German Interior Minister on Neo-Nazi Terror: 'We Have to Clarify What Happened in Our Society'

There has been massive criticism of the fact that a neo-Nazi terror cell managed to elude German law enforcement officials for years. In a SPIEGEL interview, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich discusses the state's shortcomings in its battle against far-right terrorism and what needs to change.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich: "I believe there is no clear distinction between psychopathy and extremism." Zoom
Werner Schuering/ DER SPIEGEL

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich: "I believe there is no clear distinction between psychopathy and extremism."

In the wake of the revelations about the Zwickau neo-Nazi terror cell, which is believed to be behind the murders of at least 10 people in a 2000-2007 killing spree, tough questions are being asked about the role of Germany's law enforcement agencies. In particular, observers have wondered why the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence agency, which is responsible for monitoring political extremism, did not detect the terrorists earlier, given that the agency has an extensive network of paid informers within the far-right scene.

Politicians have called for an investigation into the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and possibly even a reform of the agency. There has been criticism of the fact that the different state-level branches of the agency appear not to have shared information with each other and with other authorities. Germany currently has 16 state-level domestic intelligence services, as well as the national agency, and there have been calls for some of those agencies to be merged.

On Friday, German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich announced at a summit, convened in response to the case, that the government planned to set up a centralized national database on right-wing extremism to improve information-sharing. As head of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Friedrich has been at the center of the debate over how to better combat the far-right danger.

SPIEGEL talked to Friedrich about the case and the possible failings of the authorities.


SPIEGEL: Minister Friedrich, have you seen the video made by the Zwickau-based neo-Nazi terror cell, where they appear to claim responsibility for at least 10 murders?

Friedrich: Yes. For me, it's one of the biggest mysteries of this case. It's also hard to understand what statement it's supposed to make or why the video was made.

SPIEGEL: It's evidently the testament of the trio, who apparently murdered at least 10 people between 2000 and 2006 for mainly racist motives. They apparently wanted to send a clear message claiming responsibility for these acts.

Friedrich: But a testament in this form?

SPIEGEL: The way the film is made, with its cartoon imagery, is almost unbearably cynical. But the message is unambiguous: The group boasts about murdering 10 people and calls itself the National Socialist Underground.

Friedrich: But the murder series ended in 2007, so I wonder what happened after that. Psychologists will have to address that question too.

SPIEGEL: Do you feel that their acts are the work of psychopaths or are they based more on political motives?

Friedrich: In this case, I believe there is no clear distinction between psychopathy and extremism. But the effects that these acts have on our population's sense of security as well as on Germany's international standing are, of course, highly political. We have to clarify what happened in our society.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn't you agree that the first thing this film makes us realize is that politicians, the intelligence agencies and the police -- but also we journalists --underestimated the phenomenon of far-right terrorism?

Friedrich: Yes. If everything turns out to be the way we think it is, one would probably have to draw this conclusion.

SPIEGEL: The Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has been reporting for years that right-wing extremists weren't involved in any underground terrorist activity. But they were horribly wrong.

Friedrich: The Office for the Protection of the Constitution's report (from 2010) states precisely: "Right-wing terrorist structures were not detectable." Hence, the security agencies had no relevant information.

SPIEGEL: Why were all of us -- including many journalists -- so wrong about this?

Friedrich: Because the various individual actions -- a murder here, pipe bomb-building there and a nail-bomb explosion there -- didn't come together to form an overall picture. And, unlike in other terrorism cases, the perpetrators also didn't issue any claims of responsibility as a political message. For these perpetrators, performing the act was apparently sufficient in itself.

SPIEGEL: Still, it wasn't as if the trio existed in some sort of vacuum. Instead, they were living in the middle of Germany. How can it be that they didn't attract anyone's attention?

Friedrich: There are even more questions to be asked, including about the failed attempt to arrest them and how they could remain in hiding for years. And why were there no leads from the people close to them, even though the (neo-Nazi) scene has a reputation for being rather loose-lipped? For example, someone made the film in 2007. Based on the current state of the investigation, it probably wasn't one of the three.

SPIEGEL: If it had been three militant Islamists or three left-wing extremists with bomb-making experience who went underground 13 years ago, the state would have relentlessly tracked them down. Why doesn't it do the same thing when neo-Nazis are involved?

Friedrich: Islamist terrorism only forced its way into our consciousness in 2001. Sept. 11 was a shocking experience that sensitized us and made us aware of the issue to the maximum degree possible. The results were anti-terror laws, the Joint Counter-Terrorism Center and new approaches to police searches.

SPIEGEL: Have we now experienced something similar to a 9/11 moment in terms of shock value for right-wing extremism?

Friedrich: On Sept. 11, 2001, something happened that even experts considered unimaginable. I don't want to compare the two. But, when it comes to right-wing extremism, we're also now encountering things that we considered unthinkable.

SPIEGEL: Statistics compiled by Germany's government indicate that federal prosecutors have launched 13 preliminary investigations involving suspected far-right terrorists over the last decade, but around 700 in relation to Islamism and left-wing terrorism. One doesn't even have to consider the Zwickau cell's alleged murder series -- which primarily involved Turkish businessmen -- to realize that the priorities here were very one-sided.

