The Russian invasion of Ukraine has left Germany's neo-Nazis confused: Should they support the authoritarian Russian leader or far-right nationalists fighting on the Ukrainian side?
Germany's far-right organizations are struggling to agree on a position on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, researchers who track Germany's neo-Nazi scene have noted. While some groups are siding with Russia's anti-NATO authoritarian leader, others are showing solidarity with the far-right "Azov Battalion" in Ukraine.
Nicholas Potter, a researcher and journalist at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, one of Germany's leading research institutes into the far-right scene, says the pro-Ukrainian side represents a slight majority among German neo-Nazis — but there's an important distinction to be made between them and the Ukrainians fighting.
"These parties, individuals, movements — they're not die-hard democrats who believe in the sovereignty of Ukraine and would support the Jewish [President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy's government," Potter told DW. "It would be a mistake to say they're fighting for the same ideals that a lot of Ukrainians are fighting for."
Johannes Kiess, a far-right specialist at the Else Frenkel-Brunswik Institute at Leipzig University, sees Germany's pro-Ukrainian neo-Nazis as motivated mainly by their connections to far-right groups in Ukraine. "In the martial arts scene, the hooligan scene, the neo-Nazi scene — in those circles there are pan-European networks," he said. "There are also connections to Poland. It's not just a German-Ukrainian thing."
The group, which has also trained with and invited speakers from Ukraine's paramilitary Azov Battalion, says on its website that it "rejects Russian imperialism with the purpose of reestablishing the Soviet Union" and has started campaigns to help fleeing Ukrainian nationalists.
Potter believes that right-wing extremists such as the III. Weg see Europe as an alliance of white nations, and Ukraine therefore as a nation of white people with the right to self-determination. On top of that, Potter noted that Germany's extreme-right has often envied the strength of Ukraine's far-right movement with its paramilitary organizations.
Then there are the German extreme right's historic prejudices against Russia. Though Russia is obviously no longer a communist nation, "It's interesting how anti-communism plays quite a strong role," Potter said. "It's almost bizarrely like they're taking Putin's propaganda at face value — he says he's coming to de-nazify Ukraine, and they see him as a sort of left-wing, anti-fascist threat."
Researchers have also noticed plenty of chatter on far-right social media networks about potentially traveling to Ukraine to join the war, perhaps in alliance with the Azov Battalion.
The Azov Battalion was founded in 2014 as a volunteer militia fighting pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine. Despite accusations of torture and war crimes, and its known neo-Nazi sympathies, it was incorporated into the Ukrainian National Guard in November 2014 after Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The Azov political movement arose in the following years, though with little electoral success.
But there's almost no evidence that German neo-Nazis have actually gone to join Azov to fight. The Amadeu Antonio Foundation's news outlet Belltower.News last week asked the German Interior Ministry for official figures and was told that of the known neo-Nazis that Germany's domestic intelligence were observing, only 27 had shown any intention of travelling to Ukraine to fight.
Even of the handful who had traveled to Ukraine, thought to be fewer than five individuals, it is not known whether they have taken part in any fighting, or which groups in Ukraine they might have joined.
The pro-Putin alliance
Meanwhile, Russia's President Vladimir Putin also attracts support amongst the fringe of Germany's extreme right. "When Putin wins, men will again be men and not women, electricity and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the Green Party leftists will all be locked up," read a message on a Telegram chat group for the "Free Thuringians" extreme-right splinter group.
The most explicitly pro-Putin German far-right group is the Freie Sachsen ("Free Saxons"), formed only a year ago, which describes itself as an umbrella group that allows membership in other organizations. The Freie Sachsen group overlaps with conspiracy theorists of the Querdenker movement, which oppose the government's COVID-19 containment measures. This group now identifies NATO as part of a globalist conspiracy that helped instigate the war.
"With Freie Sachsen, it's very clear that they see themselves ideologically as partners of Putin," said Kiess. "And I'd say that is true of the conspiracy ideology scene on the whole."
Far-right AfD still holds appeal in the east
Mainstream far-right caught in a dilemma
The more established far-right parties in Germany, meanwhile, have found themselves in a political dilemma.
The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has been struggling to adopt a single position. While the party's national leaders, such as chairman Tino Chrupalla, joined the condemnation of the Russian invasion when it began, influential regional figures have been much more equivocal.
Björn Höcke, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Thuringia, described Ukrainians as "the victims of a global geopolitical confrontation between NATO and Russia."
"They're ideologically very close: They want a strong man, they're against modern democracy and issues like gender equality," said Kiess. "But of course, they know it's very difficult with current public opinion, when most Germans have a very clear idea of who started the war, and that it's a horrific war."
The AfD has traditionally supported Putin, and like many of Europe's far-right political parties, its top politicians have maintained ties with the Kremlin and enjoyed its active support. Putin's opposition to Western organizations like NATO and the EU fits neatly with the AfD's strong voter base in eastern Germany, which is skeptical of EU membership and where historic ties include residual cultural empathy with Russia.
Kiess thinks the AfD is probably eager to exploit the crisis for anti-government rhetoric: "I think sooner or later, we'll see the AfD trying to downplay this war and get past it, once the issue in Germany moves to energy security and fuel prices."
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