Seventy-five years after World War Two, far-right extremists have re-entered many parliaments across Europe in suits and ties, but their dark presence can be found in other, equally worrying places, including Germany's intelligence services and its military, the Bundeswehr. As a new global economic crisis unfolds, the neofascist threat inside and outside parliament should be taken very seriously indeed.
On June 30, mere hours before assuming the rotating presidency of the European Council, Germany announced the drastic overhaul of its elite military special forces, the Kommando Spezialkräfte (“Special Forces Command” - KSK) due to links with right-wing extremism. The KSK has been suspended from any further deployments and exercises until at least October, and one of its four battalions - the 2nd Company - is to be disbanded entirely. Making the announcement, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that the KSK had “become partially independent” from the chain of command, creating a "wall of secrecy" around itself, and had a “toxic leadership culture”.
A decisive move against the KSK was long overdue - the 1,400-strong commando force has been under the spotlight for years now over its links to far-right and neo-Nazi elements. In 2017, a farewell party for a KSK commander from the 2nd Company was investigated after attendees threw pig heads, and played music by far-right rock band “Sturmwehr” while giving Nazi salutes (a punishable offence). Despite credible evidence of the incident, when none of the soldiers present admitted to seeing the Nazi salutes, the Bundeswehr concluded that the charge was “not confirmed”, and no action was taken.
In May this year, a trove of Nazi memorabilia and literature, stolen ammunition and explosives was discovered on the property of a 45-year old KSK officer in Saxony with known far-right politics who attended the same farewell party. Two kilograms of explosives, several thousand rounds of ammunition, a machine gun and other firearms were found, as well as an SS song book, far-right magazines, and neo-Nazi stickers. A subsequent working group set up to investigate the special commando unit presented its findings shortly before the government made its announcement - besides the disturbing conclusions about KSK members, it also noted with concern the disappearance of some 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 62 kilograms of explosives from the KSK’s arsenal.
The government's move also followed weeks of controversy after Der Spiegel magazine published a KSK insider’s account of the unit. The whistleblower, a captain active in the KSK since 2018, revealed an internal culture where right-wing extremism was "known about," but either "ignored or completely tolerated." He described how one of his instructors used the code "Y-88" as a "call sign" (by which soldiers identify themselves in radio communications). The numbers 88 are a commonly-used code for the Nazi salute, while the letter “Y” bears a close resemblance to the "Lebensrune" ("life-rune”), another symbol used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Despite noticing the clear reference to Hitler, the whistleblower said recruits stayed quiet for fear of punishment.
Far-right sentiments in the KSK have been on the radar for quite some time. As early as 2003, then KSK commander, Reinhard Günzel, was dismissed for publicly expressing solidarity with the anti-Semitic statements made by Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Martin Hohmann. Hohmann was expelled from the CDU, but in 2017, re-entered the Bundestag (German parliament) as an MP for the far-right party Alternativ für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany” - AfD). Günzel himself went on to become a popular speaker at far-right events, where he denied the scale of the Holocaust, attacked the Nürnberg war crimes trials, and praised the “courage and sacrifice” of German soldiers during World War Two.
A much larger problem
While the KSK has been repeatedly linked with the far-right, it is not alone in this regard, and there have been a rash of far-right incidents involving the Bundeswehr over recent years. In 2017, a German soldier, Franco Albrecht, was arrested after trying to retrieve a pistol and ammunition that he had hidden in a bathroom in Vienna airport. It soon emerged that Albrecht had lived a double life for two years, using a fake ID to register as a Syrian refugee in 2015. He was charged with planning to carry out “false flag” attacks on politicians or refugee rights advocates in an attempt to create a backlash against refugees.
