The latest figures from the German government show a worrying increase in far-right violence in the country. Days after the government announced dramatic steps to combat far-right extremism in its military, far-right death threats originating in the police force were sent to a left-wing politician. After downplaying and ignoring the scale of the neo-fascist threat for years, the German government should take far more seriously the threat of far-right extremism pervading the German state and society.
Duroyan Fertl is a political analyst and a former Political Advisor for Sinn Féin and GUE/NGL in the European Parliament. His blog is Hintadupfing
This is a shortened version that originally appeared on Duroyan’s blog
You can read Part 2 here
On July 9th, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), released its annual report on domestic extremism. The report showed that far-right extremism had sharply increased in 2019 – the BfV identifying 32,080 extremists, up from 24,100 the year before – and identifying 13,000 of them as prepared to use violence. Presenting the report, conservative German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer declared that right-wing extremism now poses the biggest threat to security in Germany, and reserving special criticism for the Reichsbürger, or “Reich Citizens’” movement, which denies the legitimacy of the modern-day German government. This marks a clear departure from previous years, where the burgeoning far-right threat has been largely ignored and emphasis placed instead on the supposed danger of islamism and “left-wing extremism”.
Another major shift in emphasis came on June 30th, mere hours before Germany assuming the rotating presidency of the European Council. German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced the drastic overhaul of the country’s elite military special forces, the KSK, because of its 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. 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 working group investigating the KSK presented its findings shortly before the government made its announcement – besides the disturbing conclusions about KSK soldiers, it also noted with concern the disappearance of some 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 62 kilograms of explosives from the KSK’s arsenal.
Such a decisive move against the KSK was long overdue – extremism in the 1,400-strong commando force has been a problem for years. In 2017, a KSK farewell party was investigated after attendees played far-right rock music while giving Nazi salutes (a criminal offence). In May this year, a trove of Nazi memorabilia and literature, several thousand rounds of ammunition and two kilograms of explosives was discovered on the property of a KSK officer in Saxony. A KSK whistleblower recently revealed an internal culture where right-wing extremism was “ignored or completely tolerated”, and where one of his instructors used the code “Y-88” – a commonly-used code for the Nazi salute – as a “call sign” in radio communications. In 2003, KSK commander Reinhard Günzel was dismissed for supporting the anti-Semitic statements of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Martin Hohmann. Hohmann was expelled from the CDU, but is now a federal MP for the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD), while Günzel quickly became a popular speaker at neo-Nazi events.
The links between the Bundeswehr – the German military – and the far-right extend beyond the KSK. In 2017, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the right-wing extremist Identitarian Movement had been growing for years at the Bundeswehr’s university in Munich, and Nazi memorabilia has been found in German army barracks on several occasions. Then-Defence Minister (now President of the European Commission) Ursula von der Leyen responded to these revelations by demanding a thorough overhaul of the German military, including purging any memorabilia or other links with the Nazi-era Wehrmacht and ordering military bases named after World War Two soldiers to be renamed. The same year, a soldier, Franco Albrecht, was revealed living a double life as a Syrian refugee and planning to carry out “false flag” attacks on politicians or refugee rights advocates. Ammunition, military equipment and Nazi paraphernalia were found in his residence, several accomplices were arrested and a larger network revealed, but the military only gave him a warning. Last November, the German courts initiated proceedings against him for “preparing a serious, state-damaging act of violence”.
The Day X Murder Lists
In recent years, numerous far-right networks have been revealed across Germany, involving active and reservist soldiers and “kill lists” featuring prominent politicians of the centre and left. In 2017, Federal Criminal Police raids in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern revealed the existence of the Nordkreuz (“Northern Cross”) network. At first considered a “prepper” network, “Nordkreuz” possessed significant amounts of ammunition and firearms (one member 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, and several members of an elite police commando unit were linked to the network.
The “Nordkreuz” network had plans to murder several prominent politicians, and carry out attacks across Germany on an unspecified “Day X”. They 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. The group also had a longer list of names and addresses of some 25,000 left-wing “enemies”, using data taken from police computers. The same list was later found in the possession of Saxony terror group “Revolution Chemnitz”, and was distributed in an email to party members by AfD state MP Heiner Merz, who encouraged them to target named individuals, saying “there are few limits to your imagination”.
As evidence piled up, fears grew of a “shadow army” within the German military. In January this year, the military counter-intelligence agency, MAD, announced that 550 active soldiers were under investigation for right-wing extremism, including 20 in the KSK. A 2019 working group between the MAD and domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, investigated more than a thousand cases of extremism, and excluded around 800 army reservists because of their “anti-constitutional attitude”. The MAD itself was subjected to a parliamentary investigation in 2017, however, and in February 2019 admitted that it had consistently under-reported the numbers of right-wing extremist soldiers and misled the Bundestag. There are deeper fears that the MAD has been infiltrated. In June, a senior investigator was suspended for tipping off KSK members about a raid, while in 2018, another senior officer faced charges of alerting KSK soldiers to a raid in connection with the Franco Albrecht case. He is believed to have warned the KSK trainer, André Schmitt – himself a long-term MAD source. Nonetheless, the MAD continued to assert that it had checked, and no “shadow army” existed.
