German journalist Frederik Obermaier has been investigating the Ku Klux Klan and has just published his work in a book in German. DW talked to him about the danger of the KKK and why it's here in Germany to begin with.
DW: Essentially, it was the Nationalist Socialist Underground that was responsible for a spree of killings between 2000 and 2007 that put this on the map for you, because you discovered links to the Ku Klux Klan in Germany, and then you started digging…
How the Ku Klux Klan is operating in Germany
Frederik Obermaier: Yes. And after our first reports, former KKK members contacted us and told us that there was far more information than we had reported. They said: here is what we have done and what groups we were a member of in Germany, and we got some internal documents and even videos and audiotapes of secretive Ku Klux Klan gatherings here in Germany. And that's when we realized that it's a bigger topic and the public is not aware of it. There are KKK groups active here in Germany.
So a lot of the information you have is based on data that was delivered to you by ex-members of the KKK in Germany. How deep did you actually get into the current structure here? I would imagine the Klan isn't particularly fond of journalists…
Their answers have been quite short. It was basically 'shut up' or 'get away' or 'we won't answer any questions.' We were able to speak with former members, and we were also able to speak with active members. But we don't know how many members they have. It might be dozens, we think, but no member of an active group handed us anything like a members list. What we were amazed to find out during our investigation is that police officers belong to the KKK. There was even a case where an officer from the German interior intelligence service warned the boss of a German KKK group of our surveillance; so there are KKK sympathizers even within the authorities, even if it may be only individuals.
If indeed the authorities are not only monitoring this group, but also there are leaks within the security operators to Klan members, the problem is quite serious then?
Yes. And that's what was shocking to me, for example, those two police officers who were members of the KKK basically later told their bosses: 'Well, we didn't really know what the Ku Klux Klan is, we sympathize with some Christian ideology, and we wanted to meet some women,' and that's police officers telling you that they don't know what the Ku Klux Klan is. I think every child knows what the KKK is and that it is a racist group. And what is even more shocking is that these police officers got away with it. They are still on duty. They were not really punished for being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. And also this intelligence officer I spoke of before, he's not working for the intelligence service anymore, but he's still working for the state. And that shocks me a little bit, too, to put it mildly, because I think the authorities should really go hard after individuals working for the state and being or having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
But what handle would they have? The KKK isn't banned in Germany is it?
No, it is not. But, for example, one of the police officers was still in the first month of duty so there wouldn't have needed to be a hard reason to get rid of him. That would have been enough reason because being a member of the Ku Klux Klan showed that this officer is not aware of the problems of being member of a racist group and, on the other hand, being a police officer who is tasked with protecting democracy.
Aside from these revelations, what would you say are the most explosive findings of your book?
I think investigating the KKK over such a long period and seeing what the authorities were already aware of, for example, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and seeing one murder in the 90s that was committed by a member. At the same time there was another incident when a group of people that screamed 'Ku Klux Klan' dragged a Nigerian teacher out of a nightclub and tried to burn him, tried to hang him, and then tried to drown this person in a lake - that's really struck me, personally.
And you do see that the investigations were not conducted as thoroughly as one would expect, because authorities claim there is "no organized structure" and therefore they "cannot go after them." But I think it was shocking that the authorities were not able to get rid of this problem and to get those members of the group to stand in front of a judge.
In your view, just how dangerous is this movement in Germany? Surely it's just a fringe movement…
As far as we were able to investigate and what we have always stated clearly is that it is not a mass movement, as it has, for example, been in the past in the US. It's a small group of people, but nevertheless it's a small group of people that do have a racist ideology and that have shown in the past - and in internal telecommunications that we were able to see - that they are thinking about violence, that they are thinking about internally, 'where can we get weapons?' So it showed to me that there is at least a potential for violence.
Given that potential, how worried are you for your own safety, given that you have just written a book about the Klan?
Well, I must admit that this is a topic I'm pushing a little bit away from me. I hope that neither I nor my colleague is in danger but, let me put it this way, we took some precautions to stay safe.
You haven't received any threats?
Frederik, a different topic in connection with your research and the history and the activities of the Klan in Germany, how do you sense the Trump factor when it comes to the Klan in Germany?
As we are seeing in the United States currently, the KKK sees Mr. Trump as a black figure of hope...but I personally hope that Mr. Trump will not go that far. I am pretty confident in the Congress and Senate, and even if he would dare to move even more to the right, there are enough checks and balances.
How close are the links between the German Klan and the US 'mother' organization?
Well, it's even hard to speak about one US mother organization because there's always rivalry between the several groups in the US, but over the past 30 or 40 years, there have been close relations between German Klan groups and US Klan groups. There have been American Klan bosses coming to Germany doing cross burnings. And, of course, the German groups admire the American Klan, and they hope to once be as big as the KKK in the US.
Frederik Obermaier is a book author and investigative journalist working for one of Germany's leading daily newspapers, the Süddeutsche Zeitung. He initiated the Panama Papers investigation and is co-author of a book in German on the Ku Klux Klan in Germany.