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Hate speech, threats against German politicians on the rise

February 9, 2021

There was an increase in abuse against politicians across Germany in 2020, new figures show, with extremists more and more willing to resort to violence. Local-level politicians are particularly vulnerable.

A vigil for murdered politician Walter Lübcke
Regional governor Walter Lübcke (memorialized on poster, right) was murdered by an extremist in 2019Image: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Statistics released to DW on Monday show that verbal abuse and violence targeting politicians are on the rise in Germany. 

Compiled by the Interior Ministry late last year in response to a parliamentary information request from the the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, the unpublished report counted 1,534 crimes against politicians, party members and party property in 2020, a 9% increase on the year before.

The crimes overwhelmingly involved verbal abuse, slander, threats and hate speech, as well as property damage such as graffiti and arson attacks on party offices. There was also a handful of cases of physical assault. 

The AfD was hit by the most attacks, with 694 cases, almost all property damage and verbal abuse, followed by Angela Merkel's conservative alliance of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), with 231, and the Greens, with 206.

The Interior Ministry attributed 544 crimes to actors with a left-wing motive and 393 to the right wing, and reported that 532 could not be attributed. Four incidents were put down to a "foreign ideology" and over 60 were aimed at small parties not represented in the German parliament.

A smashed window at an AfD party office in Döbeln, Germany
Regional AfD offices have been vandalized, as have those belonging to the Left partyImage: Reuters/M. Rietschel

The statistics chime in with warnings made last week by Holger Münch, the chief of the Federal Criminal Police, who told Der Spiegel magazine that there had been an increase in threats against politicians, virologists and journalists during the coronavirus pandemic.

AfD Bundestag member Martin Hess, who made the information request, said the figures proved that left-wing extremists posed the biggest threat to political parties, especially his.

"There are politicians in our party that after attacks and threats can only go out in public with massive personal protection," Hess told DW in an email. "This fact is a disgrace for our democratic rule of law. We regularly face attacks on our cars, offices, and apartments." 

Despite Hess' insistence that the left remains the bigger extremist threat, Germany's domestic intelligence agencies have counted more potentially violent far-right extremists (13,000) than left-wing extremists (9,200), according to the latest annual report by the federal domestic intelligence agency, the BfV. 

'Violence always starts with words'

The rising abuse has been felt by German politicians of every stripe. Over the last few years, several of the country's leading politicians, from President Frank-Walter Steinmeier down, have condemned what they call the deterioration of the country's "debate culture." 

Ute Vogt, interior policy spokeswoman for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said being a politician had become more difficult.

Local politicians under attack

"I think you always needed strong nerves to be a politician," Vogt told DW. "But now you do get the feeling it's rougher on all sides. In the old days you used to get anonymous letters, which were easier to deal with than these slanders and insults that are often much more public. I do think the job has gotten harder because the respect has significantly declined."

Vogt said she had the impression that serious political debate is disappearing from public discourse. "Violence always starts with words," she said. "We're seeing the political debate become more aggressive, more polemical. We're seeing less factual debate and more aggressive postulating of positions, and that leads to people feeling they have to take action. That's a devastating development for our democracy."

Local politicians: Less famous, more vulnerable

Irene Mihalic, interior policy spokeswoman for the Greens, told DW that prominent politicians, especially those who weigh in on emotive issues, have to get used to drawing abuse. "It certainly depends on how much you are prepared to expose yourself on certain issues," Mihalic said. "If you deal with racism, far-right extremism and discrimination, then you become an object of hate. That's just how it is."

HateAid: Help against hate speech

Politicians with a high public profile already have their homes protected and receive personal protection from the federal police if they appear at any public event.

"As Bundestag members we're comparatively privileged," Mihalic said. "We're all, by law, protected by the federal police. That means if someone really was threatening us, then measures would be taken." She said police officers conducted meetings in the Bundestag to offer advice.

"The federal police have advised us to report every single incident, however small," said Mihalic, herself a former police officer. "But it always depends on the individual parliamentarian. I know colleagues who receive threatening messages and say, 'I'm not going to let myself be intimidated and I won't take it seriously,' and then throw it away. And I always tell them: No, report it to the police. It's important that those things are registered, so the police can assess situations better."

Members of Germany's Green party launching a campaign against hate speech in 2019
The Greens launched a campaign against hate speech in 2019Image: Christian Thiel/Imago Images

But the danger for regional politicians and party volunteers, who have more day-to-day exposure to the public and little security, is often greater. Just how stark the risks have become were shown by the murder of Walter Lübcke, governor of the Kassel district, on his own porch in 2019 and the stabbing of Henriette Reker during her campaign for mayor of Cologne in 2015 — both acts carried out by racist extremists. State and municipal politicians may be less in the public eye, but they are also "completely defenseless," Mihalic said.

While national-level politicians planning to attend public events can always report threats they see on the internet to the police, who then make an assessment of the danger, municipal politicians have fewer protections. "They don't have anyone they can talk to, which is why we are calling for state police forces to also have centers they can turn to," Mihalic said.


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