In an interview with EURACTIV Germany, Axel Salheiser, who is conducting research on right-wing extremism at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, spoke about the growing incidence of acts of violence by the far-right and the potential dangers of right- and left-wing extremist groups in Germany.
Dr Axel Salheiser is a researcher at the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, where he conducts research on right-wing extremism, political parties and social structures. He is also a member of the Center for Right-Wing Extremism Research at Friedrich Schiller University Jena.
Last year, the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution counted one hundred new right-wing extremists. Is the right wing growing?
Overall, the size of the right-wing extremist community is relatively stable in Germany. Parties like the National Democratic Party (NPD) do not necessarily gain new members.
However, what has increased, is the potential dangers posed by right-wing extremist groups. Since 2015, the number of racially-motivated acts of violence has increased.
Interestingly, a greater number of people from the middle class are becoming radicalised. These are not even part of right-wing radical structures, so we are dealing with a new generation of criminals.
Why do people like that become perpetrators?
That is because radicalisation no longer takes place at the regulars’ table down the pub, between friends or across the garden fence. Now, to a large extent, radicalisation also takes place online.
What is being shared online allows these groups to see themselves as being victimised and encourages them to resist politics.
People are so stirred up by the fear of being alienated and by propaganda targeting asylum seekers that they eventually take action.
The Federal Office’s report shows that the community of Reich citizens and so-called ‘self-administrators’ is growing. How come, what kind of people are they?
This is by no means a new phenomenon, these people have long been known among researchers. Yet, the size of the group is growing and Reichsbürger is a collective term for everything. It is also easy to enter the right-wing extremist scene.
An example of this is Horst Mahler, a former member of the Red Army Faction (RAF) and Holocaust denier. He had drawn up a new constitution for the Reich in which he called on the German princely houses to consider reinstating the German Reich. You could classify someone like that as a Reich citizen.
However, they are often just people with querulous personalities. For example, someone who shows up at the land registry office and refers to a law from 1913, because in his opinion, it should still be valid.
The Office for the Protection of the Constitution also reports an increase in anti-Semitic acts of violence. Are we seeing a rise in anti-Semitism?
These figures should be viewed with caution. Because if an anti-Semitic crime cannot be fully cleared or dispelled, it is automatically categorised as a right-wing extremist act, even if it is not.
Moreover, in recent years we have observed an increase in physical attacks on Jews where perpetrators are of Arab descent. The attacks are not, therefore, carried out with a classical right-wing extremist motivation, but because of hostility towards Israel.
However, we assume that there is a large number of unreported cases of anti-Semitic attacks. The figures of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKAs) are significantly lower than those coming from the victim counselling centres. This is because of investigative work carried out by the police.
There is often not sufficient focus on the anti-Semitic motives for the crimes. Accordingly, it cannot be further processed by the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
If one believes the statistics, there are more left than right-wing extremists in Germany. However, more crimes are being committed by the right. Is this true?
This is because of how offences are classified – one has to distinguish between hate crime and propaganda offences.
The German penal code is strongly tailored to deal with right-wing extremist acts, notably with regard to inciting people and forbidden symbols. This means that that the amount of propaganda offences perpetrated by the right is much higher than on the left.
This has a lot to do with the scene structure.
Can one speak of organised extremist structures on both sides?
No. The extremist groups from the left are very divided in terms of ideologies and programmes. These are not rooted in tradition as is the case with right-wing extremism, which leans towards nationalist thinking.
Left-wing groups sometimes have nothing to do with each other. There are communist parties such as the Communist Party (KPD), which is Marxist and Leninist, and on the other hand, there are anarchist groups, some of which have very liberal ideas of society and want to break down the state itself.
There is little interaction between these groups, unlike with the right.
Of course, there are also many factions on the right, such as the radical right, the neo-Nazi group, the right-wing bourgeois group, conservative circles.
What are the differences between the crimes committed by the left- and right-wing extremist groups?
On the right, the vast majority of offences are racially motivated, often directed against migrants.
On the left, we see mostly confrontational violence directed towards the right-wing scene and police officers. It is often about eliminating the basic democratic order of the state. For example, by attacking right-wing politicians or attacking the police at demonstrations.
Left- and right-wing violence cannot be equated. Both are definitely despicable.
However, it has to be said that policemen are usually better protected against violence than left-wing extremists.
Right-wing extremist violence, on the other hand, usually targets defenceless migrants.
AfD politician Frank Magnitz was beaten up in January and Kassel’s district president Walter Lübcke was recently murdered. Is politically-motivated violence on the rise?
The Lübcke case is a unique situation. However, the phenomenon of violence against politicians for personal or political reasons is by no means new. At the time when the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was operating, right-wing extremist circles kept a blacklist with 10,000 names and addresses.
What is particularly dangerous is the shift in public discourse. The idea of “at least you should be allowed to say that”. The anti-political correctness movement is something the AfD had long intended. And now we have reached a point of no return, where public debate can no longer be moderated.
We see this in the threats, ‘shitstorms’ [a new German word denoting widespread outrage expressed online] and hate-emails. Although the AfD clearly distances itself from violent acts of any kind, it is clearly playing a large part in what is sayable.
So I am not surprised that some people are getting radicalised and think that violent acts represent the interests of broad sections of the population.