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Left-wing extremism in Germany: How much of a threat is it?

June 3, 2023

Germany is bracing for street protests by the far-left "Antifa" movement this week, after the conviction of Lina E., who was found guilty of physically assaulting neo-Nazis.

"We are all leftwing" "Wir sind alle LinX" demonstration in Leipzig
Far-left 'Antifa' activists have called for street protests in several German citiesImage: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture alliance

Twenty-eight-year-old student Lina E. was sentenced to five years and three months in prison this week for causing bodily harm and belonging to a criminal organization. She and her three co-defendants were found guilty of attacking and seriously injuring suspected right-wing extremists. These acts, the judge said, showed how far militant anti-fascist groups could go.

It is the first such case in many years, but Germany's domestic intelligence agency says left-wing extremism is growing. In its latest report, published last year, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) recorded a rise in the number of "violence-oriented" left-wing extremists of around 700 to 10,300 from 2020 to 2021.

"Acts of violence are carried out in a planned and targeted manner by small groups acting conspicuously and professionally," the 2022 BfV report said, before concluding that the potential threat "remains high."

According to the intelligence agency, left-wing violence was directed "primarily at the police and right-wing extremists, but also … at business enterprises, especially in the real estate sector." In addition, some members of the militant leftist scene have made attempts to infiltrate climate protest groups.

protesters in black picking up cobble stones to throw at police
Far-left extremists in Leipzig are preparing for weekend protestsImage: Sebastian Willnow/dpa/picture alliance

Left-wing vs. right-wing violence

Nevertheless, the federal police's (BKA) latest annual report showed that the number of registered crimes put down to left-wing extremism had actually declined: The BKA recorded an overall drop of 31%. The crimes were mainly hate speech and damage to property, while the number of recorded assaults had fallen by just under 9% year-on-year from 2021 to 2022 — from 438 to 399.

The opposite is true for right-wing extremism: The BKA registered an increase of over 16% in 2022 from 869 to 1,013.

BKA President Holger Münch described all politically-motivated crimes as a cause for concern, particularly hate crimes on social media. "They are targeting our free democratic basic order and endanger social peace," he told a press conference when he presented the report in May.

Meanwhile, the domestic intelligence agency report saw a "high level of radicalization" among violence-oriented left-wing extremists. Some members of the scene "commit their own, meticulously planned, and often extremely brutal acts in small groups."

The BKA describes the cities of Berlin, Hamburg, and Leipzig as hotspots.

The conviction of Lina E., who lives in Leipzig, caused political debates this week, with Germany's Interior Minister Nancy Faeser welcoming the court verdict: "This spiral of radicalization and violence must not be allowed to continue."

The minister also promised that authorities would "keep a close eye" on the left-wing extremist scene, and would take decisive action against left-wing extremism, just as they do against right-wing extremism or Islamist terrorism.

Raids in Germany against climate activists

The far-left and the climate activists

The BfV does not foresee a drop in left-wing extremism, and recent climate protests have appeared on the radar of German security authorities. The agency said that left-wing extremists are attempting to justify violent acts as legitimate means in the political battle of opinion, to be put alongside acts of civil disobedience carried out by civil rights movements.

When the latest BfV report was published last year, the climate protection group "Last Generation" had not yet begun its systematic street blockade protests.

Since then, security forces have launched a crackdown on climate protesters, with many activists who glue themselves onto highways now being arrested. In May, raids against members of the "Last Generation" took place across the country, based on the suspicion that they were forming a criminal organization. The security authorities' actions sparked a heated debate about proportionality.

Political scientist and extremism expert Armin Pfahl-Traughber long defended the activists of the "Last Generation" against accusations of left-wing extremism. In a podcast released by a research institute on left-wing militancy recorded in January, Pfahl-Traughber pointed out that the activists "let themselves be arrested by the police. They do not defend themselves against it. They don't use violence against police officers." This, he argued, made the "Last Generation" fundamentally different from left-wing extremist groups.

That does not mean their actions are legitimate, Pfahl-Traughber warned. He called the movement "strategically misguided" for triggering what he called widespread discontent among many in the population. And he expressed concern about future developments: "If climate activists experience more frustration, they could become more and more radicalized."

This article was originally written in German.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.