In recent months, far-right extremists have carried out several deadly attacks in Germany, including the killing of CDU-politician Walter Lübcke, as well as the online-inspired attack in Halle and conspiracy-driven attack in Hanau. Clearly, far right violence still constitutes a major challenge in contemporary German society.
A new report
In fact, a recent report from Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo, shows that no other country in Western Europe has experienced as much severe right-wing violence as Germany since 1990. Even after considering the population size, Germany is among those countries with the most frequent incidents of severe right-wing violence. While the official number of causalities between 1990 and 2019 is 109 and some non-governmental groups argue that it is as many as 208, C-REX’ own database and research suggest that German far-right extremist have killed 121 people during these years, compared to 80 in Norway (77 on July 22, 2011), 36 in the UK and 22 in Spain.
The report is based on the unique RTV-dataset, developed by C-REX, which aims to cover all severe forms of right-wing violent attacks and plots in Western Europe since 1990. This includes all cases in which the perpetrator(s) appear determined or willing to inflict deadly or physically disabling injury on the victim(s). Because there will be many right-wing attacks that are less severe, the dataset only covers the ‘tip of the iceberg’. However, it does so in a systematic way, allowing us to compare levels of violence over time and across countries.
The report shows that while many countries have none or very few cases of severe right-wing violent attacks and plots in 2019, there were no less than 35 such events in Germany. These events took place all over country, in both the East and the West, including major cities like Berlin, Munich, Hannover and Leipzig, as well as smaller cities like Bottrop and Halle and towns like Sebnitz and Bad Aibling. German far right extremists even carried out violent attacks abroad. In Mallorca, for example, two young German neo-Nazis associated with the hooligan milieu in Red Bull Leipzig assaulted an African-born bouncer at a discotheque.
Mostly lone actors
In line with the dominant trend in recent years, particularly when looking at attacks with a deadly outcome, the most common perpetrator type in Germany is the so-called ‘lone actor’. To be sure, many of these perpetrators are ‘lone’ only in a relative sense meaning that they are inspired by others, such as Brenton Tarrant who killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. In fact, in some cases, ‘lone actors’ are members of, or associated with, groups like the neo-fascist CasaPound in Italy or movements like the sovereign citizen Reichsbürger in Germany, which German authorities classify as an independent form of extremism due to only partial ideological overlap with the far right. Yet, these lone actors differ from other perpetrator types because they prepare and carry out attacks alone at their own initiative, making them more difficult to prevent.
While perpetrators are more frequently part of an organized group in other countries with relatively high levels of violence like Spain and Italy, ‘lone actors’ were responsible for around half of the severe attacks in Germany in 2019, including the fatal event in Halle. However, in recent years, Germany has also experienced violence or violent plots from more organized groups, including the Oldschool Society group, the Freital group and Revolution Chemnitz. Many also had strong links to the extreme right party Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD). Moreover, and more unique for Germany, there have been several discoveries of organized groups stockpiling weapons seemingly preparing for an armed struggle. At least four of these discoveries were associated with the Reichsbürger movement, whereas others involved less known groups like "National Socialist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Germany” and “The Hard Core”. In sum, this indicates that German authorities are dealing with both violent individuals and more organized forms of far right violence.
The most frequent targets are immigrants
Also in line with the dominant trend, German far-right extremists today mostly attack ethnic minorities and immigrants, like the car attack on New Year’s Eve in Bottrop. In Western Europe in general, and particularly in Northern Europe, victims of right-wing violence tend to be ethnic and religious minorities, Muslims in particular, as far-right perpetrators perceive these groups as unwanted ‘aliens’ and therefore as legitimate targets. In Eastern Europe, which is not yet covered by the RTV dataset, other reports show that the Roma minority is a frequent victim of right-wing violence. Attacks on Jews are much less common. To the extent that attacks on the Jewish community occur, however, it is usually in Germany.
At the same time, Germany has also witnessed several right-wing attacks on high-profiled politicians. In recent years, this includes not only the killing of Lübke, but also the stabbings of Henriette Reker and Andreas Hollstein. Both were attacked due to their refugee-friendly policies. Several other mayors and politicians at local and state levels have also been attacked, or targeted in disrupted plots. Some of these plots involve organized groups, like Nordkreuz, which seems to work towards overthrowing, or at least targeting, the entire political ‘System’.
Studying right-wing violence in Germany in a comparative perspective provides us with at least three lessons. First, the nature of right-wing violence varies considerably from country to country. While some countries would have to deal primarily with so-called lone actors with islamophobic motives (as in the UK), others will need to tackle the problem of more organized violence, including more spontaneous attacks on political opponents (as in Spain) or more premeditated attacks on refugees (as in Greece). Germany authorities, however, are facing a more complex situation characterized by both lone actors targeting immigrant communities (as in Hanau), more organized groups attacking the police or plotting to attack politicians (as with Nordkreuz), as well as numerous arson attacks on asylum centers and knife attacks on refugees.
Second, the different nature of right-wing violence also shows why we need to explain this violence differently depending on which European region we are looking at. In Southern Europe, high levels of violence seem correlated with the combination of socioeconomic hardship, nationalist-authoritarian legacies and extensive left-wing militancy. This combination intensifies an already polarized left-right divide, which occasionally result in more far-right violence. While this explanation also plays a role in Germany, particularly in the East in the 1990s and early 2000s, relatively high levels of far-right violence in Northern Europe seem related to the combination of high immigration, low electoral support for anti-immigrant parties, and extensive public repression of far right actors and opinions. In these countries, the extreme right seems able to mobilize followers and to motivate violence, at least partly because of the dominance of pro-immigration elites in politics and society. However, this doesn’t mean that having a more successful anti-immigrant party will automatically reduce levels of violence, especially not when it is partially hijacked by right-wing extremists.
Third, prevention of such attacks and violent radicalization leading to terrorism is certainly a complex and multi-faceted endeavor – but authorities need to do more, also in Germany. While the German authorities have significantly increased personnel capacities in police units targeting the far right, as well as finally developed a risk-assessment tool for right-wing extremists, Neo-Nazis still get access to weapons too easily. While the Federal Criminal Police has recently introduced so-called “virtual agents” to identify potential attackers like the ones from Halle or Hanau, detecting and tracing modern forms of online-based violent radicalization is still significantly underdeveloped. In addition, we know too little about new milieus of far-right radicalization, such as messenger apps like Telegram or TikTok. Moreover, while the German domestic intelligence services have predominantly focused on the national level and on more organized groups, recent forms of far right radicalization is less organized, like “hive terrorism”, and truly transnational, like the emerging chain reaction of global right-wing terror. In order to counter such new forms of radicalization and networking effectively, we need more networking and exchange between researchers, government agencies and civil society. And finally yet importantly, while the German government has also significantly increased funding for non-governmental preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) projects, including specific counter-radicalization and de-radicalization programs, the evidence base for such tools is still too scarce and scientific evaluations are rare. In sum, Germany, as most other countries, needs more knowledge, better cooperation between governmental and societal institutions, as well as more evidence based approaches and rigorous evaluations.
A version of this blog post was initially published in German by Die Zeit on July 20, 2020.