Ammunition, military equipment and Nazi-era paraphernalia were found in Albrecht's residence, accomplices were arrested, more ammunition recovered, and a larger terror network revealed. Despite Albrecht's actions, however, and the fact that his master’s thesis - completed before joining the military - contained extremist ideology and references to “race mixing” and the “dissolution of ethnic groups”, his Bundeswehr superiors only gave him a warning, and failed to alert the Militärischem Abschirmdienst (“Military Counter-Intelligence Service” - MAD). In November 2019, the Federal Court of Justice finally instructed the Frankfurt Regional Court to open a case against Albrecht for "preparing a serious, state-damaging act of violence”.
A visit to Albrecht’s barracks in Illkirch by then-Defence Minister (now President of the European Commission) Ursula von der Leyen, along with several Berlin journalists, revealed a hand-painted swastika near his weapon and a collection of Wehrmacht memorabilia. The same year, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that a network of the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement has been growing for years at the Bundeswehr's university in Munich, and investigators discovered yet more memorabilia from Germany's Nazi-era army, the Wehrmacht, on display in troop barracks in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest.
Defence Minister von der Leyen directed the German military to conduct a thorough overhaul, purging its links with the Wehrmacht, removing memorabilia from barracks and ordering some - but not all - military bases named after World War Two soldiers to be renamed, but the subsequent inquiry launched into the state of the Bundeswehr was condemned as too little, too late. Once touted as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, von der Leyen’s mishandling of the crisis - further undermined by obstruction from the military leadership - pushed her out of the political limelight until an opening appeared around the European Commission presidency.
The Day X murder list
In 2017, Bundeskriminalamt (“Federal Criminal Police” - BKA) raids in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommen - conducted, curiously, without the knowledge of state government or intelligence officials - revealed the existence of the Nordkreuz (“Northern Cross”) network. At first believed to be a “prepper” network, "Nordkreuz" possessed significant amounts of ammunition and firearms (one member alone had 10,000 bullets taken from police stores), and had ordered some 200 body bags and a supply of quicklime to dispose of bodies. A network of some 54 neo-Nazis, including far-right police, soldiers and members of the KSK, they trained regularly at police and army reserve shooting ranges.
It later emerged that members of "Nordkreuz" were plotting to murder several prominent German politicians, and carry out attacks on refugees and immigrants across Germany on an unspecified “Day X”. In preparation, they had circulated "kill lists" of politicians from Germany's main political parties - the Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Greens and Die Linke - including Green Party leader Claudia Roth, Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and former German president Joachim Gauck. Several members of an elite German police commando unit were linked to the network, and a submachine gun, over 55,000 rounds of ammunition, and several explosives were found in one former commando’s home.
The group also had a longer list of names and addresses of some 25,000 left-wing “enemies”, compiled from data taken from police computers. While "Nordkreuz" had enhanced the list by conducting further research on their intended victims, the same basic list was also found in the possession of Saxony terror group “Revolution Chemnitz”. It was further distributed as an email attachment by Heiner Merz, state MP for the far-right AfD in Baden-Württemberg, who encouraged AfD members to "save, distribute and use the list" to target left wing individuals from their communities, saying “there are few limits to your imagination”. When the list turned up with "Nordkreuz", Merz claimed he had received it from an “antifa dropout”, and that he had been “deceived”.
Fears of a "shadow army"
As the evidence piled up, fears and evidence began to grow of a secret “shadow army” within the German military - a fear that has existed ever since the Bundeswehr was formed, and reflecting concerns about the return of the kind of violent nationalist cells that developed in the German army during the 1920s. In January this year, the military counter-intelligence agency MAD reported that at least 550 serving Bundeswehr soldiers were being investigated for possible involvement in right-wing extremism, including 20 in the KSK. An additional 360 cases had been investigated in 2019, although only a small number of these managed to confirm far-right activity.
In 2019, military counter-intelligence and Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz ("Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution" - BfV) founded a joint working group, where they have discussed more than a thousand cases of possible right-wing extremism so far. Such cooperation is made necessary because the MAD’s responsibility is limited to active soldiers, while significant far-right activity is occurring within the army reserve. According to MAD president Christof Gramm, around 800 reservists have since been excluded from military exercises in recent months because of their “anti-constitutional attitude”.
