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German police under the pall of right-wing extremists

July 16, 2020

Do death threats, weapons depots and swastika graffiti all point to right-wing extremist networks among German police? Experts criticize the lack of will police show when it comes to investigating right-wing connections.

Black Lives Matter protest in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/AA/A. Hosbas

The perpetrator called himself "SS Obersturmbannführer" (lieutenant colonel) — a reference to the most gruesome chapter in German history. Persons of that rank in Nazi Germany were responsible for organizing the abuse and murder of millions of Jews from across Europe.

This year — 2020 — German cabaret artist Idil Baydar received a death threat from someone using that moniker. Baydar is a successful entertainer who takes a scalpel to the daily racism immigrants face in Germany. Not only do her acts make millions of Germans laugh, they also make them reflect.

The death threats case against Baydar is not only unsettling, it is politically explosive as well. That is because the perpetrator's trail can be traced directly back to the German police. The death threat Idil Baydar received contained personal information retrieved from a police computer in the state of Hesse.

Comedian Idil Baydar targeted by right-wing extremists
Idil Baydar was the target of right-wing extremistsImage: picture-alliance/Geisler-Fotopress/C. Hardt

Read more: Merkel says racist attacks in Germany of 'deepest concern'

Death threats directly tied to police computer

Baydar first found out she was being surveilled in the newspaper: "I find it really strange that the police haven't contacted me. That no one says, 'Don't worry, we have this under control. We will keep you safe.' I feel so alone. The threat posed to me doesn't seem to interest the police," she said in an interview with the German daily newspaper Tageszeitung.

But the case is not the first of this kind: Many politicians from Germany's Left Party have received similar threats since 2018. And in those cases, too, information about personal history was retrieved from a police computer in Hesse. Meanwhile, state prosecutors have opened an investigation. On Tuesday, Hesse Police President Udo Münch resigned. Now, Interior Minister Peter Beuth has come under pressure.

Beuth says it is possible there is a network of right-wing extremists in the force. "I expect the Hesse Police to leave no stone unturned in refuting that suspicion," said Beuth at a press conference. He also announced he would be appointing a special investigator.

Read more: Calls for police racism investigation in Germany despite Seehofer's disapproval

Such cases have stirred debate across Germany, with people asking: Is there structural racism among police? Have right-wing networks hostile to the government been established among the ranks?

For the Police Trade Union (GdP), the answer is clear: "There is no structural racism within the police," Deputy Chairman Jörg Radek tells DW. He says cases of racist or right-wing extremist behavior among police are isolated, "and they must be investigated with the full force of all constitutional means." Radek and his union have so far enjoyed broad support among politicians for their stance. But German security authorities have also come under pressure — not least now, with the wave of protests against race-based police violence that originated in the US and have found their way to Germany.

Read moreNumber of right-wing extremists in Germany on rise, security report suggests 

Right-wing extremist cop with weapons cache and 50,000 bullets

The list of unsettling cases among police is long. In Northern Germany, a police detective started a right-wing extremist chat group that compiled an "enemies list" containing the names of thousands of politicians, journalists and activists. When authorities searched the man's apartment, they found guns, flash grenades and 50,000 rounds of ammunition. The man claims many more police and soldiers are in the group.

Furthermore, swastika graffiti and anti-Islam slogans are a regular feature at the Berlin and Brandenburg police academies. Police investigations over the last decade have consistently shown that authorities approach these cases from a one-sided point of view. Often, they operate on the assumption that the immigrant victim is somehow suspect rather than looking in every possible direction.

The most well-known example of such behavior was the killing spree carried out by the self-named National Socialist Underground(NSU). Between the years 2000 and 2007, the right-wing extremist terror cell murdered nine business owners with immigrant backgrounds, as well as a female police officer. Here, too, police focussed suspicion on victims' families themselves. Ultimately, the yearslong murder spree was not ended by the police, but rather when two members of the cell committed suicide in 2011.

Read more: Opinion: Germany must take a firm stand against far-right extremists

Police and security services blunders led to a number of federal parliamentary inquiries. In the end, even conservative politicians called the entire story a governmental failure. Politicians and police promised to make things better, but little has in fact changed since then.

Civil rights groups in Germany have complained for years that the problem of everyday discrimination against people of color in the country is not being taken seriously. "There is a very narrow understanding of racism, especially if we are talking about state institutions," says Tahir Della of the Black People in Germany Initiative. Della continues his critique, adding: "It's only racist if you admit to it. Institutions can't see that there is deep-seated racism."

'We really have to tackle this problem'

Read more: Racial profiling: Germany debating police methods

Lack of studies in Germany

Germany wholly lacks reliable facts and figures on the structure and scope of racist activity within the country's police ranks. Recently, Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rejected requests to conduct a study on racial profiling in Germany, despite recommendations from the European Council to do just that.

Tahir Della of the Black People in Germany Initiative told DW the decision was a failure: "Racist police violence can lead to deaths. That goes for the USA and Germany, too — despite all the differences between them. Ignoring systemic problems doesn't improve institutions."

In a recent guest editorial for the German weekly magazine Spiegel, police researcher Rafael Behr lamented the poor way in which German security authorities have dealt with the problem, calling the rejectionist attitude of police in the matter dangerous: "From what I can observe, the loud ones are getting quieter and the shady ones are growing louder. They are the ones who now feel comfortable saying in public things they previously would probably only have said secretively. We see that in our studies. The comments are a bit bolder, dominant and more rigid."

Read more: Germany struggles to face its own police racism

Biggest threat to security

That is consistent with findings from Germany's domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). On July 9, Interior Minister Seehofer presented the BfV's 2019 annual report. He spoke of sharp rises in anti-Semitic, right-wing extremist and racist crimes in Germany, and called right-wing extremism the country's greatest security threat.

Black Lives in GermanyRacism Hidden and Overt


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Hans Pfeifer Hans Pfeifer is a DW reporter specializing in right-wing extremism.@Pfeiferha