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Exploring Right-Wing Extremism in Germany’s Police and Military

  • August 15, 2020

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.

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