The MAD has been sharply criticised over its surveillance and reporting of far-right infiltration however. In 2017, the agency was subjected to an investigation by the parliamentary committee that oversees German intelligence services, and in February 2019, the MAD admitted that it had been consistently under-reported the numbers of right-wing extremist soldiers "to the outside world" and had consequently misled the Bundestag.
There are also fears that the MAD itself may be infiltrated. In June this year, a senior investigator was suspended for tipping off KSK members to the raid in May. In 2018, another senior officer, Peter W., faced charges of alerting KSK soldiers to a planned raid on their Calw barracks in connection with the Franco Albrecht case. Peter W. is believed to have warned the KSK trainer, André Schmitt - the officer responsible for the unit’s military security and himself a longterm MAD source. Nonetheless, the MAD president continued to assert that his organisation had fully researched the possibility of a “shadow army”, and that no such entity existed. Authorities spoke only of “individual cases”.
Hannibal’s secret army
In late 2018, a year-long investigation by journalists from the newspaper Die Tageszeitung (“taz”) revealed evidence of an extensive right-wing network, connected to but larger than the already discovered “Nordkreuz”. Around the same time, Focus magazine made similar revelations of an "underground army". This enlarged group was dubbed the “Hannibal network”, after the codename of its chat group administrator - the KSK trainer André Schmitt. Like "Nordkreuz", the Hannibal network was first considered to be a far-right “prepper” network, and was divided into regional groupings across Germany (West, South, East and North) mirroring Bundeswehr structures, along with further branches in Austria and Switzerland.
Like its northern section "Nordkreuz", other parts of the Hannibal network made preparations for an anticipated societal breakdown on “Day X”, organising weapons depots and safe-houses, and undertaking paramilitary training. Driven by a “hatred for left wingers”, however, members of the network were also preparing to carrying out a possible military coup and developed plans for the mass killings of left-wing politicians and other “enemies”. Top of the list were Dietmar Bartsch and Sahra Wagenknecht, then-leaders of the left-wing party Die Linke in the Bundestag.
Numbering around 200 individuals, in some ways the network resembled less a “shadow army” than a “shadow state”. Members included active, retired and reserve soldiers, police officers (including commandos from the Spezialeinsatzkommandos - the “Special Operational Units” or "SEK"), lawyers, judges, firefighters, civil servants and even members of the German security, military and intelligence authorities.
A notably high number of members of the Hannibal network were parachutists. The parachutist training center at Altenstadt Air Base had been infamous in the 1990s for celebrating Hitler’s birthday and singing Nazi songs. Then-commander Fritz Zwicknagl - who was removed as a result - later went on to work for the AfD in the Bundestag. Another instructor with far-right connections, Andreas Kalbitz, remained at the training centre until 2005. He later became a co-leader of the AfD’s extremist faction, Der Flügel (“The Wing”), and sat on the AfD national executive from 2017 until 2020.
In May this year, the AfD executive voted narrowly to expel Kalbitz from the party for “technical reasons” associated with his supposed failure to disclose prior memberships in neo-Nazi organisations. Conveniently, the party application form on which he was required to list prior associations has since gone missing and - with considerable support inside the AfD, and several appeals still ongoing - Kalbitz's membership status remains unclear.
The "Uniter" Network
The soldier (and fake refugee) Franco Albrecht, who was stationed in the Alsace, was part of the southern Hannibal network, “Südkreuz” (“Southern Cross”), and is believed to have been in direct contact with Schmitt. When his arrest in 2017 triggered terrorist investigations into far-right networks associated with the Bundeswehr, Schmitt closed his chat groups, and shifted his focus to the conspiratorial “Uniter” grouping. Schmitt had first founded “Uniter” in Halle during 2012, supposedly to provide further training and insurance support to unite former and serving members of the security forces. However, the tiny grouping soon dissolved following an internal disagreement, and Schmitt founded the Hannibal network on the social media app Telegram in 2015.
