The Dark Side of State Power Exploring Right-Wing Extremism in Germany's Police and Military

The Hitler salute, threatening emails, weapons staches, terror cells: Numerous police officers and soldiers in Germany have engaged in right-wing extremist activity. But how big is the problem and what can be done about it? A DER SPIEGEL investigation.
Foto:

[M]: Ralf Hirschberger/ dpa

You can't spend all of your time preparing for the apocalypse. Sometimes, as was the case on the first Monday in August, the lawn needs to be mowed.

That lawn was in front of a brick home outside northern German city of Schwerin. A bumper sticker on the mobile home in the driveway read: "God bless our troops, especially our snipers."

At first, the man pushing the mower - dressed in olive-green pants and a camouflage baseball cap – showed no interest in talking. But he ultimately turned off the mower, came over to the fence and discussed natural catastrophes, power outages and other emergencies Germans should be preparing for. With the country phasing out nuclear and coal energy, Marko G. said, the country's energy supply is in danger and a huge blackout may occur. As a patriot, he explained, he is prepared to defend his homeland, no matter what the crisis, "and I will risk my life to do so."

In the group Marko G. founded five years ago – called Nordkreuz, or Northern Cross – his intentions didn't always sound that honorable. He sent one of his comrades an image, for example, showing soldiers pointing their weapons at a man lying on the ground, captioned, "Asylum application rejected." On Adolf Hitler's birthday, he shared a photo of the dictator with the words: "Happy birthday." He referred to German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas as "scum."

Nordkreuz once counted around 40 members, preppers getting ready for "Day X," a mythical moment when all public order breaks down. The group remains active today, Marko G. says.

When police launched a criminal investigation against Marko G., they found an Uzi submachine gun in his possession along with a silencer and 40,000 rounds of ammunition. State prosecutors charged him with violations of the War Weapons Control Act – marking a man who had once sworn an oath to protect the German constitution as a possible danger to the state.

Marko G. served as a soldier in the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, for eight years. He then spent 20 years in the police force. He was a sniper and a member of the Special Deployment Commando (SEK) belonging to the state criminal police office of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

Today, he is a free man, having been handed a suspended sentence for his weapons possession charge. The regional court in Schwerin ruled that it was "a one-time lapse – if extensive in both time and substance." Prosecutors appealed the ruling and Marko G. was suspended by the police. "Everyone does stupid shit at some point," he says, and insists that he is not a right-wing extremist.

Beyond Isolated Incidents

A one-time lapse? An isolated case? Politicians have used such arguments for decades to play down right-wing activity in the police and Bundeswehr out of concern that the large majority of upstanding soldiers and police officers might suddenly be viewed with suspicion.

But it has become difficult to ignore that the number of isolated cases is growing, or at least that this is the impression among the public. More and more right-wing extremist incidents are becoming widely known, in particular within the elite Special Forces Command (KSK). In Frankfurt, meanwhile, officials have been trying for two years to determine which public servant passed along sensitive addresses from the police computer - addresses that later received horrifying threats signed with "NSU 2.0",  a reference to the National Socialist Underground, the neo-Nazi terror cell responsible for a series of racist-motivated murders between 2000 and 2006.

DER SPIEGEL research found that German states and the federal police force have recorded at least 400 suspected incidents of right-wing extremist, racist or anti-Semitic activity in recent years among police officers or trainees. It is, on the one hand, not a large number. But any member of the public service who does not firmly believe in the German constitution is a problem.

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has demonstratively thrown his support behind the police in recent weeks. "Our security agencies are a jewel," he said in late July in comments to the Munich newspaper Münchner Merkur. The statement followed weeks of debate in Germany over racism in the country's police force, a discussion triggered by the Black Lives Matter protests that had spilled over from the U.S. Seehofer decided that it was unnecessary to carry out a study on how often police officers stopped Black citizens for no reason. "The officers have my absolute support," he said.

Yet even Seehofer, from the conservative Bavarian party Christian Social Union (CSU), appears to realize that simple expressions of loyalty are no longer sufficient. In February, following an attack in Hanau in which a right-wing terrorist shot up two shisha bars, killing nine and wounding five, Seehofer called right-wing extremism "the greatest threat facing our country." Last year, he asked the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, to investigate right-wing activities among civil servants. The initial focus was on security agencies, with results expected following the summer break.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer -- of the Christian Democrats (CDU), the CSU’s sister party -- also told parliamentarians in June that she will "not tolerate right-wing extremism or any other form of extremism in the Bundeswehr.” Following several right-wing incidents in the KSK, the minister summarily disbanded the unit's 2nd Company.

