Photo Gallery: The Far-Right Threat

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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

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?

Attacks Every Week

Shivers run down the spine of anyone who takes the trouble to read the police reports. Every week, somebody in Germany is attacked by right-wing extremist thugs -- and it's often only purely by chance that they escape with their lives. Many incidents, though, do not appear in the official records.

German government statistics show that 46 homicides were committed by right-wing extremists between 1990, the year of German reunification, and 2008. This official figure remains unchanged despite the research of a team of editors from the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit and the center-left newspaper Die Tagesspiegel, which last year set out to find the "missing victims."

Forty-six victims is already a horrific number. It is, at least, larger than the number of dead left behind by the RAF wave of terror. But the list of victims which the journalists came up with is even more terrible. It contains at least 137 dead. Now, the 10 victims of the neo-Nazi trio have to be added to this figure.

Inventory of Hate

Even this total only gives an incomplete picture. The actual extent to which radical right-wing terror has now become commonplace in certain regions of the country only becomes apparent when other offenses are included, such as illegal acts of propaganda and attacks that don't necessarily lead to murder and manslaughter. Investigators in the eastern state of Brandenburg recently conducted an exemplary inventory for Zossen, a small town just a few kilometers south of Berlin. There, a group calling itself the "Free Forces of Teltow-Fläming" (FKTF), after the district where Zossen is located, spread fear and panic for years before it was banned this past spring. Here is an excerpt from the first three months of last year:

  • Jan. 22, 2010. At 10:40 p.m. a 16-year-old boy set fire to the House of Democracy in Kirchstrasse. The building was completely burnt down. During a police interview, the perpetrator said his motive was that he wanted to make himself popular among the members of the FKTF.
  • Jan. 27, 2010. At an event commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day, a group of hecklers gathered near the market square. When the organizers began to read the names of the Holocaust victims, they yelled "lies, all lies!" and a number of individuals gave the Hitler salute.
  • Feb. 16, 2010. Six members of the FKTF were charged in a regional court with disseminating a flyer showing a gravestone with the inscription "Federal Republic of Germany 1949-2009. In this grave rests an absolutely pitiful, cowardly state."
  • Feb. 28, 2010. Unknown perpetrators used light-blue paint to spray right-wing graffiti on a property wall on Thomas-Müntzer-Strasse, including two swastikas, an image of Hitler, the letters "NS" (the abbreviation for National Socialism) -- with the "S" written as a rune -- and the word "now!"
  • March 7, 2010. A police patrol discovered a swastika and the sentence "Hagen, you'll die soon!" on the facade of the "Honey Store" in Berliner Strasse. One of the co-owners of the business, whose first name is Hagen, is a man who is involved in a local anti-right-wing citizens' initiative, "Zossen Shows Its True Colors," and publishes the group's monthly newsletter. After the incident, he was placed under police protection.

The list goes on, and not only in Zossen. All it takes is a careful examination of the facts to recognize that these individual cases represent a pattern.

Ignoring Reality

The peculiar unwillingness to look reality in the face is also reflected in German court convictions. Word has got out that leniency is only understood as a sign of the state's weakness, yet a number of judges still hesitate to cite the political aspects of offenses.

One of the reasons for this reluctance lies in the German legal system. The Federal Court of Justice demands an extremely thorough justification when a court passes a conviction for murder perpetrated with "particularly base motives." This is a legal term for homicide based on political motives. In cases where this serves as a justification for a conviction, there is an increased likelihood that the defendant will win on appeal, and it appears that some judges are striving to avoid this.

It is not only the justice system's need to take the safe route that protects extremist perpetrators from being labeled far-right. In some regions, politicians and the police have entered into a sinister alliance to play down the extent of right-wing extremism. For a long time, particularly in the eastern part of the country, a misguided sense of regional pride led authorities to look away, instead of calling a spade a spade.

Not Sufficiently Racist

In 2007, there was a scandal in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, which had the highest rate of right-wing violence in the country at the time, when it emerged that the police had deliberately understated the number of far-right crimes in a bid to improve the state's image.

Minutes from Saxony-Anhalt's state parliamentary investigative committee into the scandal provide an insight into how right-wing offenses were downplayed all the way down the chain of command. Three police officers who were extraordinarily dedicated to pursuing Saxony-Anhalt's right-wing offenders testified that their superior told them in 2007 that they "didn't have to notice everything." He said that too many registered offenses by right-wing extremists would further "damage the state's image," and added that political campaigns to promote civil courage were nothing more than initiatives that "play to the crowd."

A witness said that the Saxony-Anhalt State Office of Criminal Investigation received instructions from the state Interior Ministry "to adjust the case numbers." He said that there were disagreements over which offenses could be classified as racially motivated. The witness went on to say that they argued over whether the term "nigger slut" or the sentence "I'll kill your nigger child" were sufficiently racist. The witness said that this made it possible to keep 135 cases out of the statistics in Saxony-Anhalt alone.

The right-wing extremist scene, which hates democracy, foreigners and everything foreign, has experienced a slow decline for years. That's the good news. The bad news is that the proportion of radical activists has grown. In 2010, German authorities counted a total of 25,000 right-wing extremists, 9,500 of whom were categorized as violence-prone. This includes the so-called "autonomist nationalists," who have recently increased in numbers. These are primarily young men who have copied the black clothing and symbolism of "black bloc" radical leftists.

'We're Thinking about Attacking the Police Station'

In addition to the everyday terrorism of right-wing extremist thugs, since 2007 militant neo-Nazis have joined forces in the so-called Free Network. All of the members agree that violence is an essential part of their political struggle. In the run-up to a neo-Nazi demonstration in Dresden, a man named "Hugo" posted in an internal forum: "We're thinking about attacking the police station and setting it on fire!" Elsewhere a comrade asked for support in the struggle against world Jewry: "Tomorrow around 6 p.m. there is going to be a spontaneous protest in Chemnitz against Israel." Anybody who wants to participate, he said, should bring torches and "firecrackers."

Until now, such announcements were occasionally dismissed as typical bragging by confused individuals on the right-wing extremist scene, but the government intends to change that. German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger has proposed restructuring the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and consolidating the current 16 state branches into three or four agencies. Interior Minister Friedrich is planning to set up a new joint center against right-wing extremism. And all political parties in Germany are discussing a new attempt to ban the NPD.

The plan's proponents point to a number of advantages: They say that the NPD would have to vacate its seats in the two eastern German state parliaments where it is represented. Its bank accounts would be frozen, and its party offices would be closed. Taxpayer money would no longer be used to help fund the party's election campaign costs.

Failed Attempt

But many German politicians still vividly recall the last failed attempt to ban the NPD. In January 2001, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left coalition government of the SPD and the Green Party submitted a proposal to outlaw the party, which contained some 100 pages of argumentations presented by then-German Interior Minister Otto Schily.

But before the case could be properly heard by the German Constitutional Court, Schily had to admit that important NPD functionaries had also worked for German intelligence. This derailed the application's chances of success. Indeed, the judges in Karlsruhe asked themselves how unconstitutional a party could be that was controlled by paid informers.

It doesn't look as if things will go better the second time around. Then, as now, there are reportedly some 100 NPD functionaries that pass on inside information to domestic intelligence agents. This practice has changed very little over the years.

Nevertheless, at least one thing was cleared up at the highest level last week: the question of how best to commemorate the victims of the neo-Nazi trio from Thuringia. It has been decided that there will be a meeting at Bellevue Palace, the official residence of the German president, followed by a photo op. German President Christian Wulff personally urged that the ceremony be held as soon as possible.


Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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