It’s a Tuesday in early summer, and in the busy marketplace of a small North Rhine-Westphalian community, the man they once called the “Hitler of Cologne” is once again the center of attention. It’s not just him this time.

An elderly gentleman with a proud mustache discovered Axel Reitz’s dog, 39. “Dat jit et ja nit,” he says in a broad Rhenish accent and points to the small, fox-colored animal that is leashed under its owner’s chair.

“It’s a Corgi after all!” The Corgi says, says the older man, he has royal blood in him. Just saw him on TV last week. He himself is a dachshund fan. A lengthy conversation about the advantages of corgis and dachshunds unwinds, and Reitz shows once again how easy it is for him to win over people he doesn’t even know in a matter of seconds.

A talent that he already knew how to use in his past. He was once called a “man catcher”. Not everyone was enthusiastic about it, because Reitz is a former neo-Nazi squad.

In the noughties he was one of the central figures of the “Freie Kameradschaften” and one of the co-founders of the “Autonomen Nationalisten”, one of the most dazzling figures in the right-wing extremist scene and a pioneer of new mobilization strategies.

Today Reitz works in the prevention and dropout work for the non-profit association “Extremislos”, which strives for information and advice. His YouTube channel “The Reitz Effect” is one of the best that can be seen in the education about right-wing extremist structures in Germany.

Reitz had his first encounter with right-wing extremism when he was at school. Mid 1990s. Project week in secondary school. Reitz was given the task of presenting the programs of the smallest parties. So he asked them all: the Anarchist Pogo Party of Germany. The German Communist Party. And the National Democratic Party of Germany.

However, his teacher didn’t want to see them on the poster, because, according to the reasoning, one doesn’t talk about Nazis. Reitz didn’t understand that, because after all the NPD was a legal party in Germany, like all the other parties on his poster. His teacher was firm. Questions were wiped away. And for Reitz, a not so atypical entry into right-wing extremism began.

He saw the behavior of his teachers as confirmation of the nationalist narrative that one was not allowed to “speak freely” about “certain topics” in Germany. Reitz went to meetings of the NPD, but the self-proclaimed national democrats did not manage to inspire him for too long. In the late 1990s, the 14-year-old found a sleepy old-timers’ party whose members would gather in the back rooms of some pubs to reminisce about the once so beautiful German Reich in a beery mood.

The activism of the Cologne functionaries was limited to planning the annual Christmas party, at which one could drink even more beer and indulge even more happily in fantasies of the Greater German Reich. During this time, the NPD was shaped by the passionate Holocaust denier Günter Deckert, who put his time into spreading historical revisionist theories and constructed the party as a “safe space” for die-hards.

It was all too sleepy for Reitz, he says. He was able to make friends with the ideology, but not with the restrained activism. So he joined the Free Comradesships: small, local but well-connected action alliances that took the fight for the “fatherland” to the streets and wanted to show their presence in public space. Since he had no contacts, he simply got the latest intelligence report and called the right-wing extremist cadres listed there.

This is how Reitz met Christian Worch, who became his spiritual mentor. Worch was one of the driving forces trying to modernize the neo-Nazi scene and carry it into the new millennium. They wanted to get rid of the cliches of bald, beer can waving combat boot skins.

Reitz liked the idea. They broke the far-right archetypes of skin and hair and instead openly and freely borrowed from left-wing counterculture aesthetics. One could identify with the Pali cloth, and even Che Guevara was reimagined as an icon for the struggle for national sovereignty.

The new Autonomous Nationalist movement ended the era of the baseball bat years, and Reitz became one of its pioneers. He liked to hold long, demagogic hate speeches on the market squares of the republic and was nicknamed “Hitler of Cologne” by a journalist.

Although Reitz saw himself more in the tradition of “left”, i.e. figures referring to the socialist wing of National Socialism such as Ernst Röhm and the Strasser brothers, the label was catchy. Reitz left secondary school with a high school diploma and from then on devoted himself entirely to his career as a neo-Nazi squad. He was “unemployed, but not unemployed,” said Reitz, who was quite busy making a pilgrimage from neo-Nazi demo to neo-Nazi demo and establishing his networks. The professional demonstrator saw himself as a “political soldier”, as the vanguard of a new national movement.