Nightmare Scenario

There have simply been too many disturbing reports in recent months from Germany's security apparatus. It has led to growing concerns that the incidents that have been publicized may just be the tip of the iceberg. Stephan Kramer, president of the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution in Thuringia, is one of those harboring such concerns. "When special forces units in the military and police call the state into question and perhaps even establish right-wing networks, that should make us extremely worried," he says.

An attack on the state perpetrated by those trained to defend it - security personnel trained in the use of weapons – would be a nightmare scenario for Germany.

In a confidential report, an expert commission later pieced together that Marko G., the former SEK member from Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, began drawing concern many years ago. Other police officers were put off by the slogans uttered by Marko G. during a training event just east of Schwerin in 2009. A memo to his commander noted that he was conspicuously interested in National Socialism and especially in the SS, "without exhibiting the necessary distance." But the memo went nowhere.

Marko G.'s fondness for the Nazis apparently didn't bother anyone in his SEK unit, which was primarily made up of former elite soldiers from the Bundeswehr. According to the special investigators, there was "little knowledge and sensitivity" in the unit for statements and symbols from the right-wing extremist scene. They found that this led to the development of problematic "subcultural tendencies."

Marko G. set up a chat group for the Nordkreuz prepper group in January 2016 that quickly began attracting others with radical beliefs. In testimony provided to the Federal Criminal Police Office, one witness said that two members of the group, a lawyer and a criminal investigator, discussed "collecting and killing" left-wing supporters of refugees on "Day X.”

Lists of enemies, including the names and addresses of regional politicians, were also discovered. The German Federal Public Prosecutor has initiated a terrorism investigation into the lawyer and criminal investigator, but it has not yet been completed.

DER SPIEGEL 33/2020

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 33/2020 (August 8, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

The case that currently carries the greatest risk of eroding trust in the police force leads back to a suburb of Frankfurt. This is where the policewoman Miriam D. lives, in a whitewashed apartment building. Her partner, also a police officer, opened the door when DER SPIEGEL dropped by for a visit, but declined to answer any questions.

The 35-year-old policewoman and her boyfriend were members of a chat group called "Itiotentreff” (meaning "meeting of the idiots”) whose activities primarily consisted of sending each other racist and anti-Semitic images. Six police officers in the central German state of Hesse - where Frankfurt is located – were part of the group, most of them working out of the same station.

"We Will Slaughter Your Daughter”

State prosecutors in Frankfurt stumbled across the group when inspecting the smartphone of Miriam D., who was being investigated for a possible connection to the threatening missives sent out in the name of NSU 2.0. Her office computer account was used to send out a query on Aug. 2, 2018 about the Frankfurt-based lawyer Seda Başay-Yildiz, who had represented one of the co-plaintiffs during the NSU trial in Munich.

About an hour and a half after the query, a fax was received by Başay-Yildiz's practice. "Wretched Turkish swine!" it read. "You will not ruin Germany." The fax included the address of her two-year-old daughter's place of residence, which was not publicly listed for security reasons, and the little girl's first name. "We will slaughter your daughter in revenge," it continued. The lawyer called the police.

Two years have passed since that fax and the perpetrators still haven't been identified. Miriam D. denies having sent the query for the lawyer's data and says that many other colleagues had access to her computer. Conclusive evidence of her possible involvement has not been found.

In the meantime, more and more threat letters with the NSU 2.0 signature have turned up, most of them targeting women working in politics, journalism or the arts, though a few men have also received them. In February, Hesse Interior Minister Peter Beuth of the CDU repeated the usual trope of there being "isolated incidents." But he has since changed his tune and no longer excludes the possibility that a network may be behind the letters. He too has since received a threat letter – either from the NSU 2.0 or a copycat.

It isn't easy to determine just how many police officers in Germany harbor right-wing extremist convictions. DER SPIEGEL surveyed the interior ministries of the 16 German states in addition to the Federal Interior Ministry, asking how many suspected cases of right-wing extremism, racism or anti-Semitism in recent years they were aware of. Smaller states like Saarland and the city-state of Bremen reported just one or two incidents that haven't been substantiated. Others, like Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Bavaria and Saxony-Anhalt, sent comprehensive spreadsheets listing up to two dozen suspected cases. Hesse only delivered information from the last two years, but it included 70 suspected cases, the highest number by far.

