The story so far: The killing of nine people at two shisha lounges in Hanau, Germany, last week by a person suspected to have a far-right background has heightened concerns about the country’s right-wing extremism. The Hanau attacker had released a manifesto before the assault, targeting mainly those of Kurdish origin, which called for extermination of people in several West Asian countries. In recent years, Germany, like several other European countries, has seen twin far-right problems — growing street violence by extremists against minorities and immigrants and the rapid political rise of the far-right party Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland or AfD), which has normalised to an extent anti-immigrant rhetoric in the country’s political discourse. The growing popularity of the AfD, which is already represented in all regional parliaments in the country, is what makes Germany more vulnerable to far-right threats than other countries in the continent.
How many far-right groups are there?
Post-war Germany has been wary of nationalist politics and has shown zero tolerance to anti-Semitism and race-related crimes. The Nazi-era crimes are remembered in Germany and taught in schools. The public are banned from using Nazi slogans or symbols and there are laws against Holocaust denial. But despite this culture of atonement and strong legislation to prevent racist crimes, Germany has seen the resurgence of xenophobic groups, especially after the German reunification in 1990. In November 2011, German officials uncovered the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist group, which had carried out decade-long underground activities, including a series of murders of immigrants and people of foreign origin . In 2015, a group of people in Freital, a town in Saxony, launched attacks on refugee shelters and political opponents. Known as the Freital Group, they claimed that their actions were aimed at “protecting German people from refugees”. In 2018, eight members of the group were found guilty of terror related crimes. The prosecution argued that the group’s crimes were based on “xenophobic, far-right extremist and Nazi ideology”. They were sentenced for up to 10 years in jail. In 2018, German police arrested members of another neo-Nazi cell called Revolution Chemnitz , who were allegedly planning attacks on immigrants, journalists and political opponents, on October 3, German Unity Day. Many of these extremists use the Nazi salute, carry swastikas and even sing the Die Fahne hoch, the anthem of Hitler’s Nazi Party.
If the NSU had worked underground for years, far-right extremists are no longer hiding in Germany. The rise of the AfD, which broke with Germany’s post-war consensus on pluralism and multilateralism and took an overly German nationalist approach at all issues, from internal and external security to economic policy, has shaken up the political climate in the country. The AfD’s growth has coincided with a sharp jump in the number of far-right attacks in Germany. According to the BfV (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz), the domestic security agency of the federal government, there are 24,100 right-wing extremists in Germany, of which 12,700 are “violence-oriented”. The country has also seen 8,605 crimes nationwide committed by neo-Nazis and other groups in the first half of 2019, according to Interior Ministry data. A week before the Hanau shooting, police arrested 12 members of a far-right terror cell, who were plotting to attack mosques in 10 States. The AfD does not have proven direct links with these groups. As a mainstream political party, it does not endorse violence either. But when it comes to immigrants, Muslims, Germany’s past crimes and German nationalism, both AfD leaders and the neo-Nazis often speak the same language.
What does the AfD want?
The AfD was founded in 2013 by a group of conservative leaders, many of whom were part of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Their plan was to occupy the political vacuum created by the CDU’s shift towards the centre from the right under Ms. Merkel’s leadership. Initially the AfD was focused on its anti-euro agenda and staunchly opposed German taxpayer’s money being used to bail out debt-trapped countries in the euro zone, mainly Greece.
But German politics would undergo a sea change after Ms. Merkel decided to welcome a million immigrants, mostly from the war-torn Arab world, to the country. The AfD quickly transformed itself into a nationalistic, populist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim party. In 2016, Frauke Petry, the then leader of the AfD, called on police to shoot illegal migrants on Germany’s border. Bjoern Hoecke, another AfD leader, once termed Berlin’s memorial to the victims of the Nazi rule a “monument of shame”. The party’s 2017 manifesto read “Islam does not belong to Germany” and called Muslims “a big danger for our state, our society and our system of values.” These extreme views helped the AfD turn around its fortunes. If it had won 4.7% of the vote in the 2013 federal election, the vote share jumped to 12.6% in 2017. With 89 seats, the AfD is now the third largest party in the 709-member Bundestag, the federal Parliament.
What is next?
If the AfD was seen as a political untouchable by the establishment parties till recently, that is also slowly changing. Earlier this month, in the eastern State of Thuringia, a liberal leader was elected premier with help from Ms. Merkel’s CDU and the AfD. It created national outrage and Ms. Merkel made a decisive intervention. Thuringia Premier Thomas Kemmerich quit after the controversy. The CDU’s leader and Ms. Merkel’s designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has also announced her resignation from the party leadership. But despite the uproar, the Thuringia episode is an example that the AfD is fast becoming a mainstream political party in Germany. And with the AfD’s rise and its open embrace of racist and anti-Muslim rhetoric, the many sleeper neo-Nazi cells which were till now resisted by the post-war consensus feel emboldened. That consensus is now under attack.