Author: Julia Glathe and Mihai Varga, FU Berlin
Germany has seen an intensification of far-right terror acts over the last decade. In November 2011, the German public learned about the underground operations of the NSU, a group of three neo-Nazi assailants with a largely unknown network of supporters that had been responsible for nine murders throughout the 2000s. It is important to note that it was bystanders and the police, not security agencies, that uncovered the group, even though the public also learned that German intelligence services had heavily infiltrated the NSU’s network of supporters. Far-right violence would not end here. A wave of arson attacks against refugee homes, reminiscent of the sinister attacks on asylum seekers in the early 1990s, engulfed the country in 2015-16. In a wave of attacks inspired by Anders Breivik and the Christchurch shooting, as well as the NSU, far-right perpetrators killed nine people in an attack in Munich in 2016, attempted to break into a synagogue in 2019 and killed two bystanders, murdered CDU politician Walter Lübcke in 2019 and shot ten people in Hanau in February 2020.
It appears that after such an intensification of far-right attacks and with the existence of a wide network of radicalised supporters the country’s security agencies would treat the far-right as a top priority, and they would do their best to protect state authorities from far-right infiltration, particularly since such infiltration offers the far-right easy access to ammunition and information. Yet, there are worrying signs that security agencies failed to acknowledge the seriousness of far-right threats at every step.
A closer look at the NSU suggests that law enforcement agencies, particularly the federal domestic intelligence agency, have had highly problematic conduct. A vast network of paid informants directly connected to the NSU failed to expose terrorist crimes and fight the neo-Nazi movement (Knight, 2015). Instead, several informants, so-called “V-men,” actively participated in the establishment of right-wing extremist terrorist structures and donated their generous salaries from the state to the NSU network. Moreover, shortly after dismantling the NSU, on November 11th 2011, the intelligence agency shredded dozens of files on long-time neo-Nazi informants with direct involvement in the neo-Nazi scene of Thuringia, the federal state where the NSU had originated. The incident cast severe doubt on the German authorities’ handling of the NSU and its supporters.
The NSU trial, too, fell short of identifying and sentencing the broad support network of the NSU and the failings of the domestic intelligence agency (Ramelsberger, 2019). The trial created the impression that an isolated radicalised cell was responsible for the murders without shedding much light on the underlying structures of right-wing terrorism that provided it with logistics and ideological support (Fürstenau, 2020).
The problem of far-right infiltration of security agencies goes even further. Research carried out by the daily newspaper Die Tageszeitung since 2018 uncovered a terrorist network called “Hannibal”, organised within the special military unit “KSK”. The network comprised around 200 former and active soldiers. It had set up ammunition stashes, drawn up enemy lists, and prepared for the assassination of political opponents on a so-called ‘day x’. In addition to former and active elite soldiers, the network also included lawyers and officials from the criminal investigation department, intelligence agencies and security firms. So far, only a fraction of the network has been identified and prosecuted, with cells extending across Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
In addition, there have also been several other scandals involving law enforcement. In 2021, authorities finally arrested a 53-year old resident of Berlin, who had been mailing death threats signed “NSU 2.0” to the private addresses of public figures for years. The investigation showed that the far-right perpetrator had obtained the addresses of his targets from police computers and servers located in the federal state of Hessen. Such data theft prompted suspicions that far-right sympathisers within the police force had supplied the “NSU 2.0” with the victims’ private addresses.
One of the underlying causes of this phenomenon is that after the end of National Socialism, West Germany developed a concept of “democracy protection” intended to protect the state against external enemies (“extremists”). This concept implies an interpretation of the past that sees an overly liberal Weimar Republic as the main reason why Hitler was able to come to power and eliminate democracy (Fuhrmann & Schulz, 2021). Against this historical background, the state established a set of measures in the 1950s and 1960s for the sake of consolidating a so-called ‘resilient democracy’ (‘wehrhafte Demokratie’) aimed to protect the state against extremists. However, this attempt has proven to be ill-suited for containing internal enemies and detecting extremism within state structures. As the NSU has shown, one of the most important state agencies responsible for preventing extremism, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), has fundamentally failed to live up to its self-proclaimed reputation as an “early warning system of democracy” (“Frühwarnsystem der Demokratie”). It continues to act in an untransparent and uncontrolled manner.
To be sure, recently there have also been more rigorous attempts to control the far-right movement. The BfV is currently trying to put the AfD under intelligence observation due to its links to right-wing extremism (Zeit online, 2021). A step as such would have significant consequences, allowing the German secret service to tap into AfD members’ conversations, gain access to their e-mails and use all other means at its disposal for surveillance. Yet, authorities could do more to fight far-right groups, not only by investigating formally registered organisations, but also by intervening more effectively in informally developing networks which are prone to infiltrate into security agencies as the most recent events showed. One can also not understand far-right terrorism without diligently exploring the networks of perpetrators that carry out violent attacks. Particularly troubling is the outreach of such networks, which is very extensive reaching well into state law enforcement and intelligence structures. The D.Rad team recommends that more independent and transparent monitoring prevails to uncover and prevent their infiltration as effectively as possible.
Fuhrmann, M. & Schulz, S. (2021) Strammstehen vor der Demokratie. Extremismuskonzept und Staatsschutz in der Bundesrepublik. Schmetterling Verlag
Fürstenau, M. (2020) Germany: NSU murder verdict facing challenges from all sides. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/germany-nsu-murder-verdict-facing-challenges-from-all-sides/a-53453001
Knight, B. (2015) Bundestag re-examines intel failings on NSU. Available at: https://www.dw.com/en/bundestag-re-examines-intel-failings-on-nsu/a-18878453
Ramelsberger, A. (2019): Nach dem NSU-Prozess: Leerstellen und Lehren, In: APuZ, pp. 49-50
Zeit online. (2021) Verfassungsschutz erklärt AfD zum Verdachtsfall. Available at: https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2021-03/verfassungsschutz-afd-verdachtsfall-bundesweit