Many incidents are connected to social media platforms. In Lower Saxony, a drunk police officer drew a swastika on the forehead of a sleeping colleague and posted the photo to a chatgroup along with the words "Heil Hitler." He was fined 500 euros ($590).

Small but Dangerous

In Brandenburg, the state that surrounds Berlin, nine police officers posed for a team photo in front of a wall covered in graffiti from the local right-wing radical scene. In the Lower Saxony town of Jever in March, a senior police official discovered a medal of honor from the Hitler Youth, complete with a hard-to-miss swastika, pinned to a bulletin board. Public prosecutors closed the investigation because the swastika was not visible to the public, but disciplinary proceedings are ongoing.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, a sticker from the Identitarian Movement - reading "Defend yourself! It's your country!" – was discovered in a car belonging to the reserve police force.

In other cases, violence was involved. In a McDonald's in Augsburg, a drunk police officer yelled at an asylum seeker from Senegal: "Black man go home!" He then shoved a half-eaten hamburger into the man's face and punched him, joined by a colleague. The primary culprit was given an 11-month suspended sentence.

According to the survey compiled by DER SPIEGEL, there have been at least 340 suspected cases of right-wing extremist, racist or anti-Semitic activity in German state police forces or among their trainees since 2014. There were 73 such cases in the federal police force since 2012. There have also been incidents in which uniformed officers were found to be members of the "Reichsbürger" movement, a group that rejects the legitimacy of the postwar German state. There 18 of them in Bavaria, with another 12 in the federal police force.

Around 400 known cases among more than 250,000 police officers doesn't sound like much, of course, and is far from being the kind of fascist shadow army within the police force that some have warned about. Most are likely to be isolated individuals, or perhaps organized in small networks with the occasional link to others. But they are united by the belief they need to do something about what they see as the catastrophic state of the country and strengthened by the feeling that they are part of a silent majority. This makes them a greater danger than a small, identifiable group with a hierarchical structure.

Police officers with far-right sympathies used to share their ideas in the bar or changing room, but the internet makes things much easier. It allows right-wing extremist officers from around the country to easily interact.

Once senior police official from northern Germany refers to such groups as "particle accelerators." Those involved, he says, egg each other on "with a mixture of tasteless jokes, half-truths and outright lies."

Dirk Baier, a criminologist who teaches in Zurich, also believes such chat groups represent a "real danger." He notes that when they're on duty, officers must follow strict rules governing their behavior. "They are subject to drastic guidelines and strong oversight," Baier says. "They have to play a role when they are on duty." He argues that this can make confidential discussions with colleagues of the same political persuasion feel all the more liberating for them.

If even just a tiny fraction of all police officers harbor racist prejudices or extremist attitudes, Baier says, it can result in significant spaces in which radicalization can occur. In other words, it isn't particularly important how many they are. More decisive is the dynamic that unfolds.

Worrisome Incidents

In one incident in late February in the city center of Aachen, in western Germany, two policemen sitting in their car guarding the local synagogue were – allegedly unknowingly – sending out "Sieg Heil" chants over the police radio. It quickly became clear that one of the two had been watching the Amazon series "Hunters," a fictional take on investigators tracking down Nazis in 1970s New York, on his private mobile device, which is where the chants had been coming from. State prosecutors ruled that no law had been broken.

But in examining the officer's mobile phone, investigators discovered a questionable chat conversation between officers belonging to the Aachen-West station, of which the two policemen were members. The participants would share pictures, including one depicting a group of Black people with eyes wide open alongside the sentence, "The welfare office is broke, time to get to work." Another photo showed an eagle holding the swastika in its talons. In reference to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, it read: "This time we're coming in summer."

An investigation into three officers for incitement and the use of anti-constitutional symbols is ongoing. One of the officers who was sitting in the car in front of the synagogue is among those being investigated.

Dirk Weinspach, the Aachen police president who was formerly responsible for right-wing extremism at the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution, said after case was made public that he expects his officers to demonstrate "clear and active support" for the fundamental values outlined in the constitution. It says a lot that he even had to make such an appeal.

Chief Public Prosecutor Peter Frank, for his part, isn't exactly known for his rousing speeches. But early this year, he delivered what could be described as one to criminal police officers in Berlin.

