The Return of the Radicals Crisis Fuels Rise in Left-Wing Extremist Violence

Following the 2007 protests at the G-8 meeting in Heiligendamm, the number of attacks by leftist extremists has risen dramatically in Germany. The government is increasing its focus on the autonomists, but authorities know little about a new generation that is torching cars, and worse, in its fight. By SPIEGEL Staff


The man is a member of Berlin's left-wing radical autonomist movement, and he's engaged in a struggle against the system. If a few things have to go up in flames as part of that struggle, it doesn't usually bother him too much. But there are limits -- and the deaths of three people recently in Greece, employees at a bank where someone threw a firebomb, have left him contemplating them.

"I never imagined something like this," the man says. He's come to a cafe at Kottbusser Tor in Berlin's diverse Kreuzberg district to talk about left-wing militancy in Germany. In his mid-twenties, he's wearing a baseball cap and a t-shirt bearing the logo of the Zapatistas, Mexico's left-wing guerrilla movement. He gives no name, revealing only that he was involved in organizing the May 1 protest in Berlin and that he belongs to an anti-fascist group.

He begins to talk about Greece. The revolutionary resistance there seemed to have entered a promising phase, with unions and autonomists united on the streets. It was going so well, he says. And now this.

'Militancy on the Streets Is Increasing'

Violence, he says, must be used constructively and "responsibly," not against people -- especially now that things in Germany are also gaining momentum again. "There's been a rise in the number of night-time actions," he says, "and militancy on the street is increasing."

The opposition in this struggle -- Germany's federal government -- has observed the same trend and is worried about this renaissance of left-wing violence in the country. German Interior Ministry crime statistics for 2009 show a 53 percent jump in the number of left-wing attacks, the largest increase seen in many years. Police recorded a total of 1,822 left-wing acts of violence in all of Germany, considerably more than those committed by right-wing extremists.

Those statistics include, among other things, the burning of several hundred cars in Berlin, a large-scale attack carried out by masked individuals on a police station in Hamburg in December and an attack on vehicles belonging to the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, in Dresden in April 2009, which saw equipment worth €3 million ($3.7 million) go up in flames. Such escalation hadn't been seen in a long time.

Under orders from Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Germany's security agencies have been working for months on a new government strategy for dealing with the phenomenon. National and state-level interior ministers will take up the topic at their next biannual conference at the end of next week, and the various branches of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country's domestic intelligence agency, met at a special conference in Cologne in April to discuss the issue. German Family Affairs Minister Kristina Schröder, a member of the CDU, has announced programs to combat left-wing extremists that are similar to those used for years against right-wing extremists.

After an Absence, Movement Gains Ground after German G-8

For a long time, the left-wing radical scene seemed to be aimlessly adrift. There were still some members of the autonomist movement active in cities such as Berlin and Hamburg, but their activities happened largely below the radar. Following the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990, the battle between socialism and capitalism seemed to have been won decisively. The autonomists of the 1980s and 1990s, children of earlier squatter and anti-nuclear protest movements, lost their way. The Red Army Faction (RAF), a left-wing terrorist group active in Germany for nearly 30 years, disbanded in 1998. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the West became engaged in a battle against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism that overshadowed everything else. Other struggles seemed to pale in comparison to the War on Terror.

Yet ever since the 2007 protests against the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm on Germany's Baltic Sea coast, where more than 30,000 demonstrators forced world leaders to stay behind insurmountable fences, the movement has been gaining support again. The number of potential militant activists rose from 5,500 to 6,600 from 2005 to 2009, according to a confidential analysis carried out by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). The report further enumerated that one in four activists in the left-wing scene lives in Berlin or Hamburg, while the rest are divided among the Rhine-Main region around Frankfurt, the region of eastern Germany that includes Dresden and Leipzig and the university towns of Göttingen and Freiburg.

The autonomist from Kreuzberg in Berlin and the federal government both agree that the movement has seen a strong influx of new members since the protests at Heiligendamm. Shortly before the G-8 summit, the government itself mobilized on a large scale against potential protestors, carrying out raids on members of the left-wing scene that led to a solidarity demonstration spearheaded by Green Party member Claudia Roth. The operation was later quietly discontinued.

'Everything Is Subject to Economic Law'

Meanwhile, "Agenda 2010" social welfare reforms introduced under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) sowed discord in German society because of their steep cuts in welfare payments to the longterm unemployed. Then came the financial and economic crisis. Critics of capitalism can now be seen everywhere, from the Left Party to the CDU. The ones who could be seen as radicals today, in fact, are those who still defend the present system -- and autonomists are eagerly fanning the flames of the conflict.

The left-wing scene addresses issues "that are also of concern among the peace-loving population," in the words of an Interior Ministry analysis. "In light of economic and social problems, we should have already reckoned with greater extremist violence five years ago, a time when unemployment was at 5 million," says Manfred Murck, the deputy chief of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution in the city-state of Hamburg. He describes it as a "time-delayed phenomenon." Politically motivated violence, Murck adds, also mixes with riots whose motives are harder to read.

"Everything is subject to economic law," says the autonomist in the Kreuzberg café, calling this the fundamental problem with the system. It's a statement that would surely gain him entry to any talk show. Criticism of capitalism is one of the biggest issues "relevant for mobilization," he says. But that list also includes issues like university protests, the struggle against gentification and the shift in urban neighborhoods toward more attractive buildings, higher rent prices and wealthier residents.

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