Reitz is still a character who attracts attention and would like to attract attention. His vanity, he admits, was certainly one of the driving forces behind exposing himself in this way in the right-wing extremist milieu. Instead of SA aesthetics, with a correctly fitting brown shirt and long leather coat, he prefers to stage himself in colorful suits as a connoisseur and dandy.

“When I look at pictures from back then, I was a caricature of a Hollywood Nazi. I looked like a bad cartoon character,” he says today, sitting in the marketplace, the corgi on a leash, with a relaxed gaze at an Indian textile merchant offering his wares for sale.

Perhaps it was a marketplace like this that he had in mind when, in one of his speeches, he fantasized about what Germany would be like once the Nationals had seized power. “Those who fought us for years, forced us out of work and put us in prison will one day be taken to the market square and shot,” he said at the time.

True, the far right was far from seizing power; nevertheless, they celebrated successes in the noughties that are hard to imagine from today’s perspective. If you think of the neo-Nazi scene, you think of the 90s: of Hoyerswerda, of Rostock-Lichtenhagen, of beer rednecks with sweatpants covered in piss and showing a Hitler salute. But mostly not in the red-green years, characterized by supposed tolerance, in which the world and the Federal Republic seemed to have the smallest problems in retrospect.

And yet the right-wing extremist scene in Germany had reached a temporary peak. With his “struggle for heads, streets and parliaments”, the new NPD chairman Udo Voigt set a successful mantra for the party and at the same time opened it up to the Free Comradesships.

Fresh blood that unexpectedly revitalized the old men’s party. Suddenly you could get thousands of people together at marches. At a time when there was no alternative to the right of the Union apart from the NPD, the party achieved electoral successes that are unimaginable by today’s standards.

In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania they entered the Schwerin state parliament with 7.3 percent in 2006, and in Saxony in 2004 with as much as 9.2 percent. An openly right-wing extremist party that was still printing a slogan like “Gas on” on its election posters in Berlin in 2011 and didn’t even bother to hold up a fig leaf of bourgeois existence to its exposed right-wing extremist sentiment. You got what you saw.

For Reitz himself, however, the slow exit from the scene had already begun at this point. There was not one experience, he says today; not the one moment when he changed his mind. Even a first prison sentence for incitement to hatred initially only strengthened his world view. But at some point, little by little, he began to question things.

At some point the first enemy images broke away. And at some point, he also recognized the double standards with which he cheated himself. “You believe in a completely distorted self-perception that you stand up for the good, for the right thing,” says Reitz. “And so you create enemy images that justify your own extremism. You are not violent because you are violent, but because you are fighting for a good cause, for a higher purpose. You have this noble ideal in your head, but at some point you can no longer reconcile it with reality.”

He joined a state drop-out program and began, among other things, with the help of the sect and ideology officer of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, with the intensive, long-term coming to terms with his past.

Today he does it again. In the public. His relatively young YouTube channel “The Reitz Effect” has almost 6,000 subscribers. There he not only works through his own history, but also deals with current extremist currents. The world in which Reitz radicalized himself is a world that no longer exists. Classic right-wing extremism is past its peak.

But that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. In the age of postmodernism, closed worldviews are being broken open and leftover parts of right-wing extremist ideology are now seeping into new movements. From the AfD to the “lateral thinkers” and “identitarians”.

Reitz succeeds like no other in deconstructing this ideological network and unmasking the thought structures behind it. For example, when he proves how anti-Semitic stories and images of the “secret powers” and “elitist circles” could find their way from the open right-wing extremist scene to motley movements.

Today Reitz is politically very clearly located in liberalism. Double standards are still a big issue for him. In his videos, he therefore makes no distinction as to whether extremism comes from the left, from the right, or from Islamist and Christian fundamentalist groups.

“All extremism, including left-wing extremism and religious extremism, should be fought and ostracized. Anything else would just be hypocrisy,” he says. The left doesn’t like it at all.

And in the right-wing extremist scene, the “Hitler of Cologne” has now been given a new nickname. For the old comrades, Reitz is just the “Judas of Cologne”.