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Germany Targeted Far-Right Violence With Laws. It Wasn't Enough.

Germany Targeted Far-Right Violence With Laws. It Wasn't Enough.

Wednesday, 14 August, 2019 - 09:30
Once the casualties from the El Paso mass shooting are added in, statistics show that since 9/11, more people have been killed in the US by far right terrorists (107) than by militants (104). The urge to try to fix this with regulatory measures is understandable, but it’s also worth looking at the German experience of fighting right-wing extremism and terrorism; despite tough policies against it, this kind of violence is still too frequent for comfort.

Germany has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the world (including a ban on automatic weapons, a federal gun register and other regulations that make it hard to buy one gun, let alone multiple firearms), less than a fifth the US number of guns per 100 residents and about one-nineteenth the US murder rate. But in addition to that, Germany has specific safeguards against any return to its Nazi past.

One is a strict hate speech law, which carries a maximum five-year prison term for racist speech, including specifically the justification of Nazi crimes, such as Holocaust denial. The law doesn’t just sit on the books; it’s widely enforced, including against social network posters. In 2018, the police took action in 1,472 “hate posting” cases, in 1,130 of them against people who expressed far-right views. Besides, there’s a long list of banned symbols and propaganda materials, the use of which is also consistently prosecuted (12,582 such crimes were registered last year). This approach differs sharply from the US stance on free speech; there, the same “hate posts” would have been constitutionally protected.

The other safeguard is essentially an element of the police state – something to which Germany is allergic in almost all other areas. One of the primary tasks of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) is to keep a close eye on Germany’s population of right-wing radicals. The BfV’s annual reports contain rather precise numbers of these people, who are members of organizations constantly watched by the domestic intelligence service and unstructured communities of so-called Reichsburgers and Selbstverwalters (people who profess to live by the laws of the German Reich rather than the Federal Republic of Germany or merely by their own laws). In 2018, for example, the BfV counted 25,350 such people, compared with 25,250 the year before.

The BfV makes it its business to attend and catalog all kinds of right-wing gatherings, including concerts by musicians popular among members of the scene; it counted 270 such music events in 2018.

The intelligence service doesn’t just analyze open-source data such as social network posts and speeches at public gatherings, as it did for a report on the far-right parliamentary party Alternative for Germany that was leaked earlier this year. It also infiltrates suspicious groups and watches individuals. The BfV’s cultivation of informers within far-right groups came to light during the five-year trial of the so-called National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi group that committed nine murders of immigrants and 14 bank robberies between 2000 and 2006. The last surviving core member of the group, Beate Zschaepe, was sentenced to life imprisonment last year.

The BfV informers apparently failed to report the group’s activity to police even though they’d known about it, which raised questions about the intelligence service’s relationship with the right-wing scene. But the very fact that intelligence operations are being conducted against the far-right groups in a society that makes a point of rejecting surveillance and stresses a commitment to political freedom is quite remarkable. In the US, the law enforcement effort against racist extremism is weak and low-profile by comparison.

And yet Germany, despite going to all those lengths, is experiencing a worrying increase in right-wing violence. An investigation conducted by the news website Zeit Online and the daily Tagesspiegel last year found 169 murders committed by right-wing extremists between 1990 and 2017; only half of them were reflected in official statistics on politically motivated crime. In recent months, two murders by far-right terrorists shook Germany: the assassination of the Kassel city government president Walter Luebcke and the attempted murder of an Eritrean immigrant. In both cases, the attackers were described as “lone wolves,” but Luebcke’s killer had been on a BfV watchlist as a member of the far-right scene.

More than 1,000 violent crimes are committed every year by the German far right. If the murder numbers compiled by Zeit Online and Tagesspiegel are correct, the loss of life linked to far-right activity is on the same order of magnitude as in the US, though Germany is a much smaller country and mass shootings are a rarity. (It’s possible, of course, that US statistics underestimate the number of far-right killings because the racist motive isn’t always seen as the main one). In any case, all the government attention to the far-right scene in Germany fails to prevent quite a lot of violence.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the constraints and added safeguards are pointless. They probably prevent more crimes than they fail to stop. But the solution to the right-wing violence problem is far more complex than simply crime prevention. Above all, it’s a matter of keeping society healthy and public debate respectful.

Hate and rage aren’t chemical reactions in the brains of a small number of crazy people; they are social phenomena. In German society, the recent increase in far-right activity which has sent the BfV to the parliament begging for more resources is associated with the consequences of the 2015 refugee crises, mishandled by politicians. In the US, it’s the product of the same divisions that have led to Donald Trump’s polarizing presidency. Tough laws and their enforcement may be a good place to start, but we should bear in mind that they only treat the symptoms.


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