The address focused on right-wing extremism and the danger it posed - in part, Frank emphasized, because it comes from the center of society. Frank reminded his listeners of the Weimar Republic, the interwar period of democracy in Germany, and of the fact that it failed in part because of a lack of commitment to democracy. "Every case is one too many," he said, adding that he has "zero understanding" for officers who form groups to prepare for some "Day X" when everything is allegedly going to collapse. "If that day should ever arrive, I expect you to defend the state."

Frank's emotional speech came in response to the fact that in the last three years, his office has repeatedly found itself investigating right-wing extremists who are on the state payroll. And his office only gets the worst cases, in which there is a real suspicion the person represents a clear and present danger to German democracy or its citizens.

Possible Plans for a Terror Attack

The case of Franco A., who was arrested on April 26, 2017, in Hammelburg, east of Frankfurt, is one such example. The senior officer in a German military battalion based in the French town of Illkirch had registered himself with local authorities as a Syrian asylum seeker named "David Benjamin," written nationalist essays, likely planned an attack and hidden a firearm in a restroom in the Vienna airport. He had also scribbled notes investigators believe may have related to potential attack targets, including the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, one of the largest anti-racism initiatives in Germany. Franco A.'s trial will soon begin in Frankfurt. His lawyer denies that his client had been planning to carry out a terrorist attack.

Then there is the so-called Gruppe S., which federal prosecutors have been investigating for months. The terror cell's alleged accomplices include a police administrator from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Investigators intercepted conversations held by the group in which they discussed a coming civil war. On one weekend in February, 12 of the men met in the home of a tile-layer in the town of Minden. According to investigators, they discussed taking concrete action: Several killer commandos were to storm mosques and kill Muslims.

Just a few days later, Thorsten W. was getting ready to go to work - in the police commissariat responsible for traffic violations in the city of Hamm – when he was arrested by special forces. Investigators found several daggers, swords and axes in his home, in addition to Nazi symbols and stickers from the Identitarian Movement.

Following his arrest, the police employee claimed he had gotten involved by accident. He says that during the meeting with the other men, he had asked the others if they were planning a massacre such as the one in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which attackers killed 51 people. A short time later, he says, he left.

Federal prosecutors, however, are unconvinced and Thorsten W. remains in pre-trial detention on suspicions of supporting a terrorist group. They accuse him of having pledged 5,000 euros to the group for the purchase of weapons. He denies it.

The officers in charge of the case ultimately had to admit that they could have taken the man into custody much earlier. His colleagues had long known of his political views. He would read the right-wing extremist paper Junge Freiheit at work and a had flag from the German Empire – often used as a right-wing symbol – fluttering on his balcony.

Not a New Phenomenon

The police employee also wasn't shy about demonstrating his radical views on the internet. In one social network, he posted a photomontage showing Chancellor Angela Merkel in a straitjacket along with the sentence: "Ready for the loony bin." On another occasion, he posed for pictures as a Germanic warrior. On still another, he wore a camouflage jacket from the Nazi era. He wrote: "I hope that more people in this country will finally wake up and realize the kind of left-wing radical Stasi culture we are living in." Many people knew about his proclivities, but nobody did anything – as has been the case in so many similar cases.

In response to the Thorsten W. case, North Rhine-Westphalia Interior Minister Herbert Reul of the CDU embedded so-called extremism delegates in all the police departments in the state. Department employees can approach these ombudspersons to report possible extremist activities or statements from their colleagues. "I don't believe right-wing extremists belong in public service," says Reul.

Right-wing extremism in the police force is hardly a new phenomenon. Only recently has it become clear, however, that all previous attempts to fix the problem have apparently failed.

Political scientist Hans-Gerd Jaschke studied racism in Germany's police forces back in the 1990s. Following reunification, the country experienced a wave of right-wing extremist violence, including incidents in the cities of Hoyerswerda, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Mölln, Solingen and elsewhere. The number of racist attacks committed by police officers also increased at the time.

Jaschke wanted to know why xenophobia was prevalent among police officers. He conducted a survey at the time of around 500 beat cops in Frankfurt, spoke with experts and led group discussions. He found "a partly aggressive rejection" of multicultural urban society. Around 15 percent of those surveyed said they voted for Republikaner, a right-wing radical party. Among police response teams, the number was 17 percent.

