On the 12th of December, Austrian police announced the discovery of a massive cache of illegal weapons and explosives – one of the largest such finds in decades.
A series of police raids unearthed 76 automatic and semi-automatic rifles, over 100,000 rounds of ammunition, six hand grenades, 25 machine guns and assault rifle ammunition and other explosive materials. The weapons included Uzi submachine guns and AK-47s, easily capable of inflicting massive casualties. Seven people were arrested across Austria and Germany during these raids.
According to the Vienna Prosecutions office, the weapons were intended for the right-wing extremist scene in Germany, most likely for the purpose of establishing “a far-right militia.”
Unfortunately, this incident is far from isolated. Last Friday, Süddeutsche Zeitung reported the discovery of another right-wing network smuggling firearms out of Croatia, which had allegedly distributed weapons throughout the far-right scene around Munich. In October, police in Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria discovered stockpiles of weapons, ammunition and objects bearing Nazi symbols across 17 locations. In September, police located further stockpiles of weapons and Nazi memorabilia in a series of raids throughout the state of Hessen. In North Rhine-Westphalia, a series of raids between March 2019 and June 2020 revealed stockpiles of weapons and explosives at the homes of 26 right-wing extremists.
These discoveries may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Far-right extremists in Germany are arming themselves to the teeth, a development which has only accelerated in the last two years. At the same time, scholars and think tanks alike warn of an increasingly global pattern of right-wing terror attacks: according to the Institute for Economics and Peace, far-right terror incidents have increased by 320% in the last five years. Political scientist Vincent Auger has warned that far-right terrorism now constitutes a global “fifth wave” of terrorism, in many places now exceeding the jihadist/religious terrorism wave by threat level and body count.
Neo-Nazi violence has been common in Germany since reunification in the 1990s, especially in the former East German states, but the threat of major right-wing terrorism has escalated exponentially in the last two years across all of Germany. In June 2019, Walter Lübcke, a local politician in Kassel who had supported Merkel’s open policy towards asylum seekers, was murdered by a right wing extremist. This was the first assassination of a German politician since WWII. In October 2019, a neo-Nazi killed two people and injured two others after a failed attempt to storm a synagogue during a Yom Kippur service in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt. There is little doubt that, had the perpetrator been able to enter the synagogue, he intended to commit a Christchurch-style massacre. In February this year, a far-right extremist murdered nine people with migrant backgrounds in a shooting spree at two shisha bars in Hanau, in the state of Hesse.
In the wake of the Hanau shootings, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declared that right-wing violence was “the biggest threat faced by Germany today.” According to the Verfassungsschutz (domestic intelligence service) in late 2019 there were approximately 32,000 right-wing extremists in Germany, of whom around 13,000 are deemed ‘militant,’ or ready to use violence.
Considering these indicators, it is presumably only a matter of time until another major, and deadly, attack.
Standing in their path are the efforts of both civil society and public security services. Civil society organisations, including both well-funded NGOs and much more informal networks, contribute enormously to monitoring and reporting on the activities of far-right networks throughout Germany.
Actual interception of planned attacks, however, depends on German police and security services.
Doubts have often been raised about the integrity of German police and intelligence services when it comes to fighting right-wing violence. The case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) brought these concerns into the spotlight in 2011.
The NSU was a neo-Nazi network responsible for a series of bombings, bank robberies and at least ten murders from 1998 to 2011. While the NSU was murdering people with migrant backgrounds across Germany, police chose to focus on investigating the victims’ families, wasting years searching for non-existent links to a rumoured “Turkish mafia” or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). It took over 11 years for German police to identify the NSU network and initiate proceedings against them.
The NSU trial also revealed that the far-right networks had been receiving material support from Germany’s domestic intelligence services for years. From the 90s, the Verfassungsschutz cultivated a network of informants within the far-right scene, whom it paid generously. These informants invested the money received from the Verfassungsschutz back into their far-right operations, and were allegedly warned about home-searches and police raids throughout the years that the NSU were active. Questions have been repeatedly raised about whether these informants told the Verfassungsschutz that the murders were being committed by members of the far-right scene (according to Die Zeit, informants told the Verfassungsschutz about the NSU as early as 2003); and, if so, why police neglected to act on this information.
Disturbingly, within a week of the NSU network being discovered by police in November 2011, the intelligence files of seven informants within the neo-Nazi scene were destroyed by Verfassungsschutz officers. Among them was the file on Michael See, who was connected to the NSU and had been asked to help hide the core members when they first went underground. To this day, German security services have never provided a convincing explanation of why those files were destroyed, even while fronting a parliamentary inquiry.
2020 has seen an alarming series of incidents implicating German security forces in far-right networks. In October it was revealed that over 1,400 reports have been filed with the Verfassungsschutz in recent years about soldiers, police and intelligence officers with right-wing extremist views or network affiliations. In September, 29 police were suspended in North Rhine-Westphalia after they were found to be swapping neo-Nazi images in a series of WhatsApp groups, including a photoshopped image of a refugee in a gas chamber. Similar stories emerge on an almost monthly basis.
The proven presence of far-right networks within the police gives credence to concerns that neo-Nazi terrorists may slip through the cracks of the state security apparatus. As German right-wing extremists continue to arm themselves, their capacity for violence is already much deadlier than it was in the 90s and early 2000s. This threat requires a strong response from the state, which may or may not always be reliable. Maintaining effective monitoring of far-right networks by civil society, therefore, is essential in outsmarting, countering and exposing the far-right.