In 2016, however, André Schmitt had re-founded "Uniter" in Stuttgart - and with such a similar structure to “Hannibal”, emphasis on building ties to the military and security services, and “prepper” world-view, that it is widely considered to be an extension of the Hannibal network and its strategy. By the end of 2019, the new “Uniter” network claimed to have up to 2,000 members across Germany, including former members of “Hannibal” and members of the Bundeswehr and intelligence agencies, although the actual numbers remain unknown. And while the organisation denies he was ever a member, a “Uniter” badge was also found among Franco Albrecht’s possessions.
The "Uniter" organisation has also been revealed to have an extensive connections and support among the more right-wing members of the CDU in the former East Germany. It has even claimed support within the military authorities themselves. When taz asked Schmitt to confirm in 2018 that he was in fact “Hannibal”, he accused the newspaper of “harassment” and threatened that “we will have no other option but to inform the MAD". Raids on houses of "Uniter" members have turned up numerous military items, while footage has been obtained of Uniter conducting illegal paramilitary exercises in southern Germany in June 2018. Schmitt has himself been charged for illegal possession of military items, including practice grenades taken from Bundeswehr reserves.
"Uniter" was stripped of its non-profit status late 2019 and the network moved its base of operations to Switzerland. In June this year, the BfV finally confirmed that "Uniter" was in their sights, indicating that there was “sufficiently significant actual indications” for right-wing extremism in the organisation. Inaugural “Uniter” chairman and the network’s co-founder, Ringo M., was an active state intelligence officer in Baden-Württemberg when the group was set up. He resigned soon afterwards, and left the organisation in 2017, claiming it was “too militaristic”. Der Spiegel magazine revealed in May this year that Ringo M. is now assisting criminal police with their investigations.
Citizens in uniform?
Some commentators have tried to explain the apparent uptick in cases of far-right extremism in the Bundeswehr by reference to Germany’s abolition of compulsory military service in 2011, and some politicians are now calling for its reintroduction. With the elimination of compulsory service, or so the argument goes, the section of German society entering the military narrowed and became self-selecting, creating a problem with far-right recruits. The more sobering reality, however, is probably closer to the claim of Die Linke’s parliamentary group leader Dietmar Bartsch - that far-right extremism in the armed forces is connected with “a culture in the Bundeswehr that has allowed and tolerated this for decades”.
From inception, the Bundeswehr was promoted as a "parliamentary army", made up of “citizens in uniform” to reflect Germany’s political plurality, and with a revised definition of military obedience that was meant to serve as a protective mechanism against Nazi-era excesses. However, the Bundeswehr has, from its creation in 1955, struggled with its association with the far-right and its image as a refuge for both historical and newly-minted extremists. In the late 1950s, the Bundeswehr hired 300 officers from the Waffen-SS to fill its ranks, and more than 12,000 Wehrmacht officers were soon serving in the Bundeswehr - including over 40 Nazi-era generals.
In 2014, the release of secret papers from Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), revealed what was widely suspected or known for decades - in the years directly following World War Two, around 2,000 former officers of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS had formed a secret army - the "Schnez-Truppe" - to protect the country from external threat of the Soviet Union and the internal threat of left-wing influence. According to the documents, it could call on up to 40,000 further fighters should the need arise, and it regularly carried out surveillance of left-wing politicians. The secret army's leader, the former colonel Albert Schnez, was also heavily involved in the discussions leading to the creation of the Bundeswehr, and went on to lead it from 1968-71.
Another key architect of the Bundeswehr, Hans Speidel, was a self-confessed Mussolini-style fascist who had served as Chief-of-Staff to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, while the first head of the Bundeswehr, Adolf Heusinger, was another high ranking officer with continuous service since before World War One. As the Cold War reached a crescendo, their experience - and anti-communism - made these senior officers valuable assets for the foundation of NATO, while their dubious history could be explained away under the heading “career soldier”. Speidel himself became the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957. The BND document released in 2014 indicates that both Speidel and Heusinger were also aware of the secret army's existence at the time.
