Arson attacks on refugee homes, violence, hate on the Internet. Some racially-motivated crimes have increased by more than 200 percent recently. Now Germany's justice ministers have come up with a new plan.
Timo Reinfrank is alarmed. "Since Germany's inception as a federal republic, there has never been such a mass of attacks against refugees in the country," says the head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. According to one chronicle created by the foundation, together with the refugee organization Pro Asyl, there were 1,239 assaults on refugees or their housing facilities in 2015 - a fivefold increase on the previous year. The violence is continuing apace, says Reinfrank. This year there have already been 289 attacks on refugee housing, and of these, there were 50 arson attacks and 74 physical assaults with a considerable number of injured.
The German judiciary recognizes that there's an urgent need for discussion. Germany is experiencing a wave of politically motivated violence that threatens the peace of society, says Germany's Minister of Justice Heiko Maas. "That is a disgrace," he said after a meeting in Berlin with his state-level colleagues. "The rule of law and the justice system needs to react and follow through with tough answers.” It is "desperately necessary," Maas said.
Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas (center) with Angela Kolb-Janssen, justice minister in Saxony-Anhalt, and Berlin's Thomas Heilmann
Special units and dedicated funds
Just what this response will be was decided at a conference in Berlin, the minister explained briefly in a closing statement. "I have rarely experienced such unity," said Thomas Heilmann, Berlin's justice minister.
There will be more special units with state prosecutors specializing in violent attacks by right-wing extremists, even if that requires hiring additional personnel. Also approved were the increased use of rewards for finding suspects in arson attacks and a more rigorous implementation of prison sentences.
The states are also planning to cooperate more readily with each other, with the federal prosecutor's office and, above all, with the police. The top priority, according to the ministers, is the arson attacks - Maas said he sees these as the most difficult crimes.
The statistical registration and attribution of extremist crimes is currently backlogged. "We need to know how many offenses there have been and of what kind, in which cases the perpetrator has been determined and how they were prosecuted, in order to determine the appropriate consequences," Maas explained, promising to create a better means of doing so via IT upgrades. Often the systems used by the officials in each state are not compatible, making comparisons difficult.
Against hate speech online
One important development is aimed at the increase of online hate crimes, as this is often seen as a first step to extremist violence. Prosecuting it, however, is not easy. Angela Kolb-Janssen, Saxony-Anhalt's justice minister, called the problem a "new challenge," especially as perpetrators use software to anonymize their posts, making it difficult to determine the origin.
To combat this, the city-state of Berlin wants to require social media companies like Facebook and WhatsApp to hand over the identities of perpetrators of hate crimes.
"You can imagine it as something similar to what banks do, as they are required to identify account holders," Heilmann explained. At the moment this is very difficult, since most social media companies are not headquartered in Germany, which means authorities need to go via another country's court system and obtain a court subpoena. "That makes it very time-consuming and often unsuccessful," said Heilmann.
Repression isn't everything
The justice ministers also want to force providers to keep a record of offensive posts, so that they can be kept even after deletion. "If these postings disappear digitally, then we have a problem during the prosecution phase," Heilmann said.
To prevent this, Germany's telecommunications law must be changed, which lies within the jurisdiction of the Federal Economics Ministry. But Heilmann doesn't see a problem with that.
"I'm optimistic that in June at the conference of justice ministers we will be able to speak about further advances," he said.
When it comes to far-right propaganda already circulating online, the ministers said the help of civil society is necessary. "Repression isn't everything," Heilmann said. "We need to continue to react strongly to what has already occurred, but we also need the help and engagement of the community and strategies from civil society to fight this."