In 2000, the neo-Nazi terrorist group National Socialist Underground (NSU) shot dead Enver Simsek, a florist with Turkish background, in Nuremberg. It was the beginning of an unprecedented series of murders that ended in 2007 with the death of police officer Michele Kiesewetter in Heilbronn.
But it was not until November 2011 that it emerged - almost by accident - who was behind the crimes: Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, three admitted racists who made videos boasting of their cold-blooded executions.
German politicians and public are asking how this band of terrorists could disappear from the secret service's surveillance in 1998, and then kill ten people and remain undiscovered for 13 years. The complete failure of the security forces has shocked Germans. The revelations caused the resignation of Heinz Fromm, the long-standing president of the federal intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution). He is to be replaced on August 1 by Hans-Georg Maassen, a terrorism expert from the Interior Ministry.
Younger and more militant neo-Nazis
The latest Verfassungsschutz report, submitted by Fromm in mid-July, assesses the development of far-right extremism in the light of the NSU murders. The agency, which is now the object of heavy criticism, describes over 80 pages a development that began in the 1990s. According to the report, "During this time, far-right extremism has become younger, more active, and more militant."
Only a year ago, the agency said it had not noticed any terrorist structures in the far-right scene. Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich denies the charge that this means that the agency was "blind to the far-right." But even he has spoken of "failure" and "lost trust." He says reform is unavoidable.
Violent potential underestimated
Though they have long recognized the diversity of the far-right scene, the experts have clearly underestimated the danger it represents. Friedrich now warns of possible neo-Nazi copycat killings, and he underlines that security forces are now cooperating internationally to better confront dangers.
Statistically, the violent potential of far-right extremists has barely changed. The number of injuries as a result of far-right violence reported to the police in 2011 was 640 - just two more than in the year before. The number of attempted murders was five - one fewer than in 2010. By far the largest number of far-right related crimes - 16,000, or 70 percent - was propaganda-related, such as displaying the swastika symbol.
Night-time torch marches
The Verfassungsschutz estimates that there are around 22,500 neo-Nazis in Germany, around 10 percent fewer than in 2011. But the level of organization is very different. The least organized is the third that the agency describes as "subculturally influenced." This is a milieu that defines itself, as much as anything, through extremist music in which Jews, foreigners and leftists are vilified. These regional groups have recently begun to lose supporters - the agency reports numbers down from 8,300 to 7,600.
Many far-right groups, like the "Unsterblichen" ("Immortals") use the Internet to gain attention beyond local areas. Fromm says that these have become more professional, pointing to videos that show neo-Nazis wearing white masks and holding burning torches, who skillfully manage to give the impression of mass events, even though only a few hundred people are present. Such unregistered nocturnal gatherings are said to be becoming more frequent.
What role for the NPD?
At public events, the more loosely-organized far-right extremists come into contact with the National Democratic Party (NPD), Germany's major far-right political party. A popular joint activity is the staging of marches on the anniversaries of the bombings of German cities during World War Two. These events often erupt into violent confrontations between neo-Nazis and anti-Nazi demonstrators. Dresden is one of a number of German cities where broad social spectrums have demonstrated against the abuse of such anniversaries by the far-right.
Several political parties are once again beginning to discuss a possible to ban on the NPD. Germany's federal and state interior ministers are expected to meet at the end of this year to discuss a second attempt to ban the party at the German Constitutional Court. The first attempt failed in 2003, because the Verfassungsschutz had placed too many informants among the NPD leadership. But it is difficult to assess whether there are substantial connections between the neo-Nazi scene and the NPD. However, a former high-ranking NPD official, Ralf Wohlleben, was arrested during the investigation into the NSU, and charged with being an accessory to murder.
New intelligence chief will have to clean up
The NPD has distanced itself from the NSU murders. Party chairman Holger Apfel has described the crimes as "aberrations" that left him "stunned." The NPD's 6,300 members make no secret of their xenophobic, anti-Semitic positions, but they generally air their views ambiguously, so as to avoid prosecution. For instance, the party's election campaign in the Berlin state election went under the slogan "step on the gas," which some took as a reference to the gassing of Jews during the Third Reich. The poster even hung outside the Jewish Museum in the German capital.
The NPD also hopes to score points with its open opposition to Islamification. But the NPD's results in the seven state elections in 2011 were poor. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the NPD was once again able to enter parliament, but in all the other elections, the party received less than one percent of the vote. In Germany, parties only receive state funding for election campaigns if they clear this low hurdle.
Keeping tabs on the far-right scene remains one of the Verfassungsschutz's most important tasks. The agency's new president, Hans-Georg Maassen, will be measured by how well he responds to the failure of the NSU investigation. Maassen has the minister's support. Friedrich is convinced that he has the "necessary assertiveness" to impose the reforms demanded by politicians.
Author: Marcel Fürstenau / bk
Editor: Michael Lawton