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Hundreds of neo-Nazis free despite arrest warrants

Carla Bleiker | Jennifer Wagner | Alexander Pearson
December 4, 2018

German police have a problem finding and arresting violent neo-Nazis. The government admitted as much in a response to a parliamentary request from an opposition party. Recent history shows how dangerous this problem is.

Right-wing demonstrators rally in Dortmund
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Rutkowski

The German government has admitted that 467 neo-Nazis are at large throughout the country despite active warrants for their arrest.

The government acknowledged the figures in a response to a parliamentary request for information by the opposition Left Party. Of the 467 neo-Nazis, 32 are thought to have fled Germany to hide out abroad. An additional seven perpetrators of right-wing crimes in Germany are wanted by security authorities from other countries

According to the response, the number of neo-Nazis wanted by German police has nearly doubled in the past four years. The government cited the massive influx of refugees as one reason for the spike. Right-wing attacks against asylum centers, it said, have increased significantly since 2015.

Criminologist Christian Pfeiffer confirmed that trend. "For a long time we saw an increase in right-wing crime, so it's normal that there are still many outstanding arrest warrants from back then," he told DW. "I do believe that number will go down again, because the right-wing extremist scene has quieted down some for now."

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Read more: Why a German neo-Nazi group was charged with terrorism

'Alarming sign'

Left Party lawmaker Ulla Jelpke criticized law enforcement for failing to reduce overall numbers.

"The security authorities need to think of something to capture these fugitive Nazis more quickly," she told the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

More than a quarter of the right-wing extremists are considered prone to violence, with just over 100 wanted for committing a violent crime.

Authorities warn that many could commit fresh crimes at right-wing rallies or music concerts.

The far right: Can Germany defeat its demons?

"The figures are an alarming sign that the Nazi scene is and remains violent and criminal," Jelpke said.

General increase in outstanding arrest warrants

The increase in the number of neo-Nazis with outstanding arrest warrants is in line with a general rise in outstanding arrest warrants in Germany. In March 2018, German police had 175,397 arrest warrants on file that had yet to be enforced. This number has been rising steadily since 2014. Compared to March 2017, it has increased by 7.5 percent.

"We need a personnel increase for our police forces," Pfeiffer said. "We're always told that more officers are being hired, but many are retiring as well, so that number needs to be rehired and then some."

The number of outstanding arrest warrants varies from state to state. While there are only seven per 10,000 inhabitants in Germany's northern-most state of Schleswig-Holstein, there are 23 in Bavaria and 24 in Berlin.

Graph outstanding arrest warrants in German states

The 467 neo-Nazis at large make up only a small fraction of all outstanding arrest warrants. Of the more than 175,000 warrants, quite a large number are believed to concern minor misdemeanors such as being caught without a ticket on public transport multiple times and refusing to pay your fine.

A spokesperson for Bavaria's interior ministry stressed that police are looking for all people with an outstanding arrest warrant, but are prioritizing their search according to the severity of the crime.

"Bavaria's police are hard at work searching for suspects and convicted criminals who have a warrant out for their arrest," the spokesperson told DW. "Arrest warrants linked to rape and homicide are treated with the highest priority."

Neo-Nazis underground: The NSU

Among the more famous cases of German neo-Nazis evading arrest is that of the National Socialist Underground, or NSU. The existence of the neo-Nazi terrorist group was revealed in 2011, when two members were discovered dead in a burning mobile home and the third member of the core trio, Beate Zschäpe, turned herself in.

Before that, the group had been living underground for more than a decade, with the help of their supporters. Between 2000 and 2007, they murdered nine immigrants and a police officer, robbed numerous banks and carried out three bombings.

A local court in Saxony put out warrants for their arrest as early as 1998, after the trio were linked to bombs left in suitcases painted with swastikas. They managed to evade capture, however, and began their killing spree two years later.

"The police don't have the means to track down every single criminal," Pfeiffer said. "If they're not successful and the person at large isn't presumed immediately dangerous to the rest of the population, officers just wait until the person gets themselves caught."

In the case of the NSU murders, police suspected for a long time that the perpetrators would be connected or even related to the victims. The escaped neo-Nazis weren't on their radar at all.

That oversight means the 467 neo-Nazis who currently have warrants out for their arrest are particularly concerning to the general populace.

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Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker