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Germany cracks down on far-right with raids

MAINZ, Germany — German security services are stepping up efforts to monitor and contain the threat of modern far-right extremists amid a rise in 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 take the issue has increased dramatically in recent years, says Kai Arzheimer, a politics professor at the University of Mainz in Germany who studies far-right extremism.

“Politicians and the security apparatus have been underestimating or downplaying the scale of the problem for decades. Fortunately, this has started to change even under the last administration,” he said.

Demonstrators hold German flags reading “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 Reichsbürger extremists who allegedly planned to overthrow the government and install an obscure crown prince, inspired by a flamboyant mix of right-wing conspiracy theories.

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

A decade after it was founded as a more conventional party critical of the European Union and integration, the far-right AfD is now firmly part of the German political landscape. An opinion poll by German public broadcaster ZDF on Friday gave it 17 percent of the national vote – enough to make it the third-strongest party in the country.

German experts on far-right extremism tell NBC News that the rise of the far right is real and dangerous, with ex-soldiers and active-duty police officers who have access to weapons allegedly involved in a conspiracy, while the AfD’s popularity has changed political minds and pulled centrist parties to the right.

The AfD rose to prominence around the time of the refugee crisis in 2015 when then-Chancellor Angela Merkel called on hundreds of thousands of migrants, most of them fleeing the civil war in Syria, to settle in Germany. More than a million came, leading to anti-immigrant sentiment across Germany and Europe.

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

The AfD may decide to fight the extremism ruling in court and despite its “well-documented” links to even more radical far-right activities, it still has enough support nationally for some to consider it a mainstream, respectable party, Arzheimer said.

“AfD is the strongest party in some regions in the east and has a very respectable level of support at the national level. Their large delegations in the Bundestag, the European Parliament and most state parliaments give them legal protection, but also access to funds and the media, so their position is quite entrenched.”

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

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

Björn Höcke, president of the right-wing AfD, which enjoys the support of about a quarter of voters.Bodo Schackov / DPA via Getty Images

The AfD denies that it harbors extremist views.

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

The rise of the right is felt throughout society.

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

Announcing the figures, Interior Secretary Nancy Faeser said she would urgently propose new, tougher gun laws as a result.

And 79 percent of people asked by the German Center for Integration and Migration Research, a state-backed think tank, said that German democracy is in greater danger today than it was five years ago.

On Tuesday, German federal prosecutors said they had arrested three more suspected far-right anti-democracy extremists linked to an alleged conspiracy by the Reichsburger – or Reich Citizens – movement, which is accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

The three are suspected of membership in a terrorist organization, according to the prosecution’s statement. In December, 25 people from the group were arrested in an operation involving 3,000 police officers who found firearms, bullets and detailed plans.

Although few believe the group could achieve its goal, experts say it is dangerous.

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

As with much of the far right across Europe, another catalyst for the movement was 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,” Dietrich said.

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

There is a more subtle but no less important aspect to the rise of the German far right: a rightward shift in the language and politics of mainstream parties, according to Vicente Valentim, a political scientist at the University of Oxford in England who studies how politics changes social norms.

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

There has also been a concrete change in voting trends and attitudes over the past 10 years, Valentin OR Valentim argues, but equally significant has been the emboldening of those who were already anti-migration and concerned about radical Islam – and the centre-right has changed accordingly.

“It’s also affected how other politicians speak — the center-right is taking on some of the far-right’s rhetoric. It is a very powerful mechanism for changing social norms. We have a lot of evidence that when the far right became successful, the remaining parties moved closer to their positions on migration,” he said.

Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith from London.

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