Hidden in Plain Sight: Facts and Myths about Germany's Far-Right Extremists

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Officials estimate that there are roughly 25,000 far-right extremists among Germany's almost 82 million residents. Still, their views enjoy much more support than the numbers would suggest. Here, SPIEGEL ONLINE takes a close look at just how rooted right-wing extremism is in Germany.

A neo-Nazi demonstration in Dortmund in 2008: Despite its small numbers, Germany's far right has a disproportunately large influence in Germany. Zoom
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A neo-Nazi demonstration in Dortmund in 2008: Despite its small numbers, Germany's far right has a disproportunately large influence in Germany.

There were several people involved: two men, one woman and a handful of helpers. But they shared a single mind-set, one that focused on killing the declared enemy, that glorified killing as an ideology in itself, and that made films with cartoon characters pointing at gruesome murder scenes. Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the members of the Zwickau terrorist cell, lived to kill. They were the ones who decided who deserved to live, and who deserved to die.

They did not try to draw any attention to themselves. Instead, their mindset was apparently incentive enough. In the words of Hajo Funke, a prominent analyst of the far-right in Germany, it was about the "propaganda of the deed." But it really looked more like political insanity paired with individual psychopathology.

Whatever the case may be, a lot is known about far-right terrorists in Germany. In 2010, a study on the biographies of extremists who commit acts of violence was published after being commissioned by Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). It concluded that extremist ideologies -- regardless of whether they are left- or right-wing -- give their adherents a sense of direction that supports them in their everyday lives. The reason that such ideologies are embraced in the first place, it said, can in most cases be attributed to some deficit or insecurity.

Indeed, family environment would seem to play a decisive role, as can be seen from the fact that hardly any of the criminals who were examined came from two-parent homes. This approach to explaining things is just as simplistic as it is plausible: Individuals who don't get the closeness and recognition they need from their mothers and fathers will go looking for it elsewhere. Most extremists have broken off ties with their parents and allowed their cliques to replace their families, a fact which helps to explain why there is such as strong sense of cohesion within these groupings. And that's also how it apparently was in the case of Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos.

The researchers also discovered that radicalization was most often accompanied by a measure of self-dramatization: the more brutal the act, the more celebrated -- and the more one celebrates oneself.

When it comes to the Zwickau terrorist cell, their 15-minute film documents in a distressing way how much the perpetrators of these crimes craved recognition. They set the scenes of their crimes very meticulously, they mixed in the cheerful, harmless cartoon figure of the Pink Panther, and they anticipated how the film would resonate in the media -- all to mock their victims.

The murders were committed by just three people. But how do things look like if you take a broader view of the entire far-right scene in Germany?

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