Racism and far-right bias: Germany’s intelligence and policing institutions under scrutiny

Mesut Özil’s resignation from the Germany national football team after a racist witch-hunt that had blamed him and his Turkish heritage for Germany’s poor showing at the world cup in Russia energised anti-racist activism in Germany. Under the #MeTwo hashtag, countless internet users related their personal experiences of everyday discrimination and racism.

Many of the stories shared were anecdotal. They revolved around chance everyday encounters in which recipients were pelted with open racist insults. This should not detract from the fact, however, that prejudice also has an institutional side to it. Indeed, it is the institutional and systemic embeddedness of racism that has been driven home by a number of events in Germany recently.

The NSU scandal

Foremost among these has been the conclusion of the NSU trial. The NSU – short for National-Socialist Underground – was a far-right terrorist group. During the 2010s, was responsible for 10 murders (mainly of individuals of Turkish origin), a number of bomb blasts targeting immigrants and their descendants, as well as 15 bank robberies.

Uncovered in 2011, the NSU has commonly been presented as a trio. The sole surviving member, Beate Zschäpe, was tried in court for more than five years in Munich; she received a sentence of life imprisonment in July 2018.

The NSU case has deeply shaken the faith of many Germans of diverse ethnic backgrounds in the security apparatus. For more than 10 years, the group had been able to murder and to maim, motivated by racial hatred – and police never investigated whether a far right motive might have played a role in the killings.

Blaming the victims

Instead, responsibility for the murders was sought among the victim’s families and friends: investigators – groundlessly and fruitlessly – assumed that those killed had been implicated in drug dealing. Conversely, witnesses’ statements that they had seen white individuals – the members of the terror group – engaged in suspicious behaviour at several crime scenes were ignored.

Investigators thus simply took for granted the notion that ‘foreigners’ must be criminals. As a consequence, traumatised families were subjected to hours of interrogations and years of suspicion.1 Thus, the pain of the bereaved was doubled: not only had they lost a loved one; but his memory was also sullied by baseless accusations of criminality.

Adding insult to injury, investigators and journalists referred to the serial killings as the ‘kebab murders’ – assimilating all ‘Turks’ to the stereotypical caricature of the kebab salesman.2 The suffering of the survivors was depicted by German director Fatih Akın – himself of Turkish origin – in his award-winning 2017 movie In the Fade:

The role of the Verfassungsschutz

Yet the entanglement of the German domestic intelligence agency – the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) – in the NSU’s work has raised even more questions than the series of police blunders. In fact, the terrorist trio was surrounded by 40 undercover agents and informers, mostly from the Verfassungsschutz but also from the military intelligence agency MAD.

These agents and informers – often themselves with a long history of violent far-right activism – funnelled money to the terror group, meaning that it was the intelligence services who kept significant parts of the far-right network afloat financially. These informers were also crucial in organising weapons and explosives and in providing all kinds of logistical support.3

What is more, the entanglements between the intelligence community and the NSU go beyond low-level informers: a leading case officer from the Verfassungsschutz itself was present during one of the NSU’s murders; he has, however, been given political protection and not appeared in court. Moreover, after the NSU’s cover was blown, the Verfassungsschutz proceeded to destroy key documentary evidence to sabotage the judicial investigation.4

Failures of the court case

It is above all with respect to the complete failure to elucidate the role played by the Verfassungsschutz that observers and activists have deemed the trial of Beate Zschäpe to be a failure. Virtually no clarity has emerged on the institutional connections between Germany’s intelligence community and the country’s most important terrorist group since the far-left Red Army Faction.5

Moreover, aside from the sentence given to Beate Zschäpe, the Munich court delivered mild verdicts. André Eminger, for instance, who had been one of the group’s key logisticians and was dubbed the NSU’s “most faithful supporter”6, was handed a sentence of two years and six months only. He could immediately leave investigative custody, pending his appeal. Neo-Nazis had filled the Munich courtroom for the rendition of the judgement, cheering and gloating at Eminger’s short sentence.7

As many activists pointed out, Eminger’s thirteen years of tireless assistance to the NSU were punished less severely than a single stone thrown by a demonstrator at the 2017 Hamburg G20 summit: The G20 protestor received a sentence of three years and three months.8

The disappointment of the victims’ families

On the eve of the verdict, Mehmet Daimagüler, leading barrister representing the families of the NSU’s victims, summed up the past five years spent at the court. His resume captures the disappointments of many victims and observers.

