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Ukraine war impacts fight against far-right extremism

March 16, 2022

German authorities are joining forces to adopt an action plan against right-wing extremism. The war in Ukraine is prompting intelligence services to be even more vigilant.

Far-right demonstrators in Berlin
Germany's far-right is increasingly violentImage: Christian Mang/imago images

Russian President Vladimir Putin's war of aggression against Ukraine has become a topic of heated debate also for Germany's far-right extremists. In chat channels, there is talk of German neo-Nazis flocking to Ukraine to fight.

"However, one should not overestimate this," said Thomas Haldenwang, the president of the domestic intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV). Young men have taken to social media channels vowing to join the fighting in Ukraine, but Haldenwang described them as simply engaging in "loud-mouthed boastfulness" ("Maulheldentum").

The domestic intelligence agency has identified right-wing extremists who may be intending to take up arms in Ukraine. Authorities try to prevent them from leaving the country by revoking their passports.

Haldenwang says no more than a handful of cases have been confirmed of German far-right activists actually leaving for Ukraine. "And in these specific cases, we do not assume that they actually took part in any combat operations," he said.

Foreigners fight against Russia in the Ukraine

Germany does not criminalize those who join regular armed forces abroad. Joining or setting up any militia unit, however, is considered as partaking in terrorism.

Some of Germany's right-wing extremists have long had links to Ukraine's neo-Nazi Azov militia, which has been active in the Donbas region especially since 2014 and has attracted support from other European countries and the US.

Other German neo-Nazis support Russia's Vladimir Putin. German media have reported that far-right activists who spent the past two years denouncing the German government and its restrictions to rein in the COVID pandemic, now place their hopes on Russia to champion their values: "When Putin marches through, men will again be men, electricity, and fuel will become cheaper, Islamization will end, and the greens and lefties will all be locked up," read a message on a Telegram chat group for the "Free Thuringians" extreme-right splinter group.

Fighting right-wing extremism in a town in Saxony

Right-wing threat growing

Intelligence agency chief Thomas Haldenwang says it is unlikely that German far-right extremists could go to fight in Ukraine and return well-trained and prepared to carry out attacks on state institutions in Germany.

He is more concerned about the radicalization that is happening within Germany. The domestic intelligence has registered more than 13,300 right-wing extremists who they classify as potentially violent.

"We want to combat right-wing extremism holistically and at an early stage," said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser this week. She has defined the fight against right-wing extremism as one of her central tasks.

She wants to focus on prevention, on "taking away the space for contempt for humanity and to remove the breeding ground for violence," she said, launching an alliance that includes include security and education experts.

Nancy Faeser speaking to the media
Interior Minister Nancy Faeser has made the fight against far-right extremism her top priorityImage: Dursun Aydem/AA/picture alliance

The president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education (bpb), Thomas Krüger, explained that schools have already been caught in the "crosshairs" of right-wing extremists.

He wants to combat disinformation, conspiracy ideologies, and radicalization by teaching youngsters to "critically reflect on what is happening, especially on social media." There are plans to set up a Central Reporting Office for Criminal Content on the Internet (ZMI) at the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA).

Germany threatens to get tough on Telegram

In response to an increase in the wide range of insults, threats, and calls to commit serious crimes, including death threats, especially via the messenger service Telegram, a task force has already been set up at the BKA. Since the beginning of the protests against the government's COVID restrictions, incitement on the internet has reached a new dimension, they say.

Too little, too late

"Many of these crimes are directed against officeholders and elected officials, but also against scientists and medical professionals," says BKA President Holger Münch.

The danger from the right has long been underestimated, says sociologist and political scientist Johannes Kiess of Leipzig University. This changed with the murder of Christian Democrat (CDU) politician Walter Lübcke in 2019 by a well-known far-right extremist, he told DW. At that point it became clear even to the top security authorities and politicians that action needed to be taken.

This was too little, too late, says Kiess, who is an expert on right-wing extremism and deputy director of the Else-Frenkel-Brunswik Institute for Democracy Research. He feels the exposing of the "National Socialist Underground" terrorist cell in 2011 should have served as a wake-up call for German authorities. The NSU murdered nine men with foreign roots and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007 without investigators connecting the dots.

A demonstration in Munich against COVID restrictions
Neo-Nazis mingled with anti-COVID protesters in GermanyImage: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA/picture alliance

Johannes Kiess urges more continuous funding for grassroots groups and the prioritization of political education in school curricula.

"We are dealing with a problem for society as a whole that cannot be solved with an action plan alone," he says.

He urges a socio-psychological point of view, warning that once authoritarian structures have taken root, they are not easy to combat. "Something like that doesn't develop overnight and accordingly can't be fought overnight," explains Kiess.

It is important "that extreme right-wing actors are really marginalized, pushed aside," and that it is shown again and again that there is no place for such actors in a democratic society.

The AfD: A right-wing extremist party

Kiess says this with the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in mind, which is represented in the federal parliament and all 16 state parliaments. The party has up to 7% support in urban areas in the West, but well over 20% support in eastern Germany's rural areas. Recently the Cologne Administrative Court ruled that it was justified for the party to be monitored by domestic intelligence services, due to extremist and unconstitutional tendencies. But, Kiess asks, what consequences will this really have?

For him, the AfD has long been a "clearly right-wing extremist party. The right-wing extremism urges for society as a whole to be more vigilant and proactive. In this sense, he feels, the interior minister's action plan will help to make a difference.

This article was originally written in German.

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