Police Data Reveals Scope of German Far-right Extremist Threat

With hundreds gone underground, the far right is undergoing 'mass armament,' according to official statistics – while police come under renewed criticism

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Far-right protesters demonstrate in Berlin, Germany, October 3, 2019. The hoodies read "Brotherhood Germany."
Far-right protesters demonstrate in Berlin, Germany, October 3, 2019. The hoodies read "Brotherhood Germany."Credit: \ HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/ REUTERS
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

To understand the magnitude of the threat that neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists pose to Jews and Muslims in Germany, one just needs to look at police reports on confiscated weapons.

Every few months, German police go on confiscation operations throughout the country, which generally don’t get a lot of attention in the media. Yet they reveal a problem of worrying proportions, for Germany, and for everywhere else.

According to data released last month, German police seized 1,091 weapons from right-wing extremists in 2018, compared to 676 in the previous year – a 61 percent increase. The list includes enough rifles, pistols and explosives for several mass-casualty attacks.

Matthias Quent, an expert on the far right from Germany’s Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, said this amounted to “mass armament strengthening Germany's radical far right." He called the increase “frightening and horrifying.”

In total, there were 8,605 documented attacks of all kinds by right-wing extremists during the first half of 2019. During all of 2018, there were 1,088 “violent” attacks, an increase of 3.2 percent over 2017. The criteria for the distinction between "ordinary" and "violent" attacks drawn by Germany's public agencies are not always clear and sometimes contentious.

These attacks target members of Germany's minority communities, specifically Muslims and Jews, politicians from the left and the moderate right, and state officials. According to experts, the most extreme elements of this phenomenon aim to undermine the stability of the state and bring about a civil war or a revolution.

There’s no shortage of recent examples. In June, a right-wing extremist murdered a politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, Walter Luebcke, an administrator for the district of Kassel, who was shot in the head at close range not far from his home. Luebcke was known as a fighter for refugee rights in Germany, which made him a target of threats by right-wing extremists.

His murder came as a shock, but it was foreshadowed by other attacks on other politicians favorable to an open-door refugee policy. Altena mayor Andreas Hollstein, another member of Merkel's party, was stabbed in 2017, as was Cologne mayoral candidate Henriette Reker in 2015. She later won the election.

Suspect in killing of Walter Luebcke escorted by armed police, Karlsruhe, Germany, July 2, 2019Credit: Uli Deck,AP

According to German police, there were 609 attacks on refugees and asylum seekers during the first half of 2019, ranging from verbal violence and harassment through arson attacks on property, to life-threatening physical attacks. There were also 60 attacks on refugee shelters and 42 attacks on aid agencies and volunteers.

In total, 102 people were hurt, including seven children. In each case, police listed far-right ideology as the motive.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a domestic security agency, estimates that 24,000 far-right extremists are currently active in Germany, an increase of around 100 since its last estimate. About half are defined as potentially violent, and some 450 have gone underground, meaning authorities have no information about them.

That last statistic is particularly worrying given the authorities’ resounding failure to stop the National Socialist Underground, which operated without hindrance for about a decade in the early 2000s, murdering nine migrants and a policewoman. This is only more potent given the fact authorities failed to prevent the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle in which two were killed. Had the building’s locked door not prevented the shooter from entering, there could have been an actual massacre in line with the Christchurch mosque attack that might have inspired it.

Violent anti-Semitic attacks by far-right radical elements aren’t anything new in post-Nazi Germany, which also contends with anti-Jewish violence carried out by Islamic extremists. Neo-Nazis countrywide have been attacking people, memorials and synagogues ever since World War II ended.

In 1959, anti-Semitic graffiti reading “Germans demand: Jews out” was sprayed on a synagogue in Cologne. And in 1994, Germany was shocked when right-wing extremists torched a synagogue in the town of Lubeck, just decades after the Nazis torched synagogues throughout the country on Kristallnacht in 1938.

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