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Do German media, state have a left-wing bias?

Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
September 26, 2018

The far-right Alternative for Germany party accuses German politicians and reporters of turning a blind eye to left-wing radicalism. DW examines this increasingly common complaint on the right.

G20 Welcome to hell
Image: Reuters/F.Bensch

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is crying foul on the issue of extremism. When a march co-organized by the party at the start of the month in Chemnitz was halted by police to prevent clashes with a counterdemonstration, angry supporters accused police of allowing "left-wing radicals" to disrupt their right to assemble. Earlier this summer, the AfD filed an official parliamentary inquiry that implicitly accused the government of failing to keep tabs on left-wing extremism in the way it does with the radical right.

Stephan Brandner, the AfD parliamentarian and Bundestag judicial committee chairman who made the query, is particularly vocal on the issue.

"There are many reasons for the public and political downplaying of this," Brandner told DW. "On the one hand, many journalists, editors and media people are themselves on the left and have no interest in drawing critical attention to extremist activities in this area. On the other, all political actors, except for the AfD, profit from the shift to the left in public discourse, which is becoming increasingly obvious."

Brandner's definition of state- and media-approved left-wing radicalism extends further than most people's, including even the nonviolent anti-xenophobia concert held in the wake of days of right-wing unrest on the streets that saw foreigners threatened in Chemnitz. Critics say the AfD's stated concern is intended to distract from the party's right-wing radicalism and that, if anything, social discourse is moving to the right.

"The AfD makes these comparisons for reasons of political tactics," Martina Renner, the deputy chairwoman of the Left party, told DW. "It's trying to downplay right-wing extremism and weaken the left in society."


Graphic comparing number of right-wing and left-wing extremists

By the numbers

There is a asymmetrical focus on right-wing extremism in both the state and the media, but there are reasons to justify it.

The term "extremism" can be used in many ways. The German state defines it as seeking to abolish the constitution or the basic democratic social order. According to that definition, there are about 25 percent more right-wing than left-wing extremists and more radical right-wing (20,520) than left-wing (9,752) crimes in Germany.

Nevertheless, police tabulated more violent left-wing (1,967) than right-wing (1,130) crimes in 2017 — in part because of protests at the 2017 G20 meeting in Hamburg. There are different types of crime typical of both groups. Right-wing extremists tend to attract attention from the law for using banned symbols or shouting forbidden slogans. Left-wing radicals are far more often found guilty of "breaching the public peace," a transgression commonly associated with large groups of demonstrators that falls under the designation violent crime.

Read more: A look at left-wing radicalism in Europe 

"Factually, we can say that the phenomena of right-wing and left-wing extremism are treated differently by politicians and state actors," Alexander Ritzmann, a researcher at the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security (BIGS), told DW. "This is apparent, for example, in the fact that there are many more prevention programs for right-wing extremism."

The political scientist KD Hoffmann, a former member of the AfD, also speaks of an "imbalance" both in politics and in the media.

"Left-wing violence only gets reported on if it happens at large-scale events like the G20 in Hamburg," Hoffmann told DW.

Far-right protests in Chemnitz
Observers say the AfD closed ranks with other far-right groups at protests in ChemnitzImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

Historical, social context

Brandner, the AfD deputy, rejects the idea that because of Germany's Nazi past, the country has an obligation to be especially vigilant against right-wing radicalism. He says his party is the only one that opposes "all extremist activities."

But there is justification for the different approaches to right- and left-wing extremism taken by the German government and media. During the 1970s and '80s, when more than 30 murders — often of police officers or prominent business and political leaders — were attributed to the anti-capitalist Red Army Faction, anti-extremism efforts in Germany were very focused on the left of the political spectrum.

The RAF formally dissolved in the late 1990s, but attention had already shifted to the far right in the wake of attacks on refugee homes and foreigners in the early years of that decade. The trend was intensified in 2011, when it emerged that the racist National Socialist Underground terrorist cell had killed 10 people in a series of attacks believed to have begun in 1999.

Thus the "imbalance" treatment of right and left is entirely appropriate, say those on the left and many people in the political center.

"Right-wing violence is a deadly threat for all minorities," the Left party's Renner said. "It is absurd and forgetful of history to assert that there is any corresponding danger on the left."

Read more:The faces behind Germany's far right

The former AfD member Hoffmann, too, warns against comparing apples and oranges.

"Right-wing and left-wing extremism are two problems that should be addressed independently of one another," Hoffmann said. "The question of what sort of threat left-wing militancy presents to society cannot be answered by comparing it with right-wing extremism."

'Closing the ranks'?

Many on the left say the AfD has failed to distance itself convincingly from neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists. Thomas Oppermann, the Social Democratic vice president of the Bundestag, even spoke of a "division of labor" between the party and far more radical elements.

Though they were by no means in the majority, neo-Nazis were among many groups that took part in the anti-immigrant demonstrations in Chemnitz. And former AfD members and functionaries who have left the party have come out and said that it is "intentionally not excluding" neo-Nazis and is "closing the ranks" with the far right.

Ex-AfD member: 'I was met with hate'

It is also impossible to ignore the AfD leadership's penchant for inflammatory statements. The BIGS researcher Ritzmann said the assertion that media and the state underestimate left-wing extremism needed to be viewed as part of the AfD's overall narrative.

"The AfD argues from a constructed position of the victim that says Germany is being threatened on various levels, be it by the euro or by refugees or migrants," Ritzmann said. "From this perceived state of emergency, the party reaches the conclusion that not enough is being done about its issues — in this case, left-wing extremism. But leading members of the AfD themselves sometimes advance extremist positions."

Given the fractious nature of German politics at present, accusations of state and media bias are probably unavoidable. That's one sign of the demise of consensus in German society.

Or as Ritzmann puts it: "Whether you think others are turning a blind eye to one side or the other has a lot to do with how you yourself see the world."