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Civilian defense groups on the rise in Germany

Christoph Hasselbach / dcJanuary 14, 2016

In the wake of the New Year's Eve attacks on women in Cologne, small groups of civilian vigilantes have emerged. But some security experts warn that, in some cases, they're a cover for right-wing extremism.

Deutschland Düsseldorfer Bürgerwehr
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Young

The initiatives range from neighborhood watch groups to far-right groups that aren't afraid to use violence. They don't always call themselves civilian defense corps - perhaps because it sounds too militaristic and would soon rouse the authorities. After all, the police are responsible for maintaining security in Germany; civilians aren't allowed to start playing sheriff when they feel like it.

But the Cologne attacks seem to have created a new, threatening atmosphere. Some civilian defense groups, such as a Düsseldorf initiative, even reference the attacks directly. Thousands of people have joined the Facebook group "One for all, all for one… Düsseldorf keeping watch." According to the information on its page, the group says its mission is to watch out for "our women" in places where danger might lurk. The group plans to patrol together on weekends or at special events. "I don't think that free people should have to be intimidated because they're scared," organizer Tofigh Hamid told German broadcaster Sat.1, adding that the group is non-violent and non-racist.

Deutschland Silvesternacht vor dem Hauptbahnhof in Köln
Inadequate police response on New Year's Eve in Cologne isn't the first time its competence has been put into questionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Böhm

Attracting the right wing

But the same cannot be said for all of these groups. Gordian Meyer-Plath is the president of the state of Saxony's office for domestic intelligence. He recently gave an interview to the "Leipziger Volkszeitung" in which he spoke of a strong increase in civilian defense corps founded or supported by right-wing populists or far-right extremists. Jena-based sociologist Matthias Quent said there is a danger that people who haven't previously had contact with the right-wing extremist scene could be drawn into the milieu by getting involved with these groups.

Meyer-Plath said he is concerned with a group known as "Civilian Defense FTL/360" in the Saxon city of Freital, which has been in the headlines previously because of massive anti-refugee demonstrations. The group formed after two Moroccans reportedly harassed and beat up students on the number 360 bus, hence the name. Since then, members have been patrolling buses to "keep the peace." One of the members of the "Civilian Defense Corps Güstrow" in the state of Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is Nils Matischent, a representative from Germany's far-right National Democratic Party, and a man with a criminal record. And in the Lower Saxon town of Schwanenwede, a group of "neighborhood watch guards" marched in front of a refugee shelter last fall.

The president of Thuringia's domestic intelligence office, Stephan Kramer, told German news agency dpa that there's a reason why civilian defense groups attract right-wing extremists. He said they use either a real or perceived threat "not just to question the state's ability to deal with the threat, but to deliberately ridicule and undermine the state. These groups also offer right-wing extremists a sense of belonging, and an opportunity to appear in a militaristic manner, as well as to marginalize minorities in order to make themselves more important."

Rechte Proteste gegen das Flüchtlingslager in Freital
In the town of Freital, German intelligence sees a link between the anti-refugee protesters and a civilian defense groupImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Meyer

Not every group illegal

"It is the responsibility of the police to maintain security in public spaces," said Jörg Radek, deputy chairman of the police union. And a spokesman for the Federal Interior Ministry stressed that "the formation of parallel structures must absolutely be prevented." But civilian defense groups are not illegal per se. There is nothing illegal, for example, about a group of neighbors getting together to keep watch and prevent robberies. They are not allowed to arm themselves or use violence, and they are also not allowed to search suspected thieves or ask them to identify themselves, even if the person is behaving suspiciously. Only if a thief is caught in the act can a civilian detain him or her until the police arrive.

Kramer, the chief intelligence officer for Thuringia, doesn't see a need to monitor civilian defense groups across the board. He said it depends on their activities. Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer also took a more relaxed view in a recent interview with the "Neue Presse2 newspaper in Hanover:

"Civilian defense groups tend not to do much harm, but neither do they increase security in any way." One reason for this is that the groups have no way of knowing where a dangerous situation might unfold. The groups also have a tendency to fizzle out after a few weeks, for the simple reason that "people who work don't have time for such things."

The recently founded Düsseldorf initiative seems to confirm this assessment. Although more than 10,000 people ready to protect women joined the group on Facebook, only a few dozen turned out for the latest patrol last Saturday.