It was April 16 when around 100 right-wing extremists marched through the small town of Nauen in the eastern German state of Brandenburg. Their message: "Nein zum Heim!" or "No to the Hostel!" They carried posters and German flags along with them. "Nauen Will Stay White!" read one. "Take Action!" read another.
One day later, employees of Mikado, a local youth center, found that the tires of the center's minibus had been slashed. There was a note under the windshield wiper reading: "Dear asylum friends, Tröglitz is here too." The reference was to an arson attack on a refugee shelter not two weeks before in the town of Tröglitz in the eastern state of Saxony.
Skip ahead to Monday night a week ago when a planned asylum hostel -- to be established inside a high school gymnasium -- was gutted by flames in Nauen, just outside Berlin. The fire occurred just a short time before the first refugees were scheduled to move in. On the Tuesday evening after the fire, a group of 300 assembled for a vigil amid the biting stench of the rubble. Local politician Roger Lewandowski, of the conservative Christian Democrats, pledged that town residents wouldn't be cowed by the attack. "If you shrink in the face of such attacks, gymnasiums and hostels will soon be burning everywhere."
The fire in Nauen was the 27th at a German refugee hostel since 2012 -- and the fifth within a single week. In just the last few days, unknown perpetrators have ignited fires in or near shelters in Leipzig, Döbeln, Salzhemmendorf and Berlin in addition to a fire that destroyed a building earmarked as a hostel in the Baden-Württemberg town of Weissach im Tal. And then there were the right-wing extremist demonstrations in front of an asylum hostel housing 600 people in the Saxon village of Heidenau. The racist, xenophobic marches made headlines around the world.
Discussing Attacks in Advance?
It is true that the summer of 2015 has seen an unprecedented willingness among Germans to help new arrivals in the country. But the series of horrors cannot be ignored. And the debate over who might be behind the attacks and how they can be stopped is one that is being pursued with increasing intensity. One of the central questions is whether the arsonists are fanatics operating locally as individuals or members of small groups -- or whether an organized, right-wing network has developed across Germany within which groups discuss attacks in advance.
The term "right-wing terror" has long since begun making the rounds, an expression that is particularly heavy in meaning in Germany due to the series of nine murders of people with foreign backgrounds committed by the extremist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) between 2000 and 2006. That group long went undetected by German security officials due to what many say was an unwillingness to consider the possibility of organized, right-wing violence.
This summer, security agencies have reached the official conclusion that there is no extremist master plan behind the attacks. "There is no evidence of nationwide networked or centrally controlled campaigns," says the Interior Ministry in Berlin of the crimes committed in recent months.
But away from the spotlight, officials continue to look for possible right-wing terror cells and networks. "That is our biggest concern at the moment," says one high-ranking security official. "Were such cells to develop, it would be extremely dangerous."
There are, in fact, mounting indications that many of the racist crimes were indeed part of a plan. "The continuity and number of attacks can't be explained except by assuming organized structures," says Fabian Virchow of the Working Unit Neo-Nazism at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf.
'We Are the Pack!'
In Nauen, signs of escalation began accumulating as early as February. That month, a group of neo-Nazis -- joined by a local politician from the right-wing extremist NPD party -- disrupted a town council debate over a planned refugee hostel. The NPD, which has chapters in every state in Germany, was also involved in the Nauen marches in March and April. At the same time, a series of attacks -- with paint bombs and eggs -- began targeting offices belonging to the far-left Left Party. Authorities have long been aware that Nauen is a focus of activity for the neo-Nazi scene just west of Berlin.
The same is true of the region surrounding Heidenau, population 16,000 -- an area known as Swiss Saxony for its dramatic sandstone mountainscapes. Following an NPD demonstration there two weeks ago, a growling mob of right-wing extremists besieged an emergency migrant shelter that had been set up in a former building supplies store. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel referred to them as a "pack," a word they apparently understood as praise. When Chancellor Angela Merkel turned up in Heidenau not long later to visit the hostel, locals gathered to chant: "We are the pack!"