"Reality Shock”

Officers from outside Frankfurt who had been assigned to patrol the drug-infested area around the city's main train station proved especially prone to racism, Jaschke says. "Racist attitudes have to do with the one-sided experiences police have while on duty," he says. "But Algerians and Moroccans can also be respected doctors or business leaders. The police, though, didn't see that." For them, people from such countries were almost exclusively criminals.

"Many young police officers come to us as idealists. They then encounter the misery on the streets. It is a sobering experience."

A police official discussing recruits

A current study among police trainees in North Rhine-Westphalia confirms Jaschke's impression: Racist views receded significantly during the three-year training program, only to rise again once they went on duty. "That could indicate a kind of reality shock," says the criminologist Baier.

The officers suddenly find themselves confronted with violence. "Many young police officers come to us as idealists," says one officer. "They then encounter the misery on the streets. It is a sobering experience."

Many migrants interpret the German police force's emphasis on de-escalation as a weakness, says one officer. "They are used to greater severity from the police back home." As a result, the officer says, police are taunted or attacked, resulting in a distorted perception. "We pretty much have no contact with those migrants who obey the law."

For many officers, their sense of resentment is partly spurred by dissatisfaction, says Jaschke. Many of those he surveyed in the mid-1990s, he says, felt as though they weren't valued by their superiors or by the public at large.

That remains a dilemma today. The more the debate about right-wing extremism among cops is discussed, the more frustrated the officers become. The debate frequently makes them feel as though they are all under suspicion. "It a disquieting conclusion, but the majority of my people no longer trusts our political system," says one senior officer. And that translates into an increased danger of sliding into the extreme right.

Boon for the AfD

One party that has been able to profit from this loss of faith is the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing populist party that has grown increasingly radical in recent years. A number of police officers are on their membership rolls and five of the 89 AfD lawmakers in German parliament are current or former cops. By comparison there are three among the center-left Social Democrats, one each among the CDU and pro-environment Greens and none in the pro-business Free Democrats and in the Left Party.

Sebastian Wippel, a state lawmaker for the AfD in Saxony who has taken a leave of absence from the police to serve in parliament, believes it makes sense. "Police have a pronounced respect for the rule of law," he says, adding that the AfD is the only party that defends law and order. He says the fact that Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution has determined that parts of the party represent a danger to German democracy does nothing to change that perception. But he might be mistaken on that count. Some police have already turned their backs on the party for fear of consequences. If the domestic intelligence agency determine that the entire party is suspect, more may follow.

At the same time, though, some AfD demands are likely to be well-received by right-wing police officers. "Accelerated asylum proceedings with no opportunity for appeal," is one. The party would also like to introduce a criterion it calls "anti-German crime" and wants the migration background of criminals to be listed by country of origin in police statistics. Wippel helped develop the demands as part of the "Domestic Security" working group.

Rüdiger Lucassen, an AfD parliamentarian and head of the party's state chapter in North Rhine-Westphalia, claims there is also a fair amount of support for the AfD among soldiers. Lucassen served in the German military from 1973 to 2006, most recently as head of the army's central training facility. Prior to that, he was a helicopter pilot.

Many soldiers feel like politicians no longer understand them, Lucassen claims, saying that several KSK members had written him of their frustrations. "The suspicions of widespread right-wing extremism expressed by (former Defense Minister Ursula) von der Leyen and (current Defense Minister Annegret) Kramp-Karrenbauer achieved the opposite of what they intended," says the AfD member. "The Bundeswehr doesn't have a right-wing extremism problem. Otherwise, it wouldn't be operational."

Close Monitoring of Some Individuals

The Defense Ministry has developed a different view of the situation. In accordance with his wishes, Gerd Hoofe, a state secretary in the ministry, is presented each morning with a thin file. Hoofe is responsible for the 264,000 men and women in the Bundeswehr and can't focus on each and every one. But he does keep an eye on a small group of them.

It currently consists of 42 people listed in the file - right-wing extremist soldiers, many of whom have been a problem for several years. The military hasn't been able to get rid of them, leading the state secretary to focus more of his attention on the issue.

One name on the list is that of Pascal D., a lieutenant-colonel covered in tattoos up to his neck. He served for years in the KSK, based in the Black Forest town of Calw. He was seen as something of a hero in the 2nd Company for the amount of time he had spent serving abroad.

