Germany’s right-extremism problem

In mid May, a new Cabinet Committee met in Berlin: the committee against right-wing extremism and racism. The aim of the committee is to “develop an effective package of measures that will work in the long term to create a society free of right-wing extremism and racism… accordance with the values of the constitution.” The Government Integration Officer Annette Widmann-Mauz told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that “We have to dry out the ideological breeding ground” for right-extremism; that includes creating, “a climate in which we proudly look at the accomplishments that are made in our diverse society. Germany needs immigration, our diverse society has made our country strong.” The committee will also examine structural racism: “this affects not only security authorities, but all authorities, schools, the Bundeswehr, and politics. It is not just about a conscious attitude, but also about unconscious thought patterns.”

The committee – as well as a new law designed to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime which is currently going through parliament – has been set up against the background of increasing concern about right-extremist violence in the country.

There have been several major attacks in the last year alone. In June 2019 CDU politician Walter Lübcke, who had been receiving death threats for several years because of his support for Angel Merkel’s pro-refugee policy, was shot in the head and a right-extremist was charged with his murder; two months later, another right-extremist live-streamed his attack on a synagogue in Halle, killing two people. In February this year, as the government was preparing the draft law to combat right-wing extremism and hate crime, a right-extremist shot and killed 9 people at two shisha bars in Hanau, near Frankfurt. Only the day before these latest murders, the General Secretary of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, had given an interview in which he had described an atmosphere of fear amongst Muslims in Germany.

Politically motivated crime has been increasing for some years. Government figures show that a total of 22,337 right-wing politically motivated offences were reported in 2019, compared to 20,520 in 2017. Anti-semitic crimes also increased, with 2032 recorded in 2019 compared to 1,799 in 2018, although right- extremist violent crimes declined, from 1156 in 2018 to 986 in 2019. There were 280 politically motivated attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in the fourth quarter of 2019, as well as 23 on refugee accommodation, and a further 23 on aid organisations and volunteers.

The Deutsche Welle’s timeline of right-extremist terror charts separate incidents of terror since unification in 1990, including violence against foreigners, Jews, Muslims, political opponents or representatives of the state and points out that according to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, around 12,700 far-right extremists are “oriented toward violence.”

After the Hanau attacks, SPD General Secretary Lars Klingbeil said that the security authorities had ignored “what is brewing on the extreme right” for too long. Bundestag President, the former CDU Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, made a similar comment; he said that Germany had underestimated the threat from right wing extremism for too long and that the country must do more to tackle the problem, as well as Islamophobia.

Concern about the problem is spreading outside Germany’s borders too: the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) warned in March for example that Germany must do more to prevent and counter extremism and neo-Nazism, and that the county is becoming increasingly xenophobic, with high levels of Islamophobia.

Democracy, tolerance and openness to the world

In early 2015, some months before she opened Germany’s borders to over a million refugees, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared “We are a country based on democracy, tolerance and openness to the world.” And she was correct. Germany is internationally recognised as having one of the most stable democracies in the world, scoring high on indexes such as political rights, rule of law, civil liberties and freedom of expression. The Grundgesetz, or Basic Law, enshrines rights such as the inviolability of human dignity, equality before the law, personal freedom,  the right to free speech and the right to asylum.  It affirms that “All state authority is derived from the people” and sets up a balance of powers between its constitutional bodies: the Bundestag, the  Bundesrat (the upper house, made of up of representatives from the individual states), the Government, the Federal President and the so-called guardian of the constitution, the Federal Constitutional Court.

Germany has become an open country:  just under a quarter (19.6 million) of German residents now have an immigration background (meaning that at least one parent was not born as a German national).   Since 2014, the number of foreigners in Germany increased by almost 2.91 million to more than 11.06 million in mid-2019. There are almost 4.84 million EU citizens and around 6.22 million third-country nationals living in the country, with immigration from Turkey, Poland, Syria, Romania and Italy being the most common.

However,  the openness promoted by the political establishment has clashed with a groundswell of right-extremist, populist and anti-democratic opinions in the centre of Germany society.

The extreme right scene

The Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which monitors extremist and anti-constitutional activity in Germany, defines right-extremism as appearing in various forms but “incorporating nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic ideology elements to different degrees and pursuing correspondingly different objectives. It is governed by the idea that belonging to a specific ethnic group, nation, or race determines a human being’s value.” One common feature of almost all right-wing extremists is their “concept of an authoritarian state, in which the state and the people – in their view an ethnically homogeneous group – merge into a unified whole within a supposedly natural order….starting from this premise, right-wing extremists believe that a state based on the right-wing extremist ideology can do without the essential control elements of the free democratic basic order, such as the people’s right to exercise state authority through elections, or the right to form and practise a parliamentary opposition.”