The anti-foreigner fury found fertile soil in Heidenau. In a local election in May 2014, the NPD candidate Rico Rentzsch -- in whose name the August demonstration was registered -- got more votes than did the three center-left Social Democratic candidates combined. In European Parliament elections in 2014, the share of NPD votes in Swiss Saxony -- 5.7 percent -- was higher than anywhere else in Germany.
Freital, the next center of xenophobia, is also in Swiss Saxony, located close to Heidenau, both in geographic distance and in political proclivity. The proximity can be easily seen in social networks. A "citizens' defense" group from Freital, for example, posted to its Facebook page a call by the group "Saxony, wake up" to attend the demonstrations in Heidenau. Meanwhile, rabble rousers are posting openly on NPD member Rentzsch's Facebook page: "Enough talking, now I want to see you do something, Rico."
In Heidenau, small right-wing extremist groups kept appearing, one after the other: former skinheads, activists from right-wing organizations known as "Freier Kameradschaften," and hooligans, like those from the Dynamo Dresden fan club "Fist of the East." Eyewitnesses report that, on the days of the riots, there was frenetic activity in Haus Montag, a meeting point for right-wing extremists in the nearby town of Pirna. The building also houses the local NPD headquarters.
Only Two Arrests
The party may soon be facing proceedings to ban it, so it is understandable that it has denied having anything to do with the Heidenau rampage. The rioting only started after the end of the official demonstration, the party has been at pains to point out. The NPD also claims to reject all forms of violence in political debate.
A survey among those involved in the riots may well have turned up a slightly different reality. And yet, despite days of rioting and several injuries in Heidenau, the police only made two arrests. By Wednesday of last week, Dresden prosecutors hadn't launched a single official investigation. Instead, the office held its annual hiking day -- in the hills of Swiss Saxony.
Federal prosecutors have been quicker to respond and have launched an investigation into the official handling of the events in Heidenau. In addition, federal prosecutors have spent months collecting findings relating to other attacks in two separate investigations, one focused on arson attacks and the other looking into right-wing violent crimes, so as to be able to react quickly if needed.
But those pouring fuel on the flames of hate, these days, are not only affiliated with the NPD, nor can they only be found in eastern Germany. In North Rhine-Westphalia alone, the Interior Ministry counted around 50 right-wing attacks on refugee hostels in just the first six months of this year. There, racists and malcontents have other nationalist parties to choose from, including Pro-NRW and "The Right." In Baden-Württemberg, the suspected arson attack on the asylum hostel in Weissach im Tal was the second such incident in the state within just a few weeks.
Prior to that, unknown perpetrators sprayed swastikas on a mosque. Not far from the burned-out hostel, police found a sticker from the "Identitarian Movement of Germany," a group known for its blatant hatred of foreigners.
More than any other group, though, it is the "Third Way," a collection of ultra-right wingers, that has been the focus of recent attention, in both the east and the west. Since its founding in September 2013, the Third Way needed only two years to become a key hub of nationwide right-wing extremism. Under the leadership of the former NPD provincial functionary Klaus Armstroff, the group is now operating as a political party, with headquarters in Weidenthal, a small town just southwest of Frankfurt.
The group has no problem associating with those previously convicted of right-wing crimes and other big names in the extremist scene. In the Brandenburg Third Way "base," as the organization calls its regional offices, one of the functionaries is Maik Eminger, brother of André Eminger, who is currently on trial for aiding and abetting the NSU right-wing terror group. Roger Lewentz, interior minister of Rhineland-Palatinate, refers to the group as "spiritual arsonists."
In several instances across Germany, there have been attacks on refugee hostels in towns where Third Way activists had appeared a short time before. Investigators are looking into a possible connection. In May, after the roof of a not-yet-completed refugee shelter near Ludwigshafen went up in flames, Armstroff expressed understanding for the arsonists. His party, he says, continues to offer political resistance to the "influx of foreigners," but can also "understand Germans who become active beyond that," Armstroff wrote.