Pascal D. makes an appearance in Hoofe’s file because the 2017 party marking his departure from KSK, held at a private shooting range. After the officer proved his prowess in a pig-head throwing competition, he and his comrades, according to witness testimony, sang along to right-wing extremist rock music, raising their right arms in the Hitler salute by the campfire.

Nevertheless, Pascal D. is still a member of the German military. He accepted the penalty handed down by a civilian court for the Hitler salute, but later denied everything before a military court. His case is currently before the Federal Administrative Court, where he is trying to avoid being thrown out of the Bundeswehr.

Concern About MAD

Indeed, it seems easier to disband an entire unit than get rid of a soldier facing serious accusations. That, though, is why State Secretary Hoofe ensures that he receives updates every morning on right-wing extremism in the armed forces.

He could, of course, make the argument that 42 suspect individuals are insignificant given that the Bundeswehr has more than a quarter million troops. And that even the 638 suspicious cases currently under examination by the German Military Counterintelligence Service (MAD) make for a relatively insignificant number. Or he could point out that of the 25,000 recruits who enter the armed forces each year, only 38 were filtered out in the last three years for right-wing extremist proclivities, or that in the last nine months, 78 young men and women were eliminated from consideration during the initial interview process.

Such justifications could be used. But even the Defense Ministry has begun wondering how much they truly know.

"We don't yet have a sufficiently clear view of the situation," says Hoofe. What are the troops' political views? How deeply rooted are anti-democratic notions in the Bundeswehr? Are there structural links between the military and the far right? None of that is known for sure and the last empirical study is 13 years old.

That study involved surveying up-and-coming officers at the Bundeswehr Universities in Munich and Hamburg. Almost half of the respondents were critical of the "political system" and the condition of parliamentarianism in Germany. The study also found, however, that the 26 percent support for far-right ideas among 15 to 32 years olds in broader society was twice as high as the rate found among the officers-in-training at the two Bundeswehr universities.

There have been no new numbers since then, but the military leadership would like to change that. The Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr has been assigned with conducting a large study to examine how widespread extremist ideas are in the German military. It will involve asking troops for the first time about the political parties they support, which should help determine if the military leans to the right. The results are to be released next year.

Troubling Incompetence

No case has fueled the Bundeswehr's change in thinking as much as that of Franco A. The trail led from him to obscure chat groups where users discuss unhinged theories about the world's downfall. Chat groups such as the one operated by Marko G. in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. Some of these groups were moderated by "Hannibal," the screen name used by then KSK soldier André S., the central figure in a club known as Uniter whose members include police, military and security personnel. Germany's domestic security agency recently officially classified the club as a "suspicious case." The agency is now investigating the club's activities to determine if they present a danger to the constitution and whether permanent surveillance is called for.

One of the reasons right-wing extremist ideas were able to penetrate high up into the KSK hierarchy is the incompetence of the MAD, the military intelligence agency. As one high-ranking general says, the agency's more than 1,000 employees saw its primary task for years as "preventing bad news about the Bundeswehr rather than uncovering right-wing structures." In the case of Franco A., the agents had to sheepishly admit they had no idea about his activities.

In response, the agency is to bring on 400 new employees in the coming years. The department head responsible for combatting extremism was replaced and the defense minister appointed a domestic intelligence official as the MAD’s vice president. His job will be to ensure that indications of right-wing activity in the military are not hushed up out of misguided notions of comradery and that every new case be shared with civilian agencies.

More than anything, his job will be to ensure that the MAD doesn't always look laughably incompetent - as it did in May, when investigators with the Saxony police arrested Philipp S., a KSK soldier. Police found an entire weapons depot on the man's property in the northern Saxon town of Collm, including several thousand rounds of Bundeswehr ammunition, a Kalashnikov, two kilograms of plastic explosives from KSK stockpiles and Nazi emblems.

Shortly after the search, a lieutenant-colonel with MAD shared the secret photos of the weapons depot with an old friend in the KSK. That person was so shocked by the images that he immediately told his comrades at Special Forces Command in Calw.

The lieutenant-colonel was immediately transferred out of the MAD, but why did he pass the information along in the first place? To show off, as he claims? Or to warn others in the KSK who may have helped Philipp S. amass his arsenal?

Is it possible that there are even right-wing extremists in the MAD, which is actually tasked with combating such extremism? It seems possible. Recently, an officer in an investigative unit responsible for coordinating with German domestic intelligence was quickly removed from his post. Domestic intelligence agents had warned the MAD that during their meetings, the officer had made extremely problematic comments.