The BfV noted that the right-wing extremist spectrum ranges from subculture-oriented right-wing extremists to neo-Nazis and to “legalistically acting right-wing extremist parties” including the NPD (National Democratic Party of Germany), the Der III. Weg (the Third Way) and DIE RECHTE (The Right), and civic movements such as the pro NRW/Civic Movement for North Rhine-Westphalia, and the pro Köln/civic Movement for Cologne.

Several groups have been banned – for example, this year Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has banned the Reichsbürger groups – far-right groups which do not recognise the legitimacy of the Federal government – and the neo-Nazi Combat 18.

Membership of these right-extremist groups in small – but the right-wing threat in Germany comes not only from organised bodies, but also from a looser network of ‘New Right’ ideas. This ‘New Right’, as the Federal Agency for Civic Education says, is linked by ideas similar to the conservative anti-republican thinkers of the Weimar Republic, although there are many ideological differences between various thinkers. “What the New Right has in common is that it advocates a spiritual overcoming of the democratic constitutional state. For this, terms such as “fight for the minds”, “cultural revolution from the right” or “metapolitics” are chosen. This means the following basic assumption: an intellectual change must precede a political change.”

New Right thinking is supported by a range of media outlets and institutes. For example, Sezession, founded by  Götz Kubitschek, and which is published by the Institute for State Policy in Thuringia aims to increase the intellectual influence of the right. The Institute for State Policy is a private New Right think tank (which also has connections to far-right populists, the Alternative for Germany) which in April was classified by the BfV as a suspected case. The BfV said that there are “indications for efforts against the free democratic basic order” and links between the Institute and the right-wing of the AfD and other right-wing extremists were given as reasons.

Also classified as right-extreme by the BfV are the Identitarians,  a new right European-wide movement of  nationalist right-wing extremists who are against globalisation and fear the eradication  of European national and cultural identities. The BfV head Thomas Haldenwang said, “We must not only focus on those extremists with violent tendencies, but also keep an eye on those people who stoke fire with words.”

The Identitarian slogan is the “Great Replacement”, by which they mean opposition to the alleged replacement of the national population with migrants and refugees, as well as opposition to Islam and Muslims in their own country. The most important figure is Martin Sellner from Vienna, who propagates his ideas in the “Greater German” context and is inspired by the anti-democratic conservative revolution from the Weimar period. Sellner has argued against the “wounding” of  identity by the “world citizen” of boundless globalization and has declared he wants to enforce a “cultural hegemony against the totalitarianism of today’s politics and society.”

Extremism on the streets

Even before the admission of large numbers of refugees in 2015/16, a group called Pegida (Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes – Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West)  had started to organise regular demonstrations in Dresden against the ruling political elite. Pegida systematically unleashed hostilities against refugees and migrants. The world view of Pegida followers consists of a distorted perception of an imminent or ongoing takeover of Germany and Europe by Islam, of which refugees are considered the main tool. It is therefore necessary, they argue, to take action against refugees – a concept that relates to the Identitarian idea of the ‘Great Replacement’. Pegida mobilized between 5,000 and 15,000 people in Dresden as well as in other German cities. Leader Lutz Bachmann, who has been convicted of inciting racial hatred, spoke at the rallies, as did other well-known figures from the right-wing scene.

In the summer of 2018, xenophobic groups, hooligans and neo-Nazis shocked the world with violent anti-foreigner street protests in the east German towns of Chemnitz and Köthen. Demonstrators chanted racist slogans, gave Nazi salutes and reportedly ‘hunted’ foreigners in the streets. Pegida supporters were prominent in these protests – and for the first time, these thuggish protesters were publicly associated with another significant link to the far-right – the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Extremism in parliaments: the AfD

The influence of right-extremist thinking can also be seen at the very centre of Germany’s democracy: the Alternative for Germany, which was elected to parliament as Germany’s third largest party in 2017 and which also has seats in all of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, has a powerful extremist grouping within it and has been accused of bearing responsibility for right-extremist violence. Following the Hanau shootings, SPD Chairman Rolf Mützenich labelled the attack “racist, right-wing terrorism,” and accused the AfD of being complicit. He quoted speeches by Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland, AfD parliamentary leaders, in which they used racist language and diminished the Holocaust: “You have prepared the ground. You are guilty.”

