Blind to Extremism: How Germany Overlooked the Threat from the Right

Over 140 people have died as a result of far-right violence in Germany since reunification in 1990. But the German public has been largely blind to the threat from the right. The revelations about the Zwickau terror cell may now act as a wake-up call. By SPIEGEL Staff

Photo Gallery: The Far-Right Threat Photos
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The victim had stayed out late drinking -- a fatal mistake, as it turned out. On the night of Nov. 24-25, 1990, Amadeu Antonio Kiowa was sitting with friends in Hüttengasthof, a bar with an adjacent discotheque in the town of Eberswalde, in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. Shortly after midnight, the owner of the establishment received a phone call from the police saying that he should send his guests home because a group of skinheads was on its way there. But the warning came too late for the Angolan-born factory worker.

"There are the niggers," someone yelled from the group, which had been loudly rampaging through the town since that afternoon. There were around 40 to 60 young men wearing paratrooper boots and bomber jackets, some of them armed with baseball bats and fence pickets. Kiowa was punched twice in the stomach, he fell down and struggled to get back up on his feet, but the group had already set upon him. The thugs pulled him up and tossed him back and forth, as if they were throwing around a ball. When the brutalized man fell to the ground again, they kicked him until he lay unconscious on the street. Two weeks later, the young man died of severe head injuries in the intensive care unit of the Berlin-Buch Hospital.

Turning Point

Kiowa is one of the first victims of racist violence after German reunification in 1990. His death marks a turning point where far-right terror became apparent, even if the state long refused to recognize it as such. In September 1992, the district court in Frankfurt-Oder convicted five of the men involved in the attack of committing assault and battery leading to death. The most severe sentence was four years of juvenile detention, and one man got off with a two-year suspended sentence.

The judges ruled that the "general political and social circumstances" following reunification were mitigating factors. "The state and the FDJ (the former East Germany's communist youth organization, the Free German Youth) used to regulate everything, including recreational activities," they wrote in their decision, "but now these young people have become disoriented as a result of the political upheaval."

That was 20 years ago and Germany has had a great deal of time to learn from its mistakes. Now, the country annually spends €24 million ($32.5 million) on violence-prevention programs. Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is responsible for monitoring extremism, has many informers in the far-right political milieu -- so many, in fact, that an attempt to ban the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) failed in 2003 because of the presence of informers in senior positions within the party. But right-wing terror has not ended -- on the contrary, it has escalated. One could even say that it has become commonplace.

Journalists from the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit and the center-left newspaper Die Tagesspiegel carried out research into the number of victims of far-right violence. They came to a total of at least 137 deaths between 1990 and 2008 -- 137 people who died because they had the wrong skin color, or had a different accent, or because they simply didn't fit into the right-wing extremists' view of the world. They were brutally kicked, stabbed to death or set on fire. One was trampled to death and thrown into the nearest cesspool.

Trail of Blood

A horrifying trail of blood extends across the entire country -- and perhaps the most spine-chilling aspect of all is that so few people have noticed it. It's been a long time since Germans have staged candlelight vigils in memory of the victims of far-right violence. This gives the impression that politicians and the general public were busy with more important things than this form of murderous, everyday violence. But perhaps simply no one, aside from a small circle of committed citizens, saw the connection -- the hate that tied all the crimes together.

Now, Germany has been startled from its slumber. Ever since the discovery of an underground far-right terror group which apparently targeted Turkish small businessmen all across Germany for many years, the law enforcement agencies have been asking themselves how they could have overlooked something that is actually impossible to overlook.

There's a deep sense of shock and dismay. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke of a "disgrace for Germany" and German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich warned of "enormous damage to the trust that people have in our law enforcement agencies" in an interview with SPIEGEL. On Tuesday, the German parliament, the Bundestag, will deal with the issue. On Friday of last week, a large crisis summit was held in Berlin. Participants discussed every option that could be quickly implemented: a new joint center to curb far-right violence, more staff members for the special units of police and the public prosecutors' offices and a renewed attempt to ban the NPD. The government is trying to calm the public -- and also itself.

Indeed, the issues that are being raised go beyond the case of the murderous trio from Jena in eastern Germany. While investigators are still focusing on who was in contact with the terror cell, what other crimes they may have committed, and which individuals helped them along the way, the politicians have already turned to the question of who is responsible for the debacle.

"The question is: Did individuals fail here or was it the entire system?" asks the governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, Hannelore Kraft, a member of the opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, already seems to have decided that the blame cannot be placed on government agencies alone. "While conservatives immediately said that left-wing extremism was behind the series of arson attacks on cars in Berlin, they didn't really want to recognize the threat posed by right-wing terror," he says.

Challenging the State

There are, of course, significant differences between far-left and far-right terror. Political terror on the right in Germany has never had the logistics of the far-left Red Army Faction (RAF), which terrorized Germany in the 1970s, or its circle of supporters which, at least during the early days, extended into the homes of the educated middle classes. Many left-wing terrorists had an academic background that translated into a propensity for developing political theories, something that right-wing extremists tended to lack.

But there is more than one way to challenge the state, as both types of terror show. It's possible to attack its representatives, which is the path that was taken by the RAF. However, it's also possible to stake out regions in which the state loses its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, thereby suspending the laws that govern civil society.

Far-right terrorists rarely leave letters claiming responsibility or voluminous treatises drumming up support for the struggle against the system. Most perpetrators are barely able to justify their violent acts in coherent sentences. But there is no ignoring the fact that this terror also has a message: Anyone who is different will be struck down. And: Stay away, because we call the shots here.

No-Go Areas

The message has certainly been received. Anyone who lives in the western part of Berlin, and can be easily recognized as a foreigner, still avoids taking trips to the city's eastern outlying districts, let alone to the states of the former East Germany. Travel guides have long warned dark-skinned Americans against visiting certain regions in the east.

Far-right terror is random but it is not indiscriminate, and in that sense it resembles leftist terror. It also seeks out its victims according to political criteria, but it doesn't care how affluent or influential someone is. What counts is whether someone could pass as "German," although in addition to national origin, other deadly criteria could be an individual's sexual orientation or being a Jew.

Every society whose citizens have to fear for their lives because they belong to a certain group is affected at its core. This raises the following question: Why has the German state so far not felt truly challenged by the far right?

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1.
bzumhagen@yahoo.com 11/21/2011
I don't think "monopoly on violence" is a good translation of Gewaltmonopol here. I think something like "the state's monopoly on the use of force" would be clearer and more accurate in this case.
2. Same old reasons
pmoseley 11/22/2011
Why has German society been slow to realise the threat of right wing extremists? I believe it's because of the same reasons it was slow to awaken to the threat of Hitler's rise to power. It's a combination of a determined political force with a simple philosophy based on violence and hatred of minorities combined with weak laws, conflicting local and national political interests and law enforcement incompetence. But above all it is an 'ostrich' mentality of Germans that things will be alright if they are ignored; that things are not happening if they don't know about them, and that their society could handle them if they happened.
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