An order has since been handed down that all those working at the MAD must undergo a comprehensive security check in the coming months. Agency head Christof Gramm is under immense pressure, with Defense Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer having made clear to him that his next mistake will be his last.

Hard to Expel

After all, the defense minister herself is under pressure. What if new cases keep popping up despite the strict course she has charted? Cases like the one in June, when Bundeswehr investigators told the ministry about accusations leveled by KSK soldiers against one of their trainers. In Afghanistan, the trainer, Lieutenant-Colonel W., allegedly said that the situation there was "like the Holocaust." Later, during a discussion about rising milk prices in the country, he allegedly wondered "what Jewish swine" was behind the increase.

The lieutenant-colonel in question isn't just any old officer. As head of the training department, he was in charge of drilling incoming KSK troops. He was immediately placed on leave and transferred to a different unit. But that was just the beginning of the problems faced by Bundeswehr leadership.

An attempt was launched to boot him out of the military altogether but doing so isn't easy. This is evidenced by the case of another officer who penned several questionable messages in a chat group, including: "If the tooth fairy needs a second job, she can scrape the gold out of the teeth of Jews." The case was revealed in September 2018, whereupon the officer's superior banned him from wearing his uniform. A short time later, he was preliminarily suspended. State prosecutors, however, stopped an investigation into suspicions of incitement, saying that public peace had not been disturbed.

In March 2019, the officer successfully appealed to have all punitive measure lifted. The military's disciplinary court found that the penalty was not proportional to the offense. That ruling, however, was appealed in June 2019.

In October, the Federal Administrative Court ruled that the officer's suspension had, in fact, been legal and referred the case back to the military's disciplinary court. Documents in the case were filed in February, but proceedings aren't likely to take place this year.

As a result, the lieutenant-colonel is still a member of the Bundeswehr two years after the incident. And he will likely remain so for at least another year.

Dangers in the Reserves

Although active-duty soldiers have attracted the most attention for right-wing extremist views thus far, an additional group is beginning to slide into the spotlight: reserve troops. Men like Dennis T., who shared videos containing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Or like Christian G., who lives in a single-family dwelling in the Lower Saxony town of Wriedel. The paving stones of his driveway are arranged to form the Iron Cross, the old Prussian military decoration that is popular among the extreme right.

Pursuing a tip, the MAD discovered in late June that the reservist was active in right-wing extremist WhatsApp groups. On his mobile phone, investigators found a list of names and addresses belonging to politicians and other public figures - a list that had long been circulating in the neo-Nazi scene. The man was immediately pulled out of the reserve exercise he was participating in.

In July, police confiscated a tank shell the man had in his possession, in addition to a dismantled rifle, likely a blank gun. G. works in a repair shop on the military base in Munster, where investigators discovered another weapon, a device suitable for firing tank shells, an empty magazine and numerous fireworks.

Undermining Public Trust

The situation poses a considerable challenge for German politicians. If the right-wing extremist incidents continue to mount, public trust in the military and police will sink. How can a state institution be trusted when it includes members who are against the state?

"If the information is widely shared, there won't be any more information. Those are the ground rules."

A police superintendent in a message to a chat group about improperly shared information

A case in Berlin shows just how dangerous the symbiotic relationship between police and extremists can be. During investigations into right-wing extremist arson attacks in the Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln, investigators from the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) confiscated a suspect's mobile telephone. The suspect, named Tilo P., was a former functionary in the local AfD chapter. In examining the device, investigators found that he belonged to a chat group with 12 members, all of whom the LKA identified as being part of or involved with the AfD.

As the German public broadcaster ARD first reported, one of the group members, a police superintendent in Berlin, was apparently passing confidential police information along to the other members of the chat group. In December 2016, for example, he apparently shared information about the investigation into the Islamist terror attack on the Christmas market in Berlin.

"Please don't pass it along for the time being," the police superintendent wrote, according to the chat log. He said he didn't want to see the information in the newspaper the next day, or on right-wing radical news platforms like PI-News or Compact. "If the information is widely shared, there won't be any more information. Those are the ground rules."

Berlin prosecutors are now investigating the police superintendent on suspicions of having violated confidentiality rules.