This is not the first time the AfD has been accused of being complicit in right-wing terrorism. In the aftermath of Lübcke’s murder, the CDU’s general secretary, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said that hatred and hate speech “as practised by the AfD and AfD leaders, lower inhibitions so that they evidently turn into pure violence.” After the Halle synagogue attack, a Social Democratic Party (SPD) politician went further. He argued that “the political arm of right-wing terrorism is sitting in the German Bundestag and in the state parliaments. And that is the AfD.”

The AfD is a party struggling with its own identity. It is made up of extremist elements – until recently embodied in the nationalist wing, the Flügel – and more moderate right-populist elements represented by the Alternative Mitte, a set of regional groupings set up in response to the Flügel. As the Spiegel commented, “One could say the AfD is a colorful party, but with a brown streak. It attracts classical conservatives and neoliberals as well as ethnonationalist “völkisch” ideologists, extremists and conspiracy theorists. A majority of party members may still dream of a more moderate-conservative Alternative for Germany, but at the fringe, especially in the east, the party is increasingly melding with extremist elements, and this process is in part being tolerated – and at times promoted – at the highest levels of the party.”

In March 2020, after long-running accusations of extremism, both Björn Höcke, leader of the AfD in Thuringia and Andreas Kalbitz, leader in Brandeburg, were labelled right-extreme by Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV).  The head of the BfV, Thomas Haldenwang, announced that Höcke’s nationalist wing of the party, the Flügel, had been put under observation, paving the way for surveillance by security services.   The Flügel had at that time around 7,000 members – 20% of the AfD membership – and even before the BfV announcement in March, it had already been classified as a ‘suspected case’ of right-wing extremism by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which analyzed the “ethno-nationalist ideology” of Höcke, Kalbitz and their  colleagues.  

A few days after the BfV ruling, a video of Höcke making a joke about Auschwitz emerged.  In the face of the bad publicity received from this and the BfV ruling, a party executive agreed that the Flügel should be disbanded.  Höcke moved to pre-empt party action and announced that the Flügel had been ‘historicised’. However, there are serious doubts that this is anything more than a cosmetic exercise: Thuringia’s head of the BfV, Stephan Kramer, for example argued  that the dissolution of the wing was “a chess move.”  In May, the party executive – despite massive criticism from party members – saw no reason for disciplinary measures against Höcke for his Auschwitz joke. Instead, the party’s federal executive board voted against by 10 to 2 votes. Kramer said after that that the announcements that the Flügel was being dissolved were “a deliberate tactical ‘fog candle'” and that “Numerous protagonists of the wing continue to exert great influence within the AfD – regardless of organisational form.”

In May, civil war between the factions in the party erupted after it emerged that Andreas Kalbitz, had been investigated by the party for his links to a banned neo-Nazi organisation, the Heimattreue Deutsche Jugend (HDJ). Following the release of that information, it was reported that the regional party in Brandenburg could be classified as a suspected case of extremism by the BfV and Kalbitz was thrown out of the party. Björn Höcke announced that he would “not allow” the split and destruction of the AfD and accused party leader Jörg Meuthen and party vice chair Beatrix von Storch of “betraying the party“. Kalbitz’s Brandenburg party announced it wanted to keep him as leader and the parliamentary faction in Brandenburg voted by 18 – 2 with 1 abstension to keep him as a member of the parliamentary group, even though he had been expelled from the national party. The two national leaders, Jorg Meuthen and Tino Chrupulla were also at loggerheads, with Meuthen supporting the expulsion and Chrupulla criticising it. The fight for the soul of the party is yet to be won.

Right-populism and right-extremism at the centre of German society

Parties and movements representing right populist and extremist attitudes have not appeared in isolation – these opinions are now rooted firmly in the centre of German society.

Long before the rise of the AfD, a ten-year study for the University of Bielefeld by Wilhelm Heitmeyer, ‘Deutsche Zustände’ – ‘The German State of Affairs’ – which tracked attitudes across Germany between 2002 and 2011, revealed disturbing attitudes lurking beneath the surface. The study identified a ‘drain’ of, or loss of confidence in, democracy; feelings of powerlessness; increasing depreciation of groups seen as ‘useless’ or ‘inefficient’, such as welfare recipients; and an increase in anti-Muslim prejudice and anti-Semitism. These attitudes created the perfect conditions for the mobilisation of right-wing populists. Heitmeyer has argued that such thinking became more widespread with a series of crises – including 9/11, the 2003 Hartz IV welfare reforms  and the 2008 global financial crash – but did not have electoral expression before the rise of the AfD: “The attitude patterns that led to this authoritarian national-radicalism, even before PEGIDA and before the AfD … had no political home until 2014 or 2015.” 

