ‘spirit’ but the ‘letter’ of the law and live like the early, righteous generations of Muslims, known as Salaf.
Dennis threw himself fully into the Salafi community and established the ‘lies projekt’ which focused on street proselytising through small stands and handing out free Qurans. But the project quickly grew unmanageable and Dennis abandoned it.
“Too many people joined and I could not control who was coming in, it was getting out of hand… Then some of them tried to encourage youths to join Daesh [Isis] and I realised I had to leave it.”
The project was later banned by the state.
By that point, Dennis was experiencing an identity crisis and considered leaving Islam. “For more than five years I had engaged with the religion and I had been told I could be violent, that I could use drugs, that I could kill people – that was not my idea of what Islam should be!”
Dennis says the main reason he didn’t leave was an old friend called Yusuf Adla.
Yusuf had come to Germany as a child, fleeing Aleppo, and founded I-slam, an empowerment project for Muslim youth using art, poetry and comedy. Dennis admits that he had pushed his friend away when he had become Salafi, full of righteous indignation about what was forbidden or haram.
Dennis is thoughtful as he explains that despite the insults, Yusuf stayed in touch with him. “When he saw I was having an identity crisis, he told me, ‘I can see there’s a lot going in your mind and I don’t want to ask a lot of questions – but for me as a refugee, it was not easy to become German and writing things down was a kind of therapy’.”
Dennis says the advice was invaluable and this was when he discovered other types of Muslims, “people who are polite, who establish great organisations, who combat racism and help minority communities”.
Dennis says another reason he overcame his identity crisis was through his research on his family name, Kirschbaum, which was Jewish. His surviving grandmother refused to talk about the surname and Dennis attributes it to the fact that several of her children were neo-Nazis.
Instead he turned to library archives and governmental institutions and after months of research, discovered a fragment of his family history. Dennis found that in 1945, after Berlin was bombed by the Allies, there were many orphans, children of Nazis, left in the ashes of the city.
“There was this Jewish family carrying the name Kirschbaum who survived the Holocaust and decided to stay in Germany, they never went to Israel. They took in hundreds of orphan kids and raised them, giving them their own family name,” says Dennis. “One of them later became my step-grandfather and I have his surname.”
He shakes his head in wonder as he says, “This family didn’t consider these children as part of the offender nation but as victims.”
Dennis joined I-slam and then turned to interfaith as well as de-radicalisation work. He now works with ten different organisations as a facilitator, including the Kreuzberg Initiative against Antisemitism, Ufuq – a de-radicalisation initiative, the Jewish museum in Berlin and the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg museum. He also advises the Violence Prevention Network on the implementation of intervention and de-radicalisation methods. When he has the time, he goes to schools and mosques to discuss Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism and hate.
He also visits prisons to talk to youth who have left Isis and are being de-radicalised.“They trust me, because I know how they feel,” Dennis says.
“Back in the day I could have been one of these guys, no one came over to me so I try to be that person now, that’s my solution,” says Dennis.
The German state arrests returning fighters and puts them through de-radicalisation programmes. He believes other European governments should also work closely with third-sector organisations and the Muslim community to deal with radicalised youth.
He adds that most of these youth come from unstable families. “So a lot of young people look for a father figure and some find it in gang leaders, some find it in football and some find it in a strange guy with a long beard and an AK 47.”
His work also takes him to schools in areas that show strong support for the far-right. Dennis describes a visit to a village on the outskirts of Berlin where the pupils had been told a man named Dennis Kirschbaum would hold a workshop on racism.
Dennis says the pupils recognised his surname as Jewish and when he entered the next day, they all stood up and performed the Nazi salute.
“I was shocked but I started a discussion around it – because if you tell someone they’re a fucking racist, nothing comes out of that conversation.”