“Germany has had a neo-Nazi problem for decades, and the government’s unwillingness to address it has severely amplified the gravity of this year’s events”
If there is one country that people would assume not to repeat the mistakes of its past, it is Germany. The German approach to coming to terms with its atrocious past is widely regarded as one of brutal honesty, and one that would prevent a calamity like the Holocaust from ever happening again. Yet, despite the countless reassurances from the German state that #neveragain means never again, neo-Nazis made a full-blown comeback in 2019: In June, Walter Lübcke, a conservative politician who had previously called for a more tolerant stance towards refugees, was assassinated by a neo-Nazi in his own home. More recently, on Yom Kippur, another neo-Nazi attempted to commit mass-murder in a synagogue in Halle, killing two people and leaving the country in dismay. Unfortunately, the re-emergence of Nazism is not a new phenomenon, and the terrorist acts of 2019 should not have come as a surprise to anyone. While the Lübcke case brought the topic back into the spotlight, the truth is that Germany has had a neo-Nazi problem for decades, and the government’s unwillingness to address it has severely amplified the gravity of this year’s events.
Take, for instance, the horrific attacks of the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU), a terrorist group that murdered nine Turkish, Kurdish, and Greek immigrants to Germany over the course of a decade; these crimes were only brought to light in 2011, twelve years after the terrorists committed their first murder. In the media, this series of terrorist acts was ridiculed. By referring to the crimes as “Döner-Murders” — a term rooted in social othering that lumped together victims of diverse ethnic backgrounds — the media further marginalized the already distressed non-white community in Germany. Moreover, journalists continuously referred to the terrorist organization as a trio of murderers, even though more than 100 associates of the group, who supplied money, weapons and false identities, were identified as culpable in the aftermath.
While the media’s flawed reporting on the NSU murders aggravated the situation for the surviving families and immigrants in Germany more broadly, no major media organization actively assisted the terrorist group in evading justice, unlike some law enforcement agencies. The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which acts as the domestic intelligence agency of the German state, was well aware of the NSU’s criminal activities. In recent years, the agency has been caught in a plethora of scandals, all of which pertain to officials harboring ideological sympathies for the Neo-Nazi movement. In some cases, agency officials were supposed to secretly infiltrate neo-Nazi networks and report on criminal activity from within. Instead, those officials turned against their own organization and supplied neo-Nazis with intelligence from the BfV. In a different case, a high-ranking official in the agency admitted to destroying files related to the NSU murders after the crimes were revealed in 2011. Lastly, in the case of Halil Yozgat, who was murdered in his own café in Kassel, a BfV agent witnessed the murder as a customer of the café but did not report it to the police or his own superiors in the BfV, covering up the identities of the NSU terrorists.
The BfV is not the only law enforcement authority with ties to the neo-Nazi scene. The German police in recent years has been involved in multiple affairs dealing with white supremacy in their ranks. In one case, police officers in Frankfurt sent out a letter threatening to kill Seda Basay-Yildiz, a lawyer of Turkish descent who had previously represented one of the victims of the NSU. Calling her a “rotten Turkish sow,” the police officers signed the letter with “NSU 2.0.” In yet another case, police officers in Dessau are currently facing charges for covering up the murder of Oury Jalloh, a refugee who was burned to death under mysterious circumstances in police custody.
Not only are there countless, well-organized structures of neo-Nazi activity within the police and intelligence agencies, but neo-Nazi views are now also represented in the political realm, as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has become an established force in German politics. Leaders of the party in the past made radical statements such as referring to the Nazi era as “merely a speck of bird shit” (Alexander Gauland) and demanding a “180 degree turn” in the way Germans view their history (Björn Höcke). Beatrix von Storch, another head figure of the party, demanded in a tweet that refugees be shot at the border. She later apologized, claiming that her “computer mouse had slipped.” Some party leaders have even been involved with neo-Nazi organizations in the past, such as Andreas Kalbitz, chair of the Brandenburg branch of the AfD. Kalbitz is a former member of the now-banned “Heimattreue Jugend” (HJ, not coincidentally the same acronym used to describe the Hitler Youth), a neo-Nazi youth organization, and had frequent appearances at neo-Nazi demonstrations across the continent.
Considering the extremist activities of some party members as well as the right-wing radical rhetoric exhibited by many in the AfD, many democratic politicians condemn AfD figureheads as “spiritual arsons” of the recent terror attacks haunting the country.
However, not all mainstream politicians are equally as direct in calling out the fascist AfD for what it is. Instead, high-ranking members of the center-right CDU and FDP oftentimes equate the right-wing extremist views of the AfD to those of the far-left Die Linke. In their eyes, all extremism is equally bad, which is why they refrain from differentiating between the well-established, democratic-socialist views of Die Linke and the radically anti-democratic views of the AfD. By equating the two, conservatives both legitimize the unconstitutional positions of the AfD and undermine the validity of a left-wing critique of the political center. In doing so, conservatives actively contribute to the AfD’s electoral successes as they refuse to acknowledge the dangerous sentiments the party radiates.
Germany’s neo-Nazi problem is like a festering wound, and it will not magically be cured unless its symptoms are treated. A look at the past shows that the government is capable of effectively cracking down on terrorists, as it did in the 1970s, when it swiftly shut down the left-wing extremist Red Army Faction. However, comprehensive counter-terrorist action is only possible if there is a strong political will behind it. Evidently, this is not the case, and it will not be possible until we dispel the notion that left-wing extremism is as dangerous and deadly as right-wing extremism. As long as the status quo of the discourse does not change, reactionary forces will always find a way to divert pressure from them onto those on the left.