When the Bundeswehr launched in 1955, it did so at a military base in Augustdorf named after Rommel - known as "Hitler's favorite general”. In fact, until the middle of the 1990s, Germany had 50 military bases named after Wehrmacht soldiers in Germany. Some of these barracks were newly built, and were given their names under the auspices of conservative Defense Minister Franz-Josef Strauß in the 1960s. In 2017, a report by left-wing party Die Linke showed that between 1995 and 2016, sixteen such Bundeswehr bases had been renamed, while another nine bases were considering a change. The Augustdorf base, however, bears Rommel’s name to this day, as does another in Dornstadt.
The National Socialist Underground
The Bundeswehr's structural tolerance for the far-right also brought it into contact with the most notorious terror group in recent German history - the “Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund" (National-Socialist Underground - NSU). The NSU - a terror organisation of three extremists supported by some 100-150 far-right associates - is held responsible for multiple bombing attacks and bank robberies, 43 attempted killings and 10 murders, most of them of people of Turkish heritage, in Germany between 2000 and 2007.
Twenty years ago, neo-Nazi extremist and key NSU supporter André Eminger had barely begun his military service when he reportedly told his supervising officer: "I identify as a National Socialist." It was hardly a shock - he wore a tattoo reading "Blut und Ehre" (“blood and honor”) - the Hitler Youth motto and name of a far-right group now banned in Germany. Despite his admission, however, Eminger continued in the military - including undergoing weapons training - for the next ten months.
The NSU had a far more concerning relationship with the intelligence services, however - in particular with the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the BfV. Investigations have revealed that members of the NSU and their close circle were informers on the BfV payroll and the intelligence services have been accused of actually helping to rebuild the far-right scene in the state of Thuringia. An intelligence agent reporting to the BfV on the activities of the far-right was even a witness at one of the killings, raising serious questions about BfV knowledge of NSU activities.
The BfV has also been criticised for actively obstructing investigations into the NSU’s activities. Shortly after the existence of the group became public in 2011, many BfV files related to the NSU were destroyed - some were shredded soon after the official investigation had begun. The BfV president Heinz Fromm resigned in disgrace, but any remaining BfV files on the NSU have been redacted or remain inaccessible. During the high-profile trial, BfV agents and informants were only allowed to give limited testimony - or in some cases, none at all.
Extremism and the deep state
Fromm’s successor as BfV president, Hans-Georg Maaßen, was himself forced to resign in controversy. During the 2018 Chemnitz protests, where public footage showed an angry right-wing mob "hunting” for “foreign-looking” people, Maaßen claimed the BfV had seen no evidence of any such incidents - a spurious claim echoed only by the far-right AfD. Soon afterwards, it came to light that Maaßen had also passed sensitive information to members of the far-right party, leading to calls for his resignation across the political spectrum - except, predictably, from the AfD. To smooth things over, Maaßen was initially granted a role in the Interior Ministry, but he was placed on early retirement after he used his farewell speech as BfV president to accuse "radical left-wing" forces in the German government of conspiring to remove him because he had criticised the government's "naive" and “left-wing" security and migration policies.
Maaßen’s association with the AfD - which holds 89 seats in the German Bundestag and has now been elected into every German state parliament - is particularly concerning, not only because of the organisation’s connections to far-right groups, but also because of its own brand of far-right politics. In September 2019, a German court ruled that Björn Höcke - co-leader of the AfD's hard-line wing, Der Flügel - could legally be called a fascist as the description "rests on verifiable fact". Der Flügel has some 7,000 members - around one fifth of the AfD total membership. In March 2020, the BfV classified Der Flügel as "a right-wing extremist endeavour against the free democratic basic order”, incompatible with Germany’s Consitution, and placed the group under close intelligence surveillance. Despite demands - and promises - to dissolve, Der Flügel appears to continue to exist.