Friedrich: In order to draw any conclusions from that, we naturally first have to analyze where any possible shortcomings were. But, for me, the decisive issue is what needs to happen now. In that respect, I say we need a stronger networking of data that takes advantage of all the modern technical possibilities. We also need an expansion of the regulations to make us more efficient in the battle against right-wing extremists and far-right terrorists.

SPIEGEL: We would like to quote to you from a document drawn up by the German government. It reads: "Based upon a decision by the interior ministers, the 'Information Group for Monitoring and Combating Acts of Violence by Right-Wing Extremists and Terrorists' was set up." The group was meant to facilitate the exchange of information between authorities at the state and federal levels. Do you know when this is from?

Friedrich: No.

SPIEGEL: It's a decision made by the country's interior ministers in late 1992 in reaction to the attacks on refugees and foreigners in Rostock and Hoyerswerda. It would appear that there has been a body tasked with collating all the necessary information on right-wing extremism for 19 years.

Friedrich: But now we are going a step further: We want to expand the focus to include all individuals within the spectrum of right-wing extremism who are prepared to use violence, and we had already put the current coordination group on the agenda of the Interior Ministers' Conference (ed's note: a body made up of officials from the interior ministries at the state and federal level) even before the Zwickau cell was discovered.

SPIEGEL: In October 2003, the coordination group of the national and state-level authorities met to discuss the issue of "whether there were groups within the domain of right-wing extremism from which there was a danger that terrorist structures might arise." By that time, the Zwickau cell had already claimed its first four victims.

Friedrich: In retrospect, the analysis was obviously incorrect.

SPIEGEL: And now the Interior Ministry's response is merely to set up yet another coordination group?

Friedrich: It's much more than that! As we've already done with Islamic extremism, we will introduce a joint database that will allow data from, say, the police in Thuringia or the Saxony state branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution to be aggregated in a single place. In the future, both federal and state-level authorities have to be able to access all the data. What's more, we will set up a joint center to combat right-wing extremism. We want to offer the states the option of sending their own officials there. I can also imagine boosting the competences of the federal public prosecutor general in relation to cases where investigations involving serious crimes go beyond state boundaries.

SPIEGEL: At the moment, all of Germany's law-enforcement agencies are pouring over their archives for traces of the trio. In the process, they have determined that many files don't even exist any longer.

Friedrich: That's why we have to change our retention periods (for such files). The law regulating the Office for the Protection of the Constitution currently stipulates that files should be stored for five years or, in special cases, for 10 years. That's too short. It's also no longer justifiable to have different rules for how long files can be stored based on whether extremists are violent or not.

SPIEGEL: It has also become clear just how closely the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) was associated with people close to the Zwickau cell. Do you think the NPD should be banned?

Friedrich: For me, it's clear that the NPD is an anti-constitutional party. But the precondition for banning a party is being able to prove aggressive behavior toward the Basic Law (Germany's constitution). The state-level Interior Ministers' Conference has set up an independent working group to examine a possible ban on the party. We are represented in that group, and I intend to wait for its findings.

SPIEGEL: A previous attempt to ban the NPD failed because it was revealed that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had informants in senior positions within the party who could have influenced its direction. As the head of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, are you prepared to stop using informants in the far-right scene?

Friedrich: That depends on the working group's findings.

SPIEGEL: With all due respect, these things have already been examined to death. There isn't a meeting of the Interior Ministers' Conference in which some working group doesn't present some report on the issue. You already know everything there is to know about the NPD.

Friedrich: But, in the process, one has so far always reached the conclusion that the legal risk was too high. The question is whether we will now have different findings that suggest another conclusion.

SPIEGEL: Will the Office for the Protection of the Constitution now be forced to change the way it works, for example by depending more on information and analysis and less on paid informants?

Friedrich: Informants are indispensable for the work of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution on both the national and state level.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger's suggestion that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution should be centralized on the state level into three or four large agencies, instead of the current system where each of Germany's 16 federal states has its own agency?

Friedrich: The federal government is not in a position to mandate that, and the states have already spoken out massively against it.

SPIEGEL: While we're on the subject of reappraisals, wouldn't it be appropriate to reevaluate the statistics on the number of victims of far-right violence? Official government figures put the number of deaths between 1990 -- the year of German reunification -- and 2008 at 46. But other experts say the figure is at least 137.

Friedrich: As you know, we are currently also looking at the old cases. In light of recent events, we will possibly have to re-evaluate one or two cases.

SPIEGEL: There is speculation that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was somehow embroiled in the terrorist activities of the Zwickau cell. Are you in a position today to rule that out?

Friedrich: The mere fact that there is such speculation unfortunately causes enormous damage to the faith that people have in our law-enforcement agencies and their duty to protect our society. That's why I want to say here in no uncertain terms: At the moment, there are no facts that would justify such a suspicion in any way.

SPIEGEL: Minister Friedrich, thank you for speaking with us.

Interview conducted by Georg Mascolo, Holger Stark and Alfred Weinzierl.

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