But the chat logs weren't the only sensitive find made by LKA investigators. They also discovered that Tilo P. had made alarming comments about a department head at the state prosecutor's office in a Telegram chat with another former AfD member. The prosecutor's office "is on our side," P. allegedly wrote immediately following an interrogation. The prosecutor, he wrote, is "an AfD voter," adding that the man "hinted as much."

According to the LKA, the prosecutor is the head of the unit that later investigated Tilo P. for arson. His department was also the one that received the LKA memo about the sensitive chat protocols.

Federal prosecutors one step up the ladder apparently only learned of the incident after the lawyer for a co-plaintiff sounded the alarm. The department head has since been transferred and couldn't be reached for comment. Tilo P.'s defense attorney likewise declined to discuss the case.

Possible Infiltration

Stories like this one suddenly make it seem plausible that public agencies could be infiltrated by right-wing extremists. How many police officers are still participants in clandestine chat groups? How many of them have ties to right-wing criminals?

Following the summer break, a secret Bundestag report – more than 500 pages long, assembled by a special investigator who has spent a year and a half combing through dozens of file folders full of right-wing extremist incidents involving soldiers, reservists and Special Forces personnel – is to be presented. The special investigator has provided lawmakers with preliminary results from his investigation on two occasions, each time in a bug-proof room. Sources familiar with those oral reports say that his findings are devastating, especially for MAD.

After the summer break, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution is also planning on presenting its report on right-wing extremist activity within Germany's security agencies. The states are working on their own measures.

Andreas Geisel, the person responsible for the interior affairs portfolio in the Berlin city-state government, is hoping to set up a whistleblower system in the police force, allowing officers to anonymously report extremist activity among their colleagues. Such a system has thus far only existed to uproot corruption.

Geisel's counterpart in the state of Brandenburg, Michael Stübchen, intends to go one step further and is considering an examination for all public servants to determine their loyalty to the German constitution. "Why should such an examination be inappropriate for public servants when every security worker at the airport has to submit to one?" the politician asks.

A cross-referencing between all public servants and the database kept by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution would be more effective, but that is not permitted by German law, as it would be tantamount to the kind of radical actions taken in the 1970s and '80s.  

In the battle against left-wing and right-wing extremism back then, West Germany removed thousands of mostly Marxist, Communist and other left-wing extremists from schools, universities and public agencies or prevented them from being hired in the first place. In many cases, the decisions were completely arbitrary, as a commission in Lower Saxony found in 2018. As a result, the state's Interior Ministry has determined that "politically motivated career bans, spying and mistrust can never again be an instrument used by a democratic state."

More Supervision?

Police departments are also considering what improvements can be made. One idea involves regular visits by police officers to mosques and synagogues to counter the negative impressions they collect on the streets, or visits to Syrian or Turkish families. Another idea being pursued in Saxony-Anhalt is more supervision combined with additional training on the dark sides of "cop culture." In Berlin, officers are to be shifted around more often to prevent them from remaining in problematic areas for too long.

An initial step, though, would be more transparency. Not all German states are open about incidents of extremism within the ranks of public officials and police.

In Saxony, for example, no response was initially given to queries about what happened to the police officer who had used the name "Uwe Böhnhardt" in an internal list of officers on duty during a visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Uwe Böhnhardt was a member of the National Socialist Underground right-wing terror cell.

In another case, DER SPIEGEL was able to gain access to information by way of a court ruling. During investigations into a 2016 attack on the Fatih Mosque in Dresden, inspectors stumbled across connections between one of the suspects and the police officer Roland G.

In analyzing his Facebook page, they discovered "tendencies toward the right-wing extremist Reichsbürger movement.” They found that he also intended to establish a militia group called "German Knights" and had engaged in incitement though virulently xenophobic speech. The officer, who had most recently been in charge of the shooting range belonging to the Dresden police department, also allegedly shared a video by the Holocaust denier Ursula Haverbeck and apparently had a soft spot for radical groups like the Identitarians, the Islamophobic group PEGIDA and the Initiative Heimatschutz. The man was later handed a 4,000 euro fine for incitement.

But how do police in Saxony deal with a convicted extremist in their service? They initially refused to answer the question.

Following a ruling by the Dresden Administrative Court and then the Higher Administrative Court in Bautzen, the Saxon police had no choice: They had to provide an extensive response to the query about what happened to the man. The answer? Roland G. is still a police officer in Saxony.