Change Stories


11 January

An expert on right-wing extremism, thanks to the CIVIS Media Prize: Interview with Bastian Wierzioch

His "Adrian Fischer: German – black – foreign" (MDR, 2004) magazine report won the CIVIS Radio Prize in 2005. The resulting attention made reporter, author and anchorman more

An expert on right-wing extremism, thanks to the CIVIS Media Prize: Interview with Bastian Wierzioch

His "Adrian Fischer: German – black – foreign" (MDR, 2004) magazine report won the CIVIS Radio Prize in 2005. The resulting attention made reporter, author and anchorman Bastian Wierzioch decide to devote all his energy to researching the issue of right-wing extremism in Eastern Germany. The journalist brings a combination of realism and quiet optimism to his work, as the interview with him shows.
Foto: OKAY 2018
"It was serendipity, sheer reporter luck," says Bastian Wierzioch about the report, for which he received the CIVIS Radio Prize in 2005. It was preceded neither by any specific project nor a dedicated search for protagonists. It was rather by pure chance that, while working on another journalistic assignment, Bastian Wierzioch met Adrian Fischer. 16 years old at the time, he was born and raised in Saxon Switzerland, the child of a former contract worker from Mozambique and a German mother. The prize-winning "Adrian Fischer: German – black – foreign" radio report was the result of a chance conversation with Adrian on the banks of the Elbe because Wierzioch had the right intuition at the right moment. He was sure "there had to be something": Intimately familiar as he was with Saxon Switzerland, a stronghold of the right-wing-extremist scene in Germany, he thought it impossible that Adrian would have nothing to say about everyday racism, about subtle allusions and pivotal experiences that had made him feel different due to the color of his skin. It is true that even back then studies were highlighting the widespread rejection of migrants, refugees and other supposed non-Germans in society, but in the media and in public discussion the issue of everyday racism was ignored.

"Adrian's fellow-citizens don’t have to say anything to make him feel bad. […] Often, they simply stare at him. Sometimes, a handbag is demonstratively clutched or tucked away when people see him in the supermarket,” to quote from the report. Insults are thrown at him about two or three times a day: "Nigger, negro, monkey. There is a long list of verbal abuse." Even though Adrian had never been physically abused in his life until then, "whenever foreigners are attacked in Saxon Switzerland, whenever teeth are smashed, ribs broken, and cigarette butts put out on people’s skins, then this young German boy invariably thinks: Will I be the next victim?" A few years after the report was broadcast, Adrian Fischer moved to Denmark, that is all that Bastian Wierzioch knows about his former protagonist’s current whereabouts - because Adrian could no longer endure life in Saxon Switzerland.

Turned into an expert by the CIVIS Prize

Bastian Wierzioch would never have entered his report for the CIVIS Prize himself, he "is not an award-chaser", he says. It was one of the MDR’s editors who suggested entering it. The CIVIS Media Foundation has awarded its annual prizes for radio, film, television and internet reports that explore to outstanding effect the issues of migration, integration and cultural diversity since 1988. As the years went by, the CIVIS Media Prize has evolved into one of the most prestigious European media prizes in this field. In 2020, more than 900 television, radio and film productions from 22 EU nations and Switzerland were entered. This accolade was one of the "most gratifying professional moments" for him, says Bastian Wierzioch. But the awards ceremony set a whole lot more in motion – a development he describes as the "phase that turned him into an expert": he subsequently received innumerable inquiries on a highly varied range of issues connected with right-wing extremism so that very soon he was focusing his journalistic work entirely on this field: "A process was picking up momentum and I chose not to fight it." The reports he has written since then have dealt with the right-wing-extremist party NPD, with police officials involved in right-wing-extremist circles, islamophobia, vigilante groups. Moreover, a documentary was made in 2007 entitled "I won’t let them drive me out" ("Ich lass mich nicht verjagen"), in which other young black people – mostly children of former contract workers from countries like Mozambique or Angola and German mothers – describe their childhood in Saxony, characterized as it was by everyday racism. The film was shown in many cinemas and at numerous events, and went to become an even bigger platform than the previous radio broadcast for highlighting and discussing everyday racism.

Indeed, Bastian Wierzioch, who grew up in Bavaria, was grappling with the issue of right-wing extremism long before writing his prize-winning report. He had in fact repeatedly focused on it in his journalistic work ever since 1998, and describes the NPD’s rally on 1st May involving thousands of neo-Nazis in front of the Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument of the Battle of the Nations) in Leipzig, where he was a young student of journalism and politics at the time, as "the spark that lit the touchpaper" for him. His horror at seeing people who had bonded over their undisguised approval of Nazi ideology ride roughshod over any common social consensus, so utterly ready to resort to violence, goes back much farther than this. Indeed, it began way back in the 1980s with skinhead bands in combat boots who suddenly started to appear in youth clubs, and with his ever-stronger wish to find out more in his history lessons about the roots of Germany’s darkest chapter. And even though he made his decision to take up a career as a journalist at an early juncture, it had nothing whatsoever to do with politics: When Bastian Wierzioch was a teenager, he was tasked by his athletics club with summarizing the latest results for the local newspapers, and at once made up his mind to become a journalist.

"The media can’t provide immunity"

What has happened since 2004 when Adrian Fischer told Bastian Wierzioch about his everyday life in Saxony? The journalist has observed a double-edged trend. The problem of racism has in no way disappeared but since 2013 it has moved, he says, even closer to the center of society, as the focus of the discourse has shifted – most clearly, but not exclusively, in Saxony. The worst forms of everyday racism, he continues, do not draw a line even at children, and emanate from individuals who would be downright indignant if their names were in any way associated with such political opinions. At the same time, Wierzioch definitely detects a growing awareness of the issue both among politicians and in society as a whole. But this, he says, bolsters the beliefs of already staunch democrats rather than "enlightening" people with preconceived notions, let alone fundamentalists.

Nor has the journalist any illusions about the influence of the media in overcoming right-wing extremism. Even though he draws a great deal of his professional motivation from the hope that he can reach as many people at the center of society as possible, there is no expectation, he says, of any given report having a direct impact: a report about everyday racism does not "provide immunity" (like a vaccination); rather the media will, in the most optimistic scenario, be able to trigger a long-term process of social reappraisal, to support society in reaching a general consensus. In the right-wing-extremist scene itself, critical journalistic engagement even leads instead to reaffirmation and delimitation: "Fundamentalists are sublimely indifferent to all of this."

In private, Bastian Wierzioch is sometimes tired of living in Saxony. He, the private man, often just wants to take off, to leave behind the provincial and racist quagmire, the "deplorable state of affairs" he sees in many places. But as a passionate advocate of democracy, he is heartened by being able to address this issue as a professional in his full-time job, not just as a volunteer. There are still so many subjects that prey on Bastian Wierzioch’s mind, such as the intertwinings and collaborative arrangements between several CDU associations with the AfD in central Germany. He intends to remain alert – and perhaps conduct major undercover research in order to touch on the sorest points of our democracy once again, just as he did so mercilessly in 2004.

The Freudenberg Foundation set up the CIVIS Media Foundation together with the German broadcasting corporation ARD, represented by the WDR regional broadcaster. The Freudenberg Foundation also works together with Bastian Wierzioch in the context of other projects, currently within the framework of a podcast series launched by the "Futurological Lab East" ("Zukunftslabor Ost") initiative. Moreover, Bastian Wierzioch is a member of the Saxon Prize for Democracy jury.