Neo-Nazi Terror: An Attack on Democracy, a Failure of Policy

Germany is shocked by the murders committed by the so-called “National-Socialist Underground” and German security agencies’ complete ignorance of the network’s existence. These deeds are more than criminal acts based on political motives. The fact that people are being murdered because of their faith or ethnic origin sixty or so years after the Holocaust is an attack on democracy itself. Chancellor Merkel was right when she called it “a shame for Germany.” It is also a shame that Germany’s domestic intelligence, the Offices for the Protection of the Constitution, failed, and because of this they are now in the throes of an existential crisis. Merkel’s government is also in trouble now, because it has consistently underestimated the threat of neo-Nazi movements and has made it even more difficult to take action against right-wing extremism.

These right-wing terrorists escaped police apprehension for thirteen years. German security agencies were negligent, and therefore made it possible for this gang to draw a trail of blood across Germany. The group murdered ten people, nine of them immigrants, and many of them kebab shop owners. The group blasted a bomb in a Turkish neighborhood in Cologne and wounded twenty-two; and they committed a number of bank robberies. The fact that a terror-group that called itself the “National-Socialist Underground” was behind this came to light only when two of its members committed suicide in November. Until then, the police had always denied there could be any political basis for the murders, and they assumed it was a series of mafia killings, giving the false impression that the victims themselves were connected with nefarious circles. The police are now intensively investigating the extreme-right milieu and have identified a number of people who had helped the now-dead killers with funds, false identities and logistical support. Connections between the murderers and the extreme right National Democratic Party (NPD) came to light as well. Rumors that one of the murderers or one of their supporters was paid as an informant of the domestic intelligence are deeply dismaying.

One lesson that Germany learned from the failure of the Weimar democracy, and the rise of Nazi tyranny, was the installation of a so-called militant democracy. Never again should liberties be abused to destroy democracy and freedom and to erect a tyrannical order. For that reason, the framers of the West German democracy established a domestic intelligence service, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. This office was designed to collect information about political extremists who could become a threat to democracy, and it was allowed to operate with intelligence methods. In the United States, with its nearly unlimited understanding of the freedom of speech, this is hard to understand. The U.S. Department for Homeland Security received harsh criticism when it published a report a couple years ago about the risk of homegrown right-wing extremism. In Germany, in comparison, the dogma of ”no liberties for the enemies of the liberty“ is an important lesson from our national history and it justifies our domestic intelligence.

Nevertheless, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution had never earned a very good reputation. During the Cold War, there was a saying that it was „blind in the right eye“, meaning that it was reluctant to examine neo-Nazi activities. No wonder – many of its staff had worked for the Nazi security branch previously. They had learned their anti-communism in the Gestapo and continued it in Germany’s new democratic institutions. But this is a different scandal from the current one. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution existed even after the Berlin Wall had come down because of concerns about democratic society in East Germany. The GDR had never experienced the self-critical examination of its Nazi-past, as well as anti-Semitism and racism that West Germany had already done. After 40 years of dictatorship and isolation, the East seemed to be susceptible to authoritarianism and nationalism.

But the work of domestic intelligence and the other security agencies did not seem to be very effective on this front. Instead, we are now afraid that the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was a “useful idiot” for the neo-Nazis. The Office financed the neo-Nazis by paying informants a lot of money and obviously received worthless information in return that probably served to cloud the Office’s judgment. In Thuringia, the home state of the now-exposed Nazi terrorists, the Office paid a local Nazi leader 100,000 (or so) Euros as an informant. But the authorities obviously still hadn’t the foggiest idea about the “National-Socialist Underground. There are also doubts about the Office’s practices with informants in the NPD, the political arm of the right-wing extremist scene and a breeding ground for right-wing violence. In 2003, the German Federal Constitutional Court refused to ban this political party. The Government had placed so many informants even in the leadership of the NPD that a fair trial on the ban wouldn’t be possible. But it’s clear these informants haven’t delivered very useful information to contain the extremism. The NPD is solidly established in parts of East Germany now and has been re-elected in the state parliaments of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Pomerania.

The failure of the security agencies is due to multiple factors. One is the shift of attention to the Islamic extremism since 9/11 and away from other forms of extremism. It’s clear now that the Government had underestimated the danger of right-wing terrorism. Neo-Nazis were seen as dull thugs and no one believed they were capable of organized terror. Due to this, the Government neglected the fights against right-wing extremism. The Interior Ministry, responsible for domestic intelligence, dissolved its unit dealing with right-wing extremism. The Youth Ministry planned to cut financial aid for organizations working against right-wing extremism. In addition, these organizations are now required to formally declare their loyalty to the German Constitution. Those who are committed to take action against neo-Nazis are suspected of being an enemy of the Constitution. How absurd is that? Instead of fighting against xenophobia and anti-Semitism, the government has paid more attention to left-wing extremism. A government initiative, founded in 2000 to support local projects against neo-Nazism, must take action against communist doctrines as well. And a fund to support victims of right-wing extremist violence was expanded to victims of leftist violence – only symbolic politics because there are hardly any such victims.

The permanent attempt to equate right- and left-wing extremism is based on a double ignorance of history. Nazi ideology had led to an aggressive nationalism and brutal anti-Semitism, which culminated in WWII and the Holocaust. This shows that violence has always been a part of their program. This is what makes ring-wing extremism so dangerous, and the ”National-Socialist Underground” has shown it again. Because of that, the fight against militant neo-Nazis needs more effort than the activities against the last remaining communist doctrinaires. In addition, Mrs. Merkel’s parties, CDU and CSU, have no reason to be embarrassed about the fight “against the right”, because they are not right-wing parties. They should remember that they emerged out of a party called Zentrum (center). The right-wing parties were discredited after 1945 because they had helped Hitler to get into power.

Mrs. Merkel’s government has now realized the magnitude of this threat to Germany, its reputation, and its trust in the security branch. The whole case, including the role of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, must be fully examined and exposed. Last week, the German Bundestag unanimously adopted a resolution against neo-Nazi terror. For the first time in history, all six parties in parliament, from the Left-Party to the CSU, initiated a common resolution. That’s a strong signal, as German parties stand united against right-wing extremist terror against immigrants. The German government must end its policy of playing down right-wing extremism and equating right and left. A new attempt to ban the NPD should be started too, because this party is the institutional spine and a breeding ground for the violence. The planned cuts for projects against right-wing extremism have been canceled. But that‘s not enough. Intensified efforts are necessary to expel racism, nationalism and anti-Semitism individual by individual. In too many villages in East Germany, the right-wing extremists are already part of the establishment. They are members of town councils, are active in their communities, and are local opinion leaders. In these places, the forces that are active for democracy and tolerance and that raise their voices against right-wing propaganda need support. Money, staff and moral support are necessary. That is much more important than additional powers for the Office of the Protection of the Constitution. Police and the courts have to protect us against the violence of Nazi terrorists. However, the best safeguard for a liberal democracy is not an intelligence agency, but committed democrats.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.