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German police fight far-right infiltration claims

August 23, 2018

Saxony police have been forced to ask whether they are harboring far-right sympathizers after a TV crew was prevented from filming at a rally. It's not the first time German security forces have come under suspicion.

Saxony cops
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Seidel

An incident last week in Dresden, when police detained a TV crew filming a far-right demo against German Chancellor Angela Merkel has done nothing to quell persistent suspicions about links between the far-right scene and Germany's security forces. 

Those rumors were only strengthened with the subsequent revelation that the supporter of the anti-migrant PEGIDA movement who harassed the reporters and complained to the authorities was himself employed by the Saxony state police department.

The journalist in question — from public broadcaster ZDF — accused police of effectively acting as the "executive" arm of PEGIDA.

The case has generated plenty of political fallout at national level. Chancellor Merkel on Thursday stressed her "strong commitment to press freedom" and said that demonstrators "must accept they may be filmed by the media."

Justice Minister Katarina Barley described the incident as "truly worrying." Opposition politicians and journalist organizations, meanwhile, were suggesting that PEGIDA represented a threat to Germany's democratic order, and so could not be allowed to gain access to security forces.

Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy leader of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), declared to Focus magazine, "The fact that state police employees are marching with PEGIDA is not tolerable, as far as I'm concerned." He also demanded a disciplinary procedure "with the aim of removing [the protester] from service."

'A wake-up call for the police'

By Thursday, the incident had made it onto the minutes of the interior policy committee meeting in the Saxony parliament. State Interior Minister Roland Wöller announced afterwards that the PEGIDA supporter in question would be asked to "interrupt his holiday, so that we can speak to him soon." The aim, Wöller added, was to "establish the facts" before deciding on "further measures."

Valentin Lippmann, the Green party's representative on the interior policy committee, told DW that he had got the impression from the hearing that the police were "overwhelmed by the situation," which had led him to the conclusion that, "we need a more open handling of mistakes and problems in the Saxony police, and a thorough initiative for political education."

Christian Hartmann, spokesman for the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the state, tried to strike a balanced note. "On the behavior of the police officers on the ground, we should say that they clearly acted correctly," he said in a statement. "I would on the other hand have expected that in this tense situation they had kept an eye more on the TV crew's press work."

He described the incident as a "wake-up call" for the police in Saxony. "We must ask ourselves to what extent the police can tolerate views and opinions in its ranks that are not in harmony with social peace," he added.

Read more: Are journalists under threat in Germany?

Meanwhile, Rafael Behr, professor at the Hamburg police academy, defended the police against the accusation of institutional racism. "This debate currently lives on assumptions and presumptions that can't be empirically proved," he told DW.

He also suggested that such media accusations were not helpful. "Among police officers they trigger outrage and create an attitude that starts on the defensive," he said.

Pegida Demo in Dresden
The PEGIDA group believes that Germany is being 'Islamized'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild/S. Kahnert

Saxony in the firing line

The incident was embarrassing for Saxony State Premier Michael Kretschmer, who took to Twitter to criticize the behavior of the reporters before the supporter's link with the police emerged.

Kretschmer took office last December having promised to clean up the state's reputation as a stronghold for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The populist party forms the largest opposition group in Germany's national parliament, the Bundestag.

Police in Saxony have been accused of a lax approach to the far-right scene on several occasions in the past. In May 2016, at least one police officer in Leipzig was revealed to have close contact with the far-right, anti-Islam scene. And just three months earlier, a video of a policeman in the town of Clausnitz taking a refugee into a headlock provoked a nationwide debate on police violence.

And there was further uproar that year when an officer wished PEGIDA demonstrators at the German Unity Day being held in Dresden, a "successful day." 

Read more: Why Germany's far-right flourishes in Dresden

Countering right-wing extremism

Protecting democracy

However, the suspicions about far-right sympathies among police is not confined to Saxony. As police expert Rafael Behr told DW, police forces are "characterized by the areas in which they work."

The case of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist cell that murdered at least 10 people, raised many questions about the ambiguous role of informants in the far-right scene, who were apparently protected by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany's domestic intelligence agency, .

The job of the BfV is to defend Germany's democratic order by tracking and spying on political extremists – especially those whose intention is to threaten democratic principles like press freedom. The fact that the BfV paid neo-Nazi informants who apparently failed to point out a terrorist group in their midst raised concern. 

Read more: German AfD radicalized by far-right grassroots

Pointed denial

In Dresden, police chief Horst Kretzschmar rejected the accusations his officers colluded with PEGIDA protestors to hamper media coverage of the demonstration. However, a complaint against the police has been submitted to state prosecutors.

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight