Combating Extremism

Police: Monitor Right-Wing Groups

pegida_anti-refugees_19.10_ Michael Kappeler_dpa
Anti-refugee Pegida rally in Dresden on Monday.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Calls for Germany’s intelligence agencies to monitor the AfD point to fears of growing support for the far-right.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The right-wing AfD is moving to the right after a split with its euroskeptic founders.
    • Up to 20,000 people attended Pegida’s one-year anniversary rally on Monday.
    • A police report warns that the far-right could target refugees and those who help them.
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    Audio

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The growing aggression of Germany’s anti-immigrant right is alarming Germany’s law enforcement community to such an extent that they are calling for the country’s intelligence agency to put them under surveillance.

The resurgent Islamophobic Pegida movement and the right-wing Alternative for Germany party (AfD) are increasingly seeking to profit from concern about the influx of asylum seekers, with Germany expected to take in up to 1 million people fleeing war and poverty this year.

Now there are growing calls from police representatives for the domestic intelligence agency to monitor not only Pegida but also the AfD.

“The fact that they are still able to largely operate just below the level of proven anti-constitutional behavior makes them particularly dangerous,” Andy Neumann, the head of German criminal police association, the BDK, told Handelsblatt. He called for the intelligence agency, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, to officially monitor the party.

“The fact that they are still able to largely operate just below the level of proven anti-constitutional behavior makes them particularly dangerous.”

Andy Neumann, German criminal police association

The agency, Germany’s equivalent of the FBI, closely monitors groups that it regards as a potential threat to the democratic constitutional state.

While the populist AfD has sought to present itself as moderate and mainstream, recent statements by Bjorn Höcke, the AfD’s leader in the eastern state of Thuringia, have raised alarm bells about the growing far-right tendencies in the party.

The party was formed in 2013 by euroskeptics who opposed euro zone bailouts, but a leadership struggle and a split earlier this year has seen the party move to the right under its new leader Frauke Petry and increasingly focus on immigration, asylum and family policies.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow all Syrians to claim asylum and her welcoming message to refugees in general has breathed life into Pegida and the AfD, both of which had seen support flagging since the beginning of the year.

On Monday, Pegida managed to attract up to 20,000 people at a rally in Dresden and the AfD has seen an increase in support in opinion polls to 7 percent.

Yet observers warn that more vigilance is needed to combat the growing xenophic rhetoric coming from both groups.

In particular, an appearance by Mr. Höcke on a political talk show, Günther Jauch, on Sunday night provoked widespread criticism. After pulling a German flag out of his pocket, the AfD politician claimed that the Germany was importing “social dynamite” and that blonde women would now be more afraid of being sexually assaulted.

“At the very latest since the appearance on Jauch on Sunday it has become clear that the AfD has stopped its balancing act between the clientele of annoyed citizens and those right-wing groups of voters who have been disappointed with the NPD for years, and are making themselves into the new mouthpiece of the extreme right in Germany,” Mr. Neumann said, referring to the far-right National Democratic Party.

Mr. Höcke led a rally of thousands of people in the eastern city of Erfurt on Wednesday to protest against the government’s asylum policies.

The police unions have also voiced concern about the far-right tendencies of the AfD.

“We are assuming that with regards the latest comments by AfD members, that the security authorities are being duly active,” Jörg Radek, deputy head of the German Police Union, told Handelsblatt.

Rainer Wendt, head of a different police union, said that the state and federal intelligence agencies should be gathering and evaluating information about any efforts to undermine the free, democratic rule of law and the security of the state.  Everything has to be done to prevent a “creeping erosion of the democratic state,” he told Handelsblatt.

The AfD’s parliamentary leader in Thuringia, Stefan Möller, dismissed these calls from the police unions. Despite all these “political attempts at defamation,” it would not be possible to prove that the AfD had any policies that were anti-constitutional. “They simply don’t exist,” he said.

He pointed out that the party was not winning voters away from the far-right NPD, but from the mainstream parties such as Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democrats and her coalition partners the Social Democrats. “The AfD in Thuringia has always insisted that, unlike the NPD, its demonstrations are not aimed at asylum seekers but at the state and federal government’s break with the law and their failed policy of open borders,” he told Handelsblatt.

However, observers see a strong tendency toward radicalization in the AfD. Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Freie Universität Berlin, said that Mr.  Höcke’s statements were “obviously extreme right.”

He told Handelsblatt that the AfD is pushing the entire party system to the right and competing with the NPD, which is regarded by the domestic intelligence agency as a “racist, anti-Semitic, revisionist” party bent on removing democracy. The party typically polls below 5 percent but has been successful in entering regional parliaments in some eastern states.

Mr. Höcke vehemently denied this characterization. “Putting the AfD at the same level as the NPD is nothing other than a slanderous attempt to discredit the AfD,” he told Handelsblatt. He said that he had nothing to fear from being monitored by the intelligence agency. “We are sticking to the law,” he said, and insisted that the party was strictly differentiating itself from the NPD. “We reject extremism in every form.”

The move to the right in the AfD comes as the anti-immigrant movement Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, is also on the rise again.

The grassroots movement which formed in Dresden last year had seen its support fall off after a power struggle and split. The group’s future appeared to be threatened when its leader Lutz Bachmann resigned after a photo was published of him posing as Hitler but he has since returned and pushed the movement further to the right, seeking to capitalize on the fact that Germany expects up to 1 million asylum seekers this year.

On Monday between 15,000 and 20,000 attended a rally in Dresden people to mark the movement’s one-year anniversary, with an equal number of demonstrators protesting against Pegida.

 

afd demonstration in erfurt_reuters
Supporters of AfD demonstrate against the government’s asylum policies in the German city of Erfurt on Wednesday. Source: Reuters

 

The rally was addressed by a number of speakers, including Tommy Robinson, the founder of the British extreme-right group the English Defense League, who said: “Angela Merkel seems to be handing out the birth right of German citizens like she is handing out candy to children…this current immigration is an invasion.”

Another speaker, Turkish-German writer Akif Pirinçci, said Germany could become a “Muslim garbage dump.”

“Of course there are other alternatives – but the concentration camps are unfortunately out of action at the moment,” he said, a comment which was greeted by applause and laughter.

Prosecutors in Dresden have said they are now investigating Mr. Pirinçci for incitement to hatred.

Charlotte Knobloch, a leading member of the Jewish community in Munich, and former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called on the authorities to monitor not only Pegida but also the AfD.

“In terms of personnel and rhetoric, the party is becoming more and more radical,” she told Handelsblatt, saying the party was “inflammatory, rabble-rousing and socially divisive, and thus, dangerous.”

“At the same time, it casts itself as socially acceptable and so has the potential to acquire a sizeable vote,” she said.

The turn to the right has alarmed the authorities, who fear a rise in far-right violence.

The Federal Criminal Police Office, or BKA, in a confidential report warned that refugees and those who helped them could become victims of xenophobic attacks, German media, including the Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported on Thursday.

The authorities warned that usually very heterogeneous far-right scene had found consensus over the issue of asylum.

“In particular, politicians and people who look after asylum centers may be in the target group for far-right attackers,” the BKA report stated.

The report was drawn up just days before the stabbing of Henriette Reker, a candidate for mayor in the western city of Cologne on Saturday. The pro-refugee 58-year-old politician, who was not a member of a party but was backed by Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats, was stabbed in the neck at a campaign event. Her assailant, a known far-right activist, claimed that her asylum policy was the motive for the attack. She was elected as mayor the next day but remains in intensive care.

On Thursday, German officials said they may have thwarted a far-right attack after arresting three suspected extremists in a raid on 12 homes in Bavaria. A radio report said the men had ordered kilos of fireworks from Eastern Europe that had been intercepted. Up to 90 police were involved. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said there were signs that “further crimes or attacks may have been prevented” as a result of the arrests. Reports said the men were believed to be members of Die Rechte, a right-wing group.

In a separate report, obtained by Der Spiegel, the BKA stated that there had been 505 attacks on asylum centers in the first nine months of 2015. Over the same period in 2014, only 114 attacks took place, while the previous year it was just 18.

Siobhán Dowling covers German politics for Handelsblatt Global Edition. Dietmar Neuerer covers domestic politics for Handelsblatt from Berlin. To contact the authors: dowling@handelsblatt.com and neuerer@handelsblatt.com

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