Countless pictures of Hitler and swastika propaganda. A refugee photoshopped into historic pictures of concentration camp gas chambers. A Black man being gunned down. These horrific images were circulated in chat groups by police officers in departments across the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. These revelations would be enough to shock any nation, but it was just one case among hundreds this year, following similar reports of racist and far-right activity inside police departments in Berlin, Hesse, and more recently Saxony-Anhalt. It matters little that 25 Berlin officers and another 29 officers in Hesse were suspended or fired. The moment of shock has passed. As the Venn diagram of policing and racism in Germany persists, virtually unabated, a newfound societal distrust of policing is spreading.
The chat groups themselves reveal just one part of an expanding tapestry of recent far-right activity in Germany. In June 2019, a politician was assassinated in his home in Kassel for his pro-refugee agenda. That October, a shooter inspired by the Christchurch massacre attacked a synagogue in Halle, ultimately killing two people. Several months later, in February 2020, a mass shooting targeted immigrants and people of immigrant descent in Hanau, leaving 11 dead, including the shooter. These events forced German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in early 2020, to overcome a cultural reticence about naming racism directly—many German leaders prefer meandering debates about xenophobia instead—and to publicly condemn its rise.
Germany’s recent uptick in far-right activity mirrors global trends, as the volatile mix of White nationalism and right-wing populism, further exacerbated by authoritarian policing, has had devastating impacts on society. In Europe, this trend traces back to 2001, when the U.S. War on Terror laid the foundation for an era of mass migration—and subsequent Islamophobia—that still animates developments today. European anti-Muslim sentiments peaked again in 2015, as migration increased from the Middle East and Africa. Much like in the U.S., anti-immigrant policies and inflammatory rhetoric from politicians has not only emboldened far-right activity in Europe, but also normalized racist backlash in all parts of society, including attacks by everyday citizens against those they perceive to have immigrant backgrounds.
In 2015, the German government promised to curb the rise of far-right backlash to migration, even though organized campaigns against immigrants were, by this time, decades old. That general effort would later implicate the structures of policing and the German military, showing the dangerous limits to that promise. Despite the release of a package of federal initiatives to combat “right wing extremism” this November, it has become increasingly clear that, when it comes to policing in Germany, meaningful government interventions against racism are few and far between.
In October 2020, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency released a report on more than 1,400 cases in which members of the German security forces—police, military, and secret services—took part in right-wing “extremist” actions, “posing significant danger for the state and for society.” Of those, 377 cases occurred within police and civilian law enforcement agencies since January 2017.
One particularly alarming case began in 2018, when death threats were sent out with the signature “NSU 2.0”: a seeming reference to the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a far-right terrorist network responsible for a killing spree targeting migrant communities from 2000 to 2007 that involved planting bombs that injured more than 20 people, and robbing 15 banks. After initially going underground, a leader of the NSU turned herself in in 2011. The group had killed eight people with Turkish backgrounds, one Greek immigrant, and one German.
The first person to receive a NSU 2.0 threat was Seda Basay-Yildiz, a prominent lawyer representing the family of the first victim in the trial against the NSU, which took place in Munich. Since 2018, more than 28 people have received around 100 threats, including left-wing politicians, feminist activists, and artists. When investigations began in July 2020, there were already allegations pointing to some level of police involvement. By September, the allegations seemed to be corroborated, and then some: before each threat was sent, the recipient’s data had been searched on police databases in Berlin and Hamburg. Four police officers are currently under investigation.
The German military, or Bundeswehr, is another node of far-right activity, where more than 600 soldiers are currently under investigation for alleged “extremist ties.” Since the investigation began in 2017, Germany’s domestic intelligence service has compiled a staggering 1,069 cases of “right-wing extremist” actions by military personnel.
The investigation was sparked by the 2017 arrest of a German military lieutenant for an attempted terrorist attack. The lieutenant, Franco A., was stationed in Illkirch, where, in his free time, he frequently disguised himself as a Syrian refugee. Using a fake name with immigration authorities, Franco A. fabricated a backstory to initiate the asylum application process, during a peak moment of backlash to immigration in German society. He was arrested in the Vienna airport while attempting to retrieve a gun from a toilet and ultimately charged with terrorism. Friedrich Burschel, an expert on the German Right and neonazism at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, said that these actions suggest that he was planning to “incite an uprising of Germans who have to defend themselves against intruders” (as anti-refugee and anti-immigrant narratives term it). Later, this lieutenant was found to have extensive connections to far-right and militarized “prepper” groups—underground organizations actively preparing for violent confrontation. Journalists subsequently uncovered the extent to which Uniter—a private network of trained special service soldiers and police officers in German-speaking countries, currently under investigation for anti-constitutional activity—was part of this network.