Attempts to monitor the far-right are facing political hurdles too. On June 1, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported that the chief of the state intelligence service in Saxony had been replaced after refusing to delete all data collected on AfD politicians. The newly-elected conservative Prime Minister of Saxony, Dirk-Martin Christian, had demanded the move in accordance with the special protections MPs usually enjoy as a result of their mandate. The AfD, however, is under intelligence surveillance throughout Germany over to its links with the far-right, and other German states have taken legal advice supporting the continued gathering data on the party. The move is therefore unique to Saxony, and is all the more concerning as the Saxony branch of the AfD is considered one of the most extremist.
In fact, despite the AfD's associations with far-right and neo-Nazi politics, Germany’s governing CDU remains divided over whether or not it should work with the party at state, or even federal, level. The conservative CDU - currently in a federal “grand coalition” government with the centre-left SPD - is suffering an identity crisis, as many former CDU voters flock to the AfD - especially in underdeveloped and marginalised parts of the former East Germany. In order to regain lost ground, many CDU members are keen to end the "grand coalition" and return the party to a position clearly on the right wing of the spectrum. Many of these calls also urge an end to the “cordon sanitaire” that other parties have placed around working with the AfD, leading to a tense political stand-off.
Far-right attacks on the rise
Meanwhile, the numbers of violent far-right attacks in Germany continue to rise. German Interior Ministry figures, released in April this year, recorded 986 acts of attempted or perpetrated far-right violence in 2019, over 600 of them targeted at holders of political office, and revelations of the Nordkreuz "kill list" in 2019 coincided with the murder of CDU politician Walter Lübcke in his home by a man with known links to the far-right, including with the neo-Nazi National Party of Germany (NPD) and the German branch of the British fascist terrorist group Combat 18.
In October last year, a synagogue in the city of Halle was attacked on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. After killing one person but failing to enter the building, the attacker then drove to a nearby Turkish kebab shop and shot dead a customer there. The gunman, a 27 year-old neo-Nazi, had learned to handle weapons in the Bundeswehr, but no indication of his right-wing beliefs was recorded in his military file.
In 2018, eight members of the neo-Nazi terrorist Freital Group, from near Dresden - a bastion of the far-right - were found guilty of terrorism-related crimes, including multiple attacks on refugee shelters, and in November last year the city of Dresden itself declared a "Nazi emergency”. Also in 2018, police arrested several men for carrying out racist crimes and setting up the right-wing terrorist organisation “Revolution Chemnitz”, while in February this year police arrested twelve members of a far-right terror cell “Group S” that was preparing attacks on mosques in 10 German states in order to start a race war. Members of "Group S" had also discussed making attacks on prominent Greens politicians.
Also in February, a far-right gunman killed nine people of immigrant backgrounds and injured five more at a shisha bar and a cafe in the city of Hanau, near Frankfurt. While the attacker has not been linked with any extremist group, he left behind a manifesto entitled "Message to the entire German people", in which he expressed his racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and misogynistic views plainly.
According to Interior Ministry figures from 2019, Germany has at least 24,000 far-right extremists, more than half of them prone to violence, but this figure is likely - again - to be an underestimate. In June this year, Focus magazine revealed that many German neo-Nazis - including members of the NPD and The Third Way - have been travelling to Russia to carry out paramilitary training in camps run by the right-wing white-supremacist Russian Imperial Movement near St Petersburg.
On July 3, magazine Der Spiegel reported that a reservist from Lower Saxony had been suspended after being found with a list of the telephone numbers and private addresses of 17 top politicians and celebrities, including federal Ministers, state Prime Ministers, and current and former leaders of the Greens and Die Linke. The reservist was a participant in two right-wing extremist chat groups on WhatsApp. The list of names came from the larger “Orbit” leak of politician data in January 2019, and has been circulated among far-right chat groups ever since 2019, although the BKA is unsure who created the refined list. A similar Facebook chat group of reservists called "Zuflucht" (“Refuge”) has also been exposed, where participants discussed private armament and, again, fighting a possible "racial war".
