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Germany cracks down on far-right with raids

MAINZ, Germany — Germany’s security services are stepping up efforts to monitor and contain the threat from modern far-right extremists amid rising politically motivated hate crimes.

Earlier this week, the country’s domestic intelligence service labeled the youth wing of the country’s largest far-right party a dangerous extremist group.

The seriousness with which authorities are taking the issue has increased dramatically in recent years, according to Kai Arzheimer, a politics professor at the University of Mainz in Germany who studies far-right extremism.

“Politicians and the security apparatus have underestimated or minimized the scale of the problem for decades. Thankfully that has started to change even under the last administration,” he said.

Protesters wave German flags that read “We are the people” during a rally by far-right groups in Berlin on October 8.John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images File

Multiple criminal investigations are underway into a small but potentially dangerous group of far-right extremists in the Reichsbürger who allegedly plotted to overthrow the government and install an obscure hereditary prince, inspired by a flowery far-right mix conspiracy theories.

The country’s domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (known by its German abbreviation BfV), has labeled the youth wing of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as extremist.

A decade after its founding as a more conventional party critical of the European Union and integration, the far-right AfD is now an integral part of the German political landscape. An opinion poll by German public broadcaster ZDF on Friday gave it 17% of the national vote – enough to become the country’s third-strongest party.

German far-right extremism experts tell NBC News the rise of the far-right is real and dangerous, with former military and active police having access to firearms allegedly involved in a conspiratorial plot , while the AfD’s popularity has reshaped political thinking and pushed centrist parties to the right.

The AfD party rose to prominence at the time of the 2015 refugee crisis when Chancellor Angela Merkel invited hundreds of thousands of migrants, most fleeing the civil war in Syria, to settle in Germany. Over a million people came, sparking anti-immigrant sentiment across Germany and Europe.

Its youth wing, the Young Alternative for Germany (known by the German abbreviation JA), which has members as young as 14, is the first German group to be labeled as extremist since the Nazi era, its members being described as “arsonists and cue-hate givers” by BfV Chairman Thomas Haldenwang this week. The AfD as a whole was placed under official surveillance by domestic intelligence in 2021.

The AfD may choose to fight the extremism ruling in court and despite its “well-documented” links to even more radical far-right activity, it still has enough domestic support to be considered by some as a respectable party, Arzheimer said.

“The AfD is the strongest party in parts of the east and enjoys very respectable levels of support nationally. Their large delegations in the Bundestag, the European Parliament and in most state parliaments provide them with legal protection, but also access to funds and the media, so that their position is well anchored.

In the former East Germany, which reunified with the West in 1991, it enjoys the support of around a quarter of voters, often making it the strongest party in parts of the EU. East.

Ahead of Germany’s 2021 federal election, the Bertelsmann Foundation found in a survey that just under 8% of German voters had “overt far-right attitudes”. The figure is almost four times higher among AfD supporters.

Björn Höcke at one of the AfD events
Björn Höcke, chairman of the right-wing AfD, which enjoys the support of around a quarter of voters.Bodo Schackow/DPA via Getty Images

The AfD denies having harbored extremist views.

Neither the AfD nor the Young Alternative responded to NBC News’ requests for comment. But in a statement published on the party’s website on Wednesday, co-leaders Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel said: “There is no progressive radicalization within the AfD”, adding that the BfV’s decision to classifying the youth wing as extremist was a “scandalous action”. ”

The rise of the right is felt throughout society.

Of the roughly 60,000 politically motivated crimes recorded by German police last year – including anti-Semitic crimes and those targeting asylum seekers – 41% were committed by far-right extremists. The number of recorded hate crimes rose 10% from 2021 and three-quarters were inspired by far-right ideology, officials said earlier this month.

Unveiling the figures, Home Secretary Nancy Faeser said she would urgently propose tougher new gun laws.

And 79% of people polled by the German Center for Integration and Migration Research, a state-backed think tank, said German democracy was more at risk today than it was. five years ago.

On Tuesday, Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office said it arrested three other suspected far-right anti-democratic extremists linked to an alleged conspiracy by the Reichsburger Movement – or Citizens of the Reich – on charges of an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

The three men are suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization, the prosecution said in a statement. In December, 25 people from the group were arrested in an operation involving 3,000 officers who recovered firearms, bullets and detailed plans.

While few believe the group could achieve its goal, experts say it’s dangerous.

“There was a high probability of loss of life. With more and more of these groups, we see that they are military or ex-military or ex-police,” said Miro Dittrich, an expert at CeMAS, a German group that monitors right-wing extremism.

As with many on the far right across Europe, another catalyst for the movement has been the resistance to pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.

“A lot of people joined this movement and they said people would rise up, but it never came to anything,” Dittrich said.

“So the inner core of the group believes that there is a plan, a plot to eliminate the Germans and that this is war and that it is legitimate to use violence in a moment of crisis.”

According to Vicente Valentim, a political scientist at the University of Oxford in England, who studies how politics changes social norms.

“So part of that increase isn’t that people are becoming more extremist, it’s that people who already held those views are more likely to speak about them in public. It gives voters a hint that there are others who share their opinions, that they are acceptable,” he said.

There has also been a concrete shift in voting trends and attitudes over the past 10 years, argued Valentin OR Valentim, but equally significant has been the emboldening of those who were already anti-migration and worried about migration. radical Islam – and the center right has changed as a result.

“It has also affected the way other politicians speak – the centre-right is picking up on some of the rhetoric from the far right. It is a very powerful mechanism for changing social norms. We have plenty of evidence that once the far right has succeeded, the remaining parties have moved closer to their views on migration,” he said.

Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith reported from London.

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