The access to specialization that security agents offer is significant, given that the far-right networks to which they’re connected are far broader, and more amateur. “They are not typical organized Nazis or dropouts,” explained Burschel. “They are hunters and people from shooting clubs.” This point is significant: not only are far-right movements appealing to new demographics, distinct from organized Nazis, but doing so through commonplace social groups. Germany’s shooting clubs, or Schützenverein, Burschel noted, are an old and popular institution, which first began in the early 19th Century as town militias and later evolved into men’s social clubs. The national Shooting and Archery Federation currently has tens of thousands of chapters. These gun clubs in turn help foster more serious right-wing prepper groups. While Burschel was quick to note the presence of Justice Administration employees and prosecutors within today’s prepper networks, he emphasized the ubiquity of police. “In nearly every organized Nazi group with a prepper character, you find policemen, everywhere,” he said.
Investigators have consistently revealed that weapons exchanges and military training are part and parcel of German far-right groups, which have pilfered explosives, guns, and ammunition from military stockpiles. The first to come under investigation was Hannibal, an underground network of soldiers and police officers seeking to “share privileged information about the security situation in Germany, and how to prepare for a crisis,” as The New York Times put it. The group’s founder, André S., was a soldier in the elite military unit Special Commando Forces (KSK), who became frustrated by Germany’s open door immigration policy. He also founded the elite Uniter network.
The Hannibal network is organized by military-style districts of north, south, east, and west. Marko G., a former special forces operative and police sniper, coordinated the northern district called Nordkreuz, or Northern Cross. In 2019, he was arrested and tried on charges for violations of the War Weapons Control Act. During the trial, investigators presented evidence of a safe house, large food rations, fuel reserves, 55,000 rounds of ammunition stockpiled from departments across Germany, body bags, quick lime, and lists of names with addresses of left-wing politicians and activists supporting immigrant and refugee rights campaigns.
The revolving door network between police, military, and the far-right includes notable support from politicians. In the case of Nordkreuz, Lorenz Caffier, the Minister of Internal Affairs of the northeastern German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (part of the Northern Hannibal district), was forced to resign after purchasing a weapon from a shooting range known to be a hub of Nordkreuz. The fact that this range was also frequented by state officials and German security forces raised longstanding concerns over collaboration, or giving prepper groups “far too deep insight into the security apparatus,” as Taz newspaper warned. Caffier previously sponsored shooting competitions at this range, and it is believed that some of the ammunition stockpiled by Nordkreuz was stolen from there.
In June 2020, one elite unit of the Special Commando Forces (KSK) was partially disbanded after investigators discovered that 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 135 pounds of explosives were missing from their stores. Meanwhile, members of the unit were found in possession of Nazi propaganda. KSK soldiers in the dissolved unit were transferred or placed on probation. As a result, Christof Gramm, head of the military counterintelligence service Militärischer Abschirmdienst (MAD), began the investigations, but little changed. In September 2020, the defense ministry praised his efforts and then forced him to resign following a two-year investigation into MAD. The resulting report concluded that too many members of MAD had “connections to the right-wing extremist ‘Identitarian Movement’, the völkisch ‘wing’ of the AfD [Alternative for Germany] and its youth organization [Junge AfD], but also to right-wing fraternities and the ‘Reichsbürger’ movement.”
In November 2020, investigators concluded that a “worrying digital network” of far-right groups preparing for “Day X” exists inside Germany’s military. The term Day X refers to an impending moment of system collapse, wherein far-rightists predict that the German government, society, and culture will break down in the face of migration from Africa and the Middle East. It echoes the U.S. White supremacist narrative known as the “Great Replacement,” and drives fantasies of a White militarized defense against foreign intruders. These fantasies are a common point of reference for the racist far-right in Germany, but also resonant with the more mainstream AfD, known for its emboldening anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ policies while winning seats in every state and federal parliament, as well as most communal bodies. Notably, members of the AfD have admitted that the “frustrated parts of the state and security apparatus” are one strategic target for the party’s voting base.
Where To Look
When it comes to racism and organized far-right activity within policing, German authorities at the federal level consistently appear to have lost the plot. Six weeks before the North Rhine-Westphalia case broke, Minister of Interior Horst Seehofer, a conservative politician in the Christian Social Union (CSU), made the controversial move of cancelling plans to conduct an independent, nationwide study of racism in police departments. His decision came just weeks after Germany was swept up in global uprisings against racism and police violence.