Hannibal’s Secret Army
In late 2018, investigations by the newspaper taz and Focus magazine revealed evidence of an extensive right-wing network, connected to, but larger than, “Nordkreuz”. This “underground army” was dubbed the “Hannibal network”, after the codename of its chat group administrator – the KSK trainer, André Schmitt. The network was divided into regional groupings across Germany (West, South, East and North) mirroring Bundeswehr structures, with further branches in Austria and Switzerland. Like “Nordkreuz”, the Hannibal network made preparations for an anticipated societal breakdown on “Day X”, organising weapons depots and safe-houses, and undertaking paramilitary training. Members of the network were also preparing for a military coup and for the mass killings of left-wing politicians and other “enemies”.
Numbering around 200 individuals, the Hannibal network included active soldiers, reservists, police officers (including police commandos), lawyers, judges, firefighters, civil servants and members of the German intelligence authorities. A notably high number of members of the Hannibal network were parachutists, and the parachutist training centre at Altenstadt Air Base had been infamous in the 1990s for celebrating Hitler’s birthday and singing Nazi songs. The commander, Fritz Zwicknagl, had been removed but went on to work for the AfD in the Bundestag. Another far-right instructor at Altenstadt, Andreas Kalbitz, remained there until 2005. He later became a co-leader of the AfD’s extremist faction, Der Flügel (“The Wing”), and sat on the party’s national executive from 2017 until 2020. He was narrowly removed in May this year for “technical reasons” when his associations with the far-right became public, but despite attempts to remove him from the party, he retains significant support and his membership status remains unclear.
The soldier (and fake refugee) Franco Albrecht 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 the links between far-right networks and the military, Schmitt closed his “Hannibal” chat groups, and shifted his focus to the conspiratorial “Uniter” grouping. Schmitt had first founded “Uniter” during 2012, however the tiny grouping soon dissolved following an internal disagreement, leading Schmitt to found the Hannibal network on the social media app Telegram in 2015. In 2016, however, Schmitt had re-founded “Uniter” with much the same structure as “Hannibal”. 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.
“Uniter” has been found to have extensive support among the more right-wing members of the CDU in the former East Germany, and in 2018 Schmitt insinuated to taz journalists that he had support within military intelligence itself. Raids on houses of “Uniter” members have turned up numerous military items, and footage has been obtained of Uniter conducting illegal paramilitary exercises in southern Germany in June 2018. Schmitt himself has been charged for illegal possession of military items, including practice grenades taken from Bundeswehr reserves. In late 2019, when “Uniter” was stripped of its non-profit status, it moved its base of operations to Switzerland, and in June this year the BfV finally confirmed that “Uniter” was in its sights, as there was “sufficiently significant actual indications” for the existence of right-wing extremism in the organisation.
Nazis in the Bundeswehr
From these investigations alone – and there have been others – it is clear that the problem of far-right terror networks in and around the German military has been known for some time. However the official response has largely remained muted, while official rhetoric about the threat of islamism and “left-wing violence” has provided a dangerous echo-chamber to the language of the extremists. There have also been attempts to explain the apparent uptick in cases of far-right extremism in the military by pointing to Germany’s abolition of compulsory military service in 2011, and calling for its reintroduction. With the elimination of conscription, or so the argument goes, the section of German society entering the military narrowed and became self-selecting, leading to a larger proportion of far-right recruits.
The truth is that the Bundeswehr has, since its creation in 1955, struggled with its image as a refuge for both historical and new extremists. In the late 1950s, the Bundeswehr hired 300 officers from the Waffen-SS to fill its ranks, and more than 12,000 former Wehrmacht officers were soon serving in the Bundeswehr – including over 40 Nazi-era generals. A key architect of the Bundeswehr, Hans Speidel, was a self-confessed Mussolini-style fascist who 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. The site chosen for the launch of the Bundeswehr in 1955 was a military base in Augustdorf named after Rommel – known as “Hitler’s favorite general”. Until the middle of the 1990s, Germany still 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 Defence Minister Franz-Josef Strauß in the 1960s. While many bases have now been renamed, the Augustdorf base still bears Rommel’s name to this day, as does another in Dornstadt.
In 2014, secret papers from Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND, revealed that 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 “left-wing influence” and a potential Soviet invasion. The organisation also carried out surveillance on left-wing politicians, provided intelligence services with black-lists of left-leaning individuals, and – in at least one case – profiled a police officer as a “Halbjude” (“half-jew”). 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. The documents also indicate that both Speidel and Heusinger were aware of the secret army’s existence at the time, and it is believed that many of those involved in the “Schnez-Truppe” were integrated into the new Bundeswehr when it was formed. Speidel himself went on to become the NATO Supreme Commander of the Allied Army in Central Europe in 1957.
You can read Part 2 here