In the wake of two spates of property damage by extremists in Berlin, some news outlets and politicians have warned of a rise in "leftist violence." But the long-term stats do not bear this out.
Just after 1 a.m. on Saturday, residents of central Berlin's Flottwell street said they saw a group of "20 to 40" masked people on bicycles run riot - setting fire to four cars, damaging 24 others and smashing a number of shop windows. The following night, witnesses said they saw up to 100 masked people trash about 20 cars in the Neukölln district of the city. In neither case were there any injuries or arrests, with the vandals escaping before the police arrived.
Friday night's vandalism was claimed by a group calling itself the Kommando Klaus Jürgen Rattay (named after a squatter killed during a police raid in West Berlin in 1981), which called the incidents retaliation for the police's storming a leftist community and warned that the group intended to cause a million euros' worth of damage for every police "attack."
The reference appeared to be to a police raid on a left-wing housing project on Rigaer street in mid-January, when 550 officers - plus a special unit of riot police and a helicopter - were mobilized to search the building because an officer was shoved in the street and a rubbish bag was dropped near some officers waiting in the courtyard of the project. The police operation was condemned as disproportionate by opposition politicians, though it was vehemently defended by Berlin Interior Minister Frank Henkel.
"We consider it realistic that this was a reaction to the operation," police spokesman Stefan Redlich told DW. He also admitted that investigating incidents like what happened over the weekend is often difficult: "They are sort of uniformed, with black clothes and black masks and so. There are of course a lot of witnesses who see the attacks, but it's hardly possible for them to recognize the people."
In its statement, posted on the alternative news forum Indymedia, the group also announced that the vandalism was in response policies that were making Berlin unaffordable. "We hit Flottwellstrasse in connection with long-term considerations on the problem of shortage of housing for low-income sections," the statement read. "We are sick of having to watch every day as people are forcibly evicted, homeless people and junkies are removed from public spaces, and people who don't have enough cash are stuck in prison."
The media subsequently described the two attacks as an example of a new rise in left-wing "terrorism." DW reported that the nation's capital was being "plagued" by left-wing violence, while commentaries in both "Die Welt" and the "Berliner Zeitung" argued that it was time to stop making excuses. "The Rioters Are Terrorists" was the headline in the Berliner Zeitung, while "Die Welt" adominshed: "Let's stop relativizing left-wing violence."
Both of those comment pieces would have been welcomed by municipal Interior Minister Henkel, who never tires of talking about the threat of left-wing radicalism. In his forward to the Berlin intelligence agency's latest report on the problem, published at the end of January, Henkel wrote that "left-wing motivated acts of violence made up (in part by the greatest distance) the largest proportion of the politically motivated violent crimes in Berlin."
Police spokesman Redlich, however, did not want to say that this was a new spate of violence. "It's not a new issue," he said, "but it is an issue."
The study suggested that there has been a long-term increase in incidents. Seven hundred and thirty such crimes were recorded in the five years from 2004 to 2008; that figure more than doubled, to 1,523, from 2009 to 2013 (the scope of the latest study).
But other official figures contradicted this narrative - on Monday, Berlin newspapers were citing new figures from security sources that found a small drop in the number of people identified as "potentially violent" left-wingers, from 960 in 2014 to 940 in 2015. There was a small increase in the number of people considered to have "left-wing extremist potential" over the same period, from 2,560 to 2,640, but opposition politicians have pointed out that authorities were chalking this up to an increase in membership in the organization Rote Hilfe (Red Help), a charity that helps people associated with left-wing causes find lawyers when they are in trouble with the police.
The report also includes information on who the left-wing "extremists" are. The "Bild" newspaper was among several outlets to lead with the news that "92 percent of left-wing radicals live with their mums," referring to their registered addresses. Of the 873 suspects the intelligence service identified, 84 percent were male, 72 percent were between 18 and 29, and about 90 percent said they were single. Perhaps slightly more surprisingly, two-thirds had jobs.
The radical left-wing journalist and activist Wladek Flakin was less than impressed by the figures. "Every child knows that for years it has been virtually impossible to register your address in Berlin with the authorities," he told DW, referring to the waiting lists at registration offices. "Is it any surprise that young adults across the political spectrum, including lefties, are still officially registered at their parents' house? Here the secret services just prove again their function with cheap right-wing agitation."
Flakin also pointed out the massive rise in right-wing violence, often against refugee homes, as well as a neo-Nazi riot in Leipzig in mid-January, when some 250 people ransacked a district and police arrested dozens on suspicion of rioting and arson. "One thousand attacks on refugees' homes last year: That's attempted murder," he said. "The last count I saw ... was there had been four convictions. So why are we talking about a car? Left-wing extremists and right-wing extremists are not the same. The former burn cars, the latter burn foreigners."
(Note: Many of the attacks on refugee homes were perpetrated before they were occupied, so police would regard them as property damage rather than attempted murder.)