At a time when our eyes are focused on tensions in the Middle East, Germany has a new worry, one few Germans believed possible: the rise of neo-Nazis.
Having studied in Germany and developed extensive contacts there over the years, I thought I knew the country rather well, and I considered the idea of neo-Nazis impossible. You can’t even legally buy a copy of Hitler’s gospel, “Mein Kampf” in Germany. Unless things have changed recently, even reading it is verboten.
Germans have long believed that they live in one of the most secure countries in the world. By American standards they do. One can travel just about anywhere in Germany without fear of criminal activity.
The Sept. 11 attacks were a wake-up call for Berlin because several of the terrorists involved came from Hamburg. That sent German police and intelligence personnel off looking almost entirely at threats from the Muslim world. Muslim extremism had to be stopped at all costs. In 2006, German intelligence was overhauled, and the offices that focused on left- and right-wing extremism were merged.
But what about right-wing extremism? Last year’s intelligence report by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (something like our FBI) said “no structures of right-wing terrorism were detected.”
Comments from average Germans reflected the official view. Germans I have discussed the issue with would argue that I did not understand what has happened since World War II. The country had changed. One almost never heard that nonsense about a super race, although they did admit that there were Germans — the skinheads, for example — who picked on foreigners, especially Turks. But these were kids, it was noted, they would grow out of it and become good Germans as they matured. As one German official said, “Society has focused over the last 10 years on the threat of Islamist extremism, but this is not the only extremist threat that we’re facing.”
The reality of the new threat dawned on German officials when they discovered the existence of a cell of neo-Nazis earlier this year. Not only did police uncover this group, but much to their horror, an investigation revealed that members had carried out 10 killings over seven years. Nine of the victims had immigrant backgrounds. And that was not all.
The gang is also alleged to have committed more than a dozen bank robberies. A hair salon in an immigrant section of Cologne was also bombed. But the real shock came when police investigated the homes of a number of the members, who lived in the former East Germany. Several of their homes held arsenals of sophisticated arms — in a country in which weapons are tightly controlled.
These extremists found a home in the former East Germany, where unemployment is higher than it is in the West and anti-immigrant attitudes are strong. To many of these people, immigrants present both a cultural and economic dangers; many fear the immigrants will take jobs away from them.
So now what? The Germans installed a new head of their Office for the Protection of the Constitution. This individual has sworn to revamp the intelligence and police organizations. Because the right wing was not considered a danger until recently, all of the old reports dealing with it had been shredded to save space.
The fight against neo-Nazism has gone beyond official channels. There is a movement to outlaw the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) a extreme right-wing part. That would seem to be a logical way of dealing with the problem, but it would be a disaster for German democracy.
There are members of the NPD who sit in state parliaments. They were honestly and openly elected. What would it say about German politics if the party was banned and these individuals were kicked out of their parliaments because of the criminal actions by members of an unrelated group. Both the government and the legislature have made it clear that they will not support such an action.
If nothing else, recent events demonstrate that democracy can be a messy system of government. Sometimes you are unpleasant individuals. Furthermore, perhaps the Germans will now more evenly allocate their intelligence and security assets.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat.