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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Germany Cracks Down on Far-Right with Raids as Hate Crimes Surge

In response to the increasing number of politically motivated hate crimes and the rise of modern far-right extremists, Germany’s security services are intensifying their efforts to monitor and counter this threat.

This heightened focus on the issue was demonstrated earlier this week when the country’s domestic intelligence service labeled the youth wing of the largest far-right party in Germany as a dangerous extremist group.

Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz in Germany specializing in far-right extremism, has observed a significant increase in the seriousness with which authorities are addressing this issue in recent years.

“Politicians and the security apparatus have underestimated or downplayed the scale of the problem for decades. Thankfully, this began to change even under the last administration,” he said.

A small yet potentially dangerous faction of far-right Reichsbürger extremists is currently under investigation for an alleged plot to overthrow the German government and install an obscure hereditary prince, driven by a combination of right-wing conspiracy theories. Multiple criminal investigations are ongoing regarding this matter.

The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence service, has classified the youth wing of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as extremist.

The AfD, initially established as a more conventional party critical of the European Union and integration, has now become firmly entrenched in the German political landscape.

According to a recent opinion poll by German public broadcaster ZDF, the AfD holds a 17% share of the national vote, positioning it as the third-largest party in the country.

Experts on German far-right extremism caution that the rise of the far-right is both genuine and perilous. There are allegations of former military personnel and active police officers, who have access to firearms, being involved in conspiratorial plots.

Moreover, the AfD’s increasing popularity has reshaped political discourse and compelled centrist parties to adopt more right-leaning positions.

The rise of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party coincided with the 2015 refugee crisis, during which Chancellor Angela Merkel extended an invitation for hundreds of thousands of migrants, primarily fleeing the civil war in Syria, to settle in Germany.

With over a million migrants arriving, anti-immigrant sentiment surged not only in Germany but also across Europe.

The AfD’s youth wing, known as the Young Alternative for Germany (JA), consisting of members as young as 14, has become the first German group to be labeled as an extremist since the Nazi era.

BfV President Thomas Haldenwang recently described its members as “arsonists and cue-givers of hate.” In 2021, the entire AfD party came under official surveillance by the domestic intelligence service.

The AfD may choose to challenge the extremism classification in court. Despite its “well-documented” connections to even more radical far-right activities, the party still garners enough national support to be considered by some as a mainstream and respectable political party, as highlighted by Professor Kai Arzheimer.

“The AfD is the strongest party in some regions in the east and commands very respectable levels of support nationally. Their sizable delegations in the Bundestag, European Parliament, and most state parliaments give them legal protection but also access to funds and the media so that their position is quite entrenched.”

In the former East Germany, which reunited with the West in 1991, the AfD enjoys the support of approximately a quarter of voters, often making it the strongest party in eastern regions.

According to a survey conducted by the Bertelsmann Foundation ahead of the 2021 federal elections in Germany, just under 8% of German voters were found to have “manifest right-wing extremist attitudes.” However, this figure was nearly four times higher among AfD supporters.

The AfD denies fostering extremist views, and both the party and its youth wing, the Young Alternative, did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

In a statement posted on the party’s website, co-leaders Tino Chrupalla, and Alice Weidel stated that there is no progressive radicalization within the AfD and criticized the BfV’s decision to classify the youth wing as extremist as an “outrageous action.”

The rise of right-wing sentiment is evident throughout German society. Last year, out of almost 60,000 politically motivated crimes recorded by German police, including antisemitic crimes and those targeting asylum-seekers, 41% were committed by far-right extremists.

Officials reported a 10% increase in recorded hate crimes compared to the previous year, with three-quarters of them influenced by far-right ideology.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser announced the urgent proposal for new, stricter gun laws in response to the revealed figures.

According to a survey conducted by the German Center for Integration and Migration Research, a state-backed think tank, 79% of respondents believed that German democracy was more at risk today than it was five years ago.

On Tuesday, Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office announced the detention of three additional suspects believed to be far-right anti-democracy extremists linked to the Reichsbürger movement.

This movement is accused of planning to overthrow the government. The statement from the prosecutor’s office indicated that the three individuals are suspected of being members of a terrorist organization.

In a previous operation in December, 25 individuals associated with the group were arrested, and the operation involved 3,000 officers who seized firearms, ammunition, and detailed plans.

While it is widely believed that the group is unlikely to achieve its goal, experts emphasize that it poses a significant danger.

“There was a high likelihood of loss of life.  With more and more of these groups, we see that they are members of the military or are ex-military or ex-police,” said Miro Dittrich, an expert at CeMAS, a German group that monitors right-wing extremism.

As with much far-right across Europe, another catalyst for the movement was resistance to pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.

“A lot of people joined this movement and they said people would rise up, but it never led to anything,” Dittrich said.

“So the inner core of the group believes there is a plan, a conspiracy to terminate Germans and it is war and it’s legitimate to use violence in a crisis moment.”

According to Vicente Valentim, a political scientist at the University of Oxford who specializes in the study of how politics influences social norms, the rise of Germany’s far-right has brought about a significant but often overlooked impact on mainstream parties.

He points to a gradual shift to the right in both the language used and the political stances taken by these mainstream parties.

“So a part of this increase is not people becoming more extremist, it’s that people who already had these views are more likely to talk about them in public. It gives voters a cue that there are others who share their views, that they are acceptable,” he said.

Valentim further argues that over the past decade, there has been a tangible shift in voting patterns and public attitudes.

However, he emphasizes that the equally significant factor contributing to the rise of the far right is the increased confidence and assertiveness of those who were already opposed to migration and concerned about radical Islam.

This shift has had a notable impact on the center-right political parties, leading them to adjust their positions and policies in response to the changing landscape of public opinion.

“It also has affected how other politicians speak — the center right takes on some of the rhetoric of the far right. It’s a very strong mechanism for changing social norms. We have quite a lot of evidence that once the far right became successful, the remaining parties got closer to their views on migration,” he said.

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