The planned investigation would have examined the extent of far-right activity and the breadth of racial profiling in policing. The latter is a longstanding point of controversy, inasmuch as Germany does not collect information on race and ethnicity in police interactions. Seehofer concluded the investigation was redundant, on the grounds that discrimination is already illegal. He cited another study by the domestic intelligence agency that concluded less than one percent of the nation’s police, military and security personnel had far-right sympathies, and said therefore, “we have no structural problem with right-wing extremism.” It’s a claim at odds with a 2017 United Nations working group, which gave Germany low marks for the “repeated denial” of structural racism. Months later, Seehofer continued to characterize hundreds of reported cases of far-right activity in police departments as “terrible isolated incidents.”
While the public continues to call for more research, the debate was derailed in October, when Seehofer, Chancellor Merkel, and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz finally agreed to launch a nationwide study—only their study wouldn’t explicitly examine racism, but rather focus on “hatred and violence against police” and “whether the officers always live up to the claim that there is no tolerance for extremism, racism and anti-Semitism.” Mounting criticism characterizes this move as a sidestep that effectively shuts down meaningful engagement from authorities on racism within policing.
In some cases, the lack of federal action prompted responses from politicians at the state level. In Berlin and Saxony-Anhalt, state officials announced plans to hold their own study of racism in policing. But others, like Manuela Schwesig, Prime Minister of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, called for a study of racism in all public institutions, not just policing—a call that resonates with Seehofer’s position and takes political pressure off policing.
But a larger issue is that conducting research on the racism of individual officers becomes a distraction, when in fact, the problem is the structural nature of policing and the military, which allows far-right activity to flourish. According to Burschel, “The people who go to these institutions are ready and willing to submit to authoritarian structures and working with order and obedience.” What’s more, local organizations already have the data needed, including statistics on racial profiling, stop and search (a German equivalent of programs like New York City’s failed “stop and frisk” policy), and reports on differential policing and court proceedings. This information could be used to craft a nationwide assessment of racism in law enforcement, and inform public understanding of the far right’s infiltration of the police, military, and government, which officials could use to enact meaningful reforms.
The organizations that have collected this data, however, are far from hopeful. “We have all become victims to the idea that finally the Ministry is doing something about the racism of policing,” said Biplab Basu, one of the founding members of Reach Out, a counseling center for victims of racist and antisemitic violence in Berlin. “As if the perpetrator, the Interior Ministry, has suddenly become the one who offers solutions.”
Skepticism about the Interior Ministry’s ability to take meaningful action continues as the details of the study roll out. One of the more controversial points is that the study, titled “Motivation, Attitude and Violence in the Everyday Life of Police Officers,” will be conducted over the next three years by the government-run German Police University (Deutsche Hochschule der Polizei), placing law enforcement in the position of investigating themselves. What’s more, the study that Seehofer first cancelled in July 2020 was proposed by this same university, suggesting that the new study will again be under Seehofer’s oversight. Such a set up would render the study virtually worthless, suggested Benjamin Strasser, a member of parliament from the Free Democratic Party, since Seehofer “already has the results in his head.”
Now more than ever, policing in German society is suspect. Report after report—even from German authorities—has found significant connections between racism and policing, connections migrant-led initiatives have been drawing into relief for decades, from racist police chat groups, to racist doomsday prepper groups within the military, to the revolving door between law enforcement, military and the Far Right. Calls for independent investigations continue, but the question remains: what should civil society do when the state is unable or unwilling to reckon with the role policing and military play in lethal far-right activity?
 These are “angry citizens” or Wutbürger—a term now common in Germany to describe a particular kind of racism, wherein German citizens become outraged, and at times violent, in response to immigration issues.
 The “NSU 2.0” was one of dozens of email death threats or blackmailing recipients. Another, for example, called himself “Nationalsozialistische Offensive,” or the National Socialist Offensive. He iscurrently being tried in Berlin courts with an expected verdict come mid December 2020.
Wiebke Ramm, “Berlin:Drohbriefe der Nationalsozialistische Offensive,” Spiegel, August 25, 2020, https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/justiz/berlin-drohbriefe-der-nationalso…
 The full last name of the lieutenant, and subsequent far right actors, is withheld in accordance with German law.
 Burschel, Friedrich. October 2020. Interview.
 Burschel, Friedrich. October 2020. Interview.
 Burschel, Friedrich. October 2020. Interview.
 Basu, Biplab. November 2020. Interview.