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s ‘Mitte Studie’ (‘Centre Study’), has been examining whether the democratic centre has been shrinking since 2006. The Centre Study started to pick up extreme polarisation of opinions, deep divisions in society and ‘new right’ attitudes for the first time in 2016. The 2018–2019 study, Lost Middle, began with a stark warning: right-extremist, populist and anti-democratic opinions are now deeply rooted in the political centre in Germany. The study found that one in five respondents had a clear tendency to right-wing populist attitudes and 42% had some tendency. Although levels of open support for right-extremism are low across the country, themes characteristic of right-extremism – such as social Darwinism, authoritarianism, hostility to foreigners, and national chauvinism – win wider approval.

The Leipzig Authoritarianism Study, which has examined right-extremist attitudes in Germany since 2002, confirmed these trends. Its 2018 report ‘Flucht ins Autoritäre’ – ‘Flight into the authoritarian’ found that, “Right-wing extremist attitudes are pervasive in German society.”  The report measured ‘manifest’ opinions (open agreement to statements) as well as ‘latent’ opinions (for example, where a respondent partly agreed to a statement). Nearly 20% of those questioned agreed that there should be ‘one strong party’ in Germany, and 11% (with over 20% latent agreement in the east) that there should be a leader who rules with a strong hand. While overall agreement that a dictatorship would be the best form of government was low, 13.1% in the east agreed, with a further 26% showing a latent tendency. These results show substantial tendencies towards support for authoritarianism, especially in the east. 

Support for patriotism and an assertive German foreign policy was high across the country. Over 35% (nearly 45% in the east) agreed that Germany is becoming ‘too foreign’. Anti-Semitism was high, with over 20% having a latent tendency to agree both that Jewish people have too much influence and that there was ‘something different’ about them, and so they do not ‘fit in’. Over 19% of respondents in the west and over 30% in the east ‘partly agreed’ that ‘stronger people in society should, like in nature, assert themselves’, showing a latent tendency to social Darwinism. Nearly one in ten agreed that Hitler would today be seen ‘a great statesman, if one leaves aside the Holocaust’, with a further 18% partly agreeing with this. While there was strong support for the idea of democracy, and democracy as set out in the German constitution, ‘almost half (just over 46%) indicated that they were not content with the functioning of democracy in Germany’. Anti-Muslim sentiments have been rising since 2014: in 2018, 44.1% agreed that Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate into Germany (50.7% in the east) and 55.8% that they sometimes felt that they lived in a foreign country because there were so many Muslims in Germany.

Shift in the right-extreme political landscape

The FES Centre Study noted that, “The emergence of right-wing populism and the emergence of new right-wing social movements have led to a restructuring of the right-wing extremist spectrum. For a long time right-wing extremist forms of expression had been perceived as marginal social phenomena in the Federal Republic……Along with the increasing real political influence of the AfD, ideological features of right-wing extremism increasingly moved in the middle of the public discourse.”

The Study found that the success of the AfD has led to shifts in the political landscape: right-extreme parties such as the NPD and REPublikaner have lost influence, and right populist parties such as Die Frieheit and the right extremist party Pro Deutschland have disbanded so as not to split the AfD vote. The study further noted that there has been a radicalisation of conservatism (the erosion of the border between conservatism and right-extremism).

‘Flucht ins Autoritäre’ also noted that the AfD has profited from these underlying right-extremist opinions in society, arguing that where the NPD had previously failed to profit, the AfD has succeeded: people with any extreme-right opinions, who previously voted CDU or SPD, have found a political home in the AfD. 

Where next ?

The recent demonstrations against the corona restrictions and rise in conspiracy theories about the virus demonstrate the need to tackle this problem at all levels of society all too clearly. The action the government is taking gives rise to hope that the democratic establishment – and the democratic majority in Germany – can overcome this problem. The work of the new cabinet committee has won the support of all the major parties, except, not surprisingly, the AfD. Following the cabinet committee’s first meeting, Horst Seehofer announced that by the autumn, concrete measures against right-wing extremism are to be developed and legislation brought forward.

The pressure on the committee is enormous. Many in the media have questioned whether it is more than as symbol: it must show that it has teeth and is willing to implement serious change. As Deutschlandfunk put it, the government has “understood that combating right-wing extremism is not just one of many issues, but one that needs special attention, one that is important for the future of our democracy, which is crucial for the cohesion of society……Politicians and authorities have clearly continued to underestimate right-wing extremism and the danger it poses for a long time……. The committee that has now been set up must soon deliver results.”

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