New Momentum: German Police Honing In on Far-Right Criminals

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New information has revealed a statistical spike in the arrests of neo-Nazi fugitives in Germany since the Zwickau cell murders came to light. Authorities are proud of their progress, but critics say there is a tendency by officials to downplay right-wing extremist crime in a way that is dangerous to society.

A man takes part in a far-right demonstration in Saxony-Anhalt. Zoom
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A man takes part in a far-right demonstration in Saxony-Anhalt.

They revere Adolf Hitler and pay homage to him with outstretched arms in salute as they get handcuffed by police. One has Hitler's likeness tattooed on his brawny back. They are among the right-wing extremists who have been on wanted lists for years, revealed this week in an answer to a federal parliamentary inquiry by the Left Party.

When the Zwickau neo-Nazi terrorist cell was exposed last November, a number of unsettling questions arose: How was it possible that three right-wing extremists could remain undiscovered from 1998 to 2011, allegedly killing nine immigrants and a policewoman? And above all, how many other neo-Nazis wanted by police had managed to go underground?

The answer to the second question, as outlined by the parliamentary inquiry response, is that as of January, there were 160 right-wing extremists on wanted lists, with seven also being sought internationally. But police couldn't find them, because they'd gone underground. Between January and March, however, investigators have already managed to nab 46 of the neo-Nazi fugitives.

New Motivation

Did the discovery of the Zwickau cell accelerate the manhunt? Absolutely, says Oliver Platzer, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry in the southern state of Bavaria. Since Nov. 4, 2011, when the only surviving member of the terror cell, Beate Zschäpe, allegedly blew up their apartment, the search has been intensified, he says. In addition to "targeted analysis," all police precincts have been sensitized to the issue and authorities have been conducting research on the right-wing extremist scene. In all, 14 of the 37 neo-Nazis on the state's wanted list have been found.

Though law enforcement agencies and state interior ministries are likely congratulating themselves for their success, critics feel justified in their past accusations that authorities have invested too little for too long in fighting right-wing extremist crime. Ulla Jelpke, the Left Party's spokesperson for domestic issues, says she inquired about fugitive neo-Nazis directly after the Zwickau cell story broke, but that it wasn't the first time. Now, German authorities have proudly revealed their progress, but she's not impressed. "When the pressure is on, suddenly things start happening," she says.

According to Bavarian Interior Ministry spokesman Platzer, only a fraction of the neo-Nazis recently arrested remain in custody. In the other cases, the conditions for their imprisonment were forfeited after they paid outstanding fines. Furthermore, not all of the warrants issued for the people in question arose from politically motivated crimes. Some were simply accused of theft, assault or failing to make family maintenance payments. The report did not give any information on how many cases in which warrants have expired or been dropped.

Trivializing Crimes

Among the most striking details of the parliamentary inquiry answer is that many of the neo-Nazis on the run were picked up in western German states -- a fact that contradicts the widely held conception that eastern Germany is home to more people in the scene. While some were wanted on suspicion of ordinary crimes like fraud, theft or drug violations, in most cases they were accused of committing offences typical to the far-right scene. But the list also includes violent crimes, incitement of the people, making Hitler salutes or wearing symbols associated with banned organizations.

Investigators in Hamburg, for example, were looking for a man who had attacked and threatened to kill a Ghanaian man. Another man was wanted for murder. Authorities in the Bavarian city of Amberg had a warrant out for a man who had revealed a tattoo of Hitler on his back during a concert. Still others had attacked homeless people without provocation or purchased Nazi paraphernalia. Some also reportedly told police during house searches that they "love" Adolf Hitler, Jews should be "gassed" or that "Germany belongs to the Germans."

Left Party politician Jelpke accuses the authorities of failing to properly label "politically motivated" crimes. In one example, Bamberg prosecutors were searching for a man who had tried to strangle a Turkish man, shouting, "Your kind should be gassed!" This crime was not classified as politically motivated. Jelpke also accuses the authorities of whitewashing and trivializing such crimes to a dangerous extent. "At issue here is the mentality of our society," she says, adding that right-wing extremists must not be categorized in statistics as "normal criminals."

More Anti-Racist Training Needed

"It is important how the perpetrators are judged, particularly for the victims of racist crimes and their family members," she says.

Barbara John, the ombudsperson for the relatives of those allegedly killed by the Zwickau cell, recently wrote in weekly Jewish newspaper Jüdische Allgemeine that authorities must keep the wider societal atmosphere in mind. "It has to be about strengthening civil society in its fight against racism," she said. The signal to victims must be that concerns don't focus "alone on mistakes by authorities, but on our society, which has long yet to be freed of its arrogance regarding fellow humans who have immigrated."

Both women have called for what Jelpke describes as a "completely independent observation center for right-wing violence," similar to those already in place in neighboring Belgium and Austria. Police also need further anti-racism training to prevent the "common spirit" that led to the victims of the Zwickau cell initially being seen as criminals themselves.

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