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Did Germany drop the ball on right-wing extremism?

Over the last years we are hearing more and more about how many Germans espousing right-wing extreme ideas. German military in particular is concerned.

Germany will have to wear the stain of Nazism for a long time: is the ideology that spawned that movement on the upswing and are German security services on the ball?

This contribution was published in Homeland Security Today on March 30, 2020

OTTAWA — It is interesting how Germany’s reputation on the world stage has ebbed and flowed over the past century. That nation was of course the one that started not one, but two, world wars that led to the deaths of tens of millions. In the wake of the end of WWII, however, Germany has transformed into a stalwart member of the Western alliance and an economic powerhouse.

Still, we would not have had the evil of Nazism without Germany. And while that hateful ideology was ‘defeated’ in 1945 it has alas not disappeared totally. We now speak of ‘neo-Nazi’ individuals and movements not only in Germany proper but around the world.

Over the last few years we are hearing more and more about how many Germans espouse these ideas. There are reports that the German military in particular is concerned: the head of the military intelligence service confirmed in January that 550 new investigations into soldiers with extremist right-wing leanings were underway, with the elite special forces unit as a ‘hotbed’.

These figures are alarming and beg the question: how did it get this bad? After all, which nation is in a better position to detect this type of violent extremism?

It gets worse. The government has said that there are over 32,000 right-wing extremists in the country, over 1,000 of whom are considered to be ‘primed for violence’. Even political parties may be infiltrated: the domestic security service BfV has begun monitoring some members of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) right-wing group. Last week the government banned two clubs linked to an anti-Semitic movement that refuses to recognize the modern German state.

These figures are alarming and beg the question: how did it get this bad? After all, which nation is in a better position to detect this type of violent extremism? If was after all the official line of the state in the 1930s and 1940s. Have Germany’s law enforcement and security intelligence services been ‘asleep at the switch’?

Not necessarily.

Lest we forget, the mastermind of 9/11, Mohamad Atta, spent time in Hamburg where he created a cell which played a critical role in that horrendous attack. In addition, there have been several Islamist extremist attacks in Germany since that time: Berlin truck attack (2016), Hamburg knife attack (2017) and many smaller ones. So no, the Islamist extremism threat has not vanished.

The government has said that there are over 32,000 right-wing extremists in the country, over 1,000 of whom are considered to be ‘primed for violence’.

Far-right terror: biggest threat to our democracy right now?

Is it thus accurate to state, as the Justice Minister did in the wake of the Hanau shootings last month, that “far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now”? I am in no position to question the Minister as he knows his nation much better than I ever will.

But it is important to remember that Germany, like virtually every other Western nation, faces violent extremist threats from multiple directions simultaneously. The services tasked with monitoring these threats, and preventing acts from succeeding, are only as good as their last failure. Foiled plots don’t get nearly as much attention as ones that lead to death and injury. Publics are unforgiving when their protectors don’t do what we ask them to do.

There is no question that neo-Nazism and other forms of far right violent extremism are of significant concern to Germany and will continue to be so for the indefinite future. Things may actually get much worse, demanding more attention from agencies such as the BfV. But that organisation and others have to juggle many tasks without letting any one fall. It is best to keep that in perspective.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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