On June 27, a district councillor for Die Linke in Bavaria, Stefanie Kirchner, was attacked from behind by a man with a knife. The attacker tried to strangle her, and hurled anti-left abuse. Kirchner was able to free herself, but the attacker escaped. Several days later, on July 3, Janine Wißler - head of Die Linke’s state parliamentary delegation in Hesse - revealed that she had received multiple death threats in February, signed “NSU 2.0", targeting both her and her family. Only days after making this revelation public, Wißler received further death threats.
The threatening messages bore similarities to several death threats sent to lawyer Basay-Yildiz, who had represented families of the victims in the NSU trial. In both cases, the messages included sensitive personal information taken from police databases, and were signed “NSU 2.0”. In the case of Basay-Yildiz, a chat group of officials with right-wing content was discovered, and several civil servants lost their jobs, but no one was charged. According to evidence obtained by Frankfurter Rundschau, it looks likely the death threats against Wißler also originated from within the police force.
The dangers of "business as usual"
As the spate of incidents has grown - including a surge in fire and bomb attacks on refugee shelters - so has the political pressure on the government and authorities to respond. Konstantin von Notz, deputy president of the Bundestag’s intelligence oversight committee, has described the situation in the Bundeswehr as a “structural problem”, while BfV president Thomas Haldenwang, has called far-right extremism and terrorism the "biggest danger to German democracy today." After promising a strengthened security response, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer banned the neo-Nazi group Nordadler (“Northern Eagles”) on June 5, following raids across the country. Nordadler is the third far-right group to be banned in Germany this year, after Combat 18 in January and the United German Peoples and Tribes group in March.
The recent surge in extremism in Germany also coincides with the political growth of the AfD over the last decade, their far-right rhetoric emboldening many extremist elements, with often deadly consequences. This problem is not limited to Germany either - a report last September from the European Union (EU) police agency, Europol, warned that far-right groups across the bloc were actively recruiting from the police and military to increase their capacity for violence.
The successes of far-right parties in countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, alongside the rightward shift of governments in Poland and Hungary, is a sobering reminder that extremist ideas are growing in broader support and acceptance across the EU. Nor can this growth in far-right political forces over the past decade be dissociated from the politics of austerity enforced by the EU institutions and other agents of neoliberal “business as usual” over the past decade. The current economic crisis is likely to result in another, deeper, recession - characterised by unemployment, social cuts and the further privatisation of public assets - and will once again produce a fertile breeding ground for the far-right.
The numbers of armed extremists remain relatively small - despite the plots of various “prepper” networks there is certainly no threat of a mass insurgency or military coup - although ongoing investigatons are likely to lay bare deeper tentacles in the Bundeswehr and German state. Clearly, however, Germany’s problem with the far-right runs both long and deep - both within and outside the state, including inside the very state agencies meant to monitor it - and, despite recent revelations, the size and extent of extremist networks remains unclear.
These networks and their many connections with politicians, the military and state agencies pose a unique series of challenges as we head into a new economic crisis, and the social turmoil that this will almost inevitably bring. Should far-right parties like the AfD successfully exploit the social turmoil arising from the downturn, it will only further encourage violent extremists to take matters into their own hands. Worse yet, it also raises the spectre of the far-right parties entering government in a number of EU member states unless credible political alternatives can be found to keep them out.
As a German-led EU begins the task of papering over the cracks of the latest economic crisis while preparing a new round of brutal austerity, it is incumbent on political forces of the left - and all forces that cherish democracy and social justice - to present such an alternative to the neoliberal model that is impoverishing and excluding working class communities across the continent. Such an alternative - denying oxygen to the far-right, empowering working class communities, and instilling sustainability at the centre of our social model - is urgent and long overdue. If we fail to build a new world of solidarity out of this deepening crisis, there are others waiting in the shadows to take their own, much darker, turn.
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