A 21-page party brochure, entitled "No Asylum Shelter in My Neighborhood," clearly demonstrates just how deceptively Armstroff and his followers orchestrate their resistance. In the "guidelines," the extremists provide numerous tips for how normal people can prevent "gypsy clans" and "serious criminals" from moving in across the street. One method presented as being particularly effective is that of founding a citizens' initiative, establishing an Internet presence and then distributing fliers with concrete calls for action.
But be careful, the Third Way warns. "Use simple sentences. No overblown style. Local dialect is great!" Then comes a request: "Help us develop networked structures."
Researchers of right-wing extremism have little doubt that such structures have long since been established. "We have operational neo-Nazi structures that tend toward violence and which, to a certain extent, enjoy the support of the populace," says social researcher Virchow. Andreas Zick, head of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research into Conflict and Violence at the Bielefeld University, speaks of "right-wing cells that can strike in a guerilla-like manner and which are networked with one another."
The Next Level
Zick says that, after the discovery of the NSU right-wing terror cell in 2011, extremists were briefly paralyzed, but have now begun reorganizing themselves in small groups or parties and are eager to "show who has the power in the state."
"The next level would be for the brown cells to completely isolate themselves and to build terrorist structures," he says.
The fact that such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility was made clear in May, when 250 investigators raided homes in Bavaria, Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland-Palatinate and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in an effort to break up the group Old School Society (OSS). Public prosecutors, who are leading an investigation into the group, are convinced that OSS sought to acquire explosive material for terror attacks against refugee shelters, among other targets. Prior to the raids, one suspected leader wrote in an Internet post: "I am hoping for a civil war next year!!!"
Such incidents make Zick even less understanding of the helpless reactions exhibited by security officials in the face of harassment of refugees and their supporters, as seen in recent months. "Hate speech in the Internet begets protests and protests beget extremism," says Zick. "But the agencies don't recognize that progression. They need to rethink their definitions of violence and aggression."
Policymakers have a similar view of the situation and warn against an exaggerated institutional focus on violence-prone Islamism. Whereas state police forces currently have 384 potentially dangerous Islamists saved in a central database, there are only 16 right-wing extremists on the list.
Government officials in Berlin say now would be a prime opportunity for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), to win back trust lost as a result of its handling of the NSU investigation. Instead, says Petra Pau, the Left Party vice president of the federal parliament, the Bundestag, "they systematically play down the danger." It's a practice she describes as "grossly negligent."
No Longer a Distant Scenario
"I am reminded of the beginning of the 1990s, a time when not just the core NSU trio became socialized, but also a whole series of other violence-prone neo-Nazis," Pau says.
This time around, at least, the significant increase in attacks on refugees has Germany's security apparatus on edge. One official said that conditions like those in the '90s, which saw deadly arson attacks on refugee housing in Mölln and Solingen, are no longer "a distant scenario." There are "structures that are intentionally escalating the situation," the official said.
The BfV would now like to find out exactly what those structures look like. At the beginning of August, the BfV sent a three-page questionnaire to state intelligence offices on "right-wing extremist/right-wing influenced anti-asylum activities." In the questionnaire, the BfV asks about recent demonstrations and their proximity to refugee hostels. Questions are also included about the people who may have spoken at such demonstrations, which groups they are connected to and what the mood and the "level of aggression" was like. The results of the questionnaires are to be analyzed together with the Federal Criminal Police Office, Germany's equivalent of the FBI.
The initiative makes it look as though Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière is now interested in doing more to address the problem than he has thus far. After all, he has a far-reaching promise to live up to. In February 2014, he spoke in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, about the NSU terror cell. "We have to do everything we can to ensure that everybody can live safely in our country," he said. "Naturally," he continued, "that also applies to refugees and asylum seekers."
By Matthias Bartsch, Maik Baumgärtner, Jan Friedmann, Christina Hebel, Jörg Schindler, Fidelius Schmid and Steffen Winter