The number of people classified as far-right extremists in Germany has risen, according to a new report. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer says this is the country's biggest security concern.
Horst Seehofer (right in photo), the head of Germany's Interior and Heimat Ministry, said there had been 22,300 crimes committed by right-wing extremists in 2019 — a 10% increase over 2019 — according to the annual report on extremism conducted by the domestic intelligence agency, the BfV. Seehofer devoted over 10 minutes to the threat posed by the far right. By contrast, he spoke only three minutes about threats from left-wing and Islamic extremists. For years, those had been the primary focus of Germany's domestic security agencies.
"Racism and anti-Semitism emerge to a very considerable degree out of right-wing extremism," Seehofer said on Thursday. "Over 90% of anti-Semitic incidents can be traced back to right-wing extremism. And, therefore, it is not an exaggeration to say this is the biggest security policy concern in our country." This is not a new phenomenon, Seehofer said: "The number of crimes, the number of people in the far-right scene and their preparedness to commit violence have continued to grow."
After a short pause, Seehofer called the resurgent far right a "disgrace" for Germany. He was particularly vocal about the Reichsbürger, or "Reich Citizens' Movement," which denies the legitimacy of the modern-day German government and has attempted to use restrictions on movement to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to incite violence. "They are using the pandemic and the state measures introduced to fight it to spread their conspiracy narratives," Seehofer said.
Seehofer also mentioned Der Flügel (the Wing): a segment of the nationalist Alternative for Germany (AfD) that formed around Björn Höcke, the party's leader in the state of Thuringia, and was formally dissolved earlier this year. In the BfV's 2018 report, neither the Wing nor the AfD's youth movement had been mentioned. In this year's report, it was pointed out that these two groups number 7,000 members, comprising a significant proportion of the 32,000 "sympathizers" of the far right in Germany. Some 13,000 of these are thought to be willing to resort to violence.
BfV head Thomas Haldenwang (left in photo), who presented the report with Seehofer, called the people on the margins of the AfD — which holds 89 seats in the Bundestag and has representatives in all 16 state legislatures — dangerous opponents of the government. "They are clearly far-right extremists," he said.
Seehofer said there had been a 40% increase in crimes by left-wing extremists, which totaled 6,400 last year. There has been a change of form, however.
"Instead of acts of violence related to demonstrations, there were more secretly planned violent actions carried out by small groups," Seehofer said. "Increasingly, there seems to be less inhibition with regard to confronting political opponents of representatives of the state directly."
Seehofer said about 650 potential threats from Islamic extremists were recorded in 2019. He added that it was very important that Germany had banned Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite organization that consists of a political and a militant branch, at the end of April.
BfV's new direction
Since Hans-Georg Maassen, a former Seehofer allywho also had ties to the AfD, stepped down as BfV head of the BfV in 2018 and Thomas Haldenwang took up the post, Germany's domestic agency has dropped its relatively hands-off approach to far-right extremism. Haldenwang said he was concerned that extremist groups in Germany seem more willing to commit acts of violence than they had before. In the past, he said, groups had tended to issue threats and protest loudly but had not necessarily followed up with action.
Referring to the murder of the CDU politician Walter Lübcke in summer 2019 and shootings in Halle in October, Haldenwang was very clear about who is to blame. "I am speaking of right-wing extremists, who are executing politicians or intended to cause a bloodbath in a synagogue," he said. "I am speaking of the new right, which denies certain groups their human dignity and legitimizes violence against them."
He criticized violence against police, as well: "I am also speaking of left-wing extremists who almost kicked a police officer who was lying on the ground to death."
Seehofer was asked on Thursday why he had refused to conduct an internal investigation into police racism. Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht has called for a study on racial profiling by the country's police forces. Seehofer has expressed concern that such a study would "stigmatize" certain groups — i.e.. the police. However, he has announced that a report into right-wing extremist tendencies in all of the country's security agencies will be conducted by September.
Afterward, the other civil service sectors in Germany will be investigated. This will not be enough to quell criticism of Seehofer, who has not made any friends in Berlin by rejecting a specific inquiry into the police. But, he said on Thursday, interior ministers have a tendency to trigger controversy. For him, the question is not whether extremism in the public sector should be fought, he said, but how.