Daimagüler pointed out that the Verfassungsschutz’s role remained completely unaccounted for. Moreover, the idea of the NSU as a core trio of terrorists as it had been assumed in the court proceedings had turned out to be a “fantasy”, according to the lawyer. Thus, it remains an open question who else had been involved in the planning and the carrying out of the group’s crimes. The failed police investigations that had been “driven by racist motivations” had also not been addressed by the court, Daimagüler asserted.


Linkages between Verfassungsschutz and AfD party

Shortly after the closure of the court case on the NSU, the Verfassungsschutz made headlines once again. This time, the focus lay on the alleged proximity of its President, Hans-Georg Maaßen, to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Maaßen’s predecessor, Heinz Fromm, had resigned after the collusion of the intelligence agency with the NSU terror group became public – a pawn sacrifice that accompanied the continued stonewalling of the agency and its sabotaging of the court proceedings.

Maaßen seemed to offer the potential for a clean start for the Verfassungsschutz. Yet his own politics have always betrayed his sympathies. Sources describe him – somewhat euphemistically – as a “hardliner not known for anti-racist stances”. Among his notable political initiatives have been his calls to strip suspected Muslim radicals of their German citizenship. Thus, instead of taking the NSU scandal as a clarion call to appoint a President with credentials in curbing far-right terrorism, the Interior Ministry chose to elevate Maaßen, with his obsessive fixation on Islamism and on the linkage between immigration and crime.9

In a tell-all book, former AfD member Franziska Schreiber has now alleged that in 2015 Maaßen spoke extensively with then-AfD chairwoman Frauke Petry. Maaßen allegedly requested the meetings in order to advise the party on how to avoid monitoring by the Verfassungsschutz for anti-constitutionalism. Under Petry, the AfD transformed itself from an anti-Euro party into a full-blown xenophobic and racist force, mainly targeting Muslims.10

“Comprehensive political consulting”

To be sure, it is not fully clear how credible Ms. Schreiber’s allegations are. Yet while both Petry and Maaßen have remained silent on the content of their discussions, both were forced to confirm that the meetings in question did indeed take place.

Subsequently, it also emerged that Maaßen had met with further leading AfD officials for talks. Benjamin Strasser, spokesman of the liberal-conservative Free Democrats, asserted that he was left with the impression that Maaßen had offered “comprehensive political consulting” to the AfD.11

Bernd Riexinger, chairman of The Left party called for Maaßen’s resignation, should the suspicion be confirmed that Maaßen sought to protect the AfD. In Germany, the Verfassungsschutz has the competence to monitor political parties for their loyalty to the constitutional order – a remit that the agency had used liberally for many years to target The Left.

The particular case of Saxony

Yet it is not only the Verfassungsschutz that is making headlines in this respect. In particular in the eastern state of Saxony – where the AfD came first in last year’s federal elections, taking 27 per cent of the popular vote – law enforcement has often shown sympathies for the far right.

When the Islamophobic Pegida movement – short for ‘Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident’ – marched in the Saxon capital of Dresden for German Unity Day 2016, attracting thousands of far-right protestors, local police wished them a ‘successful day’.12 And successful their day turned out to be – as the national day celebrations were dominated by a far-right mob and bomb blasts, including against a mosque. National-socialist symbolism has been found inside Saxon police tanks13 and police violence against migrants has been an issue of concern.14

Attack on press freedom

On August 17, 2018, a Saxon police team illegally held up journalists from public broadcaster ZDF for 45 minutes after they had filmed a Pegida gathering protesting the visit of Chancellor Merkel to the city. Journalists’ demands that police give a reason for preventing them from reporting were merely met by silence and knowing smirks on the part of the policemen.

The police conduct was widely castigated as an assault on the freedom of the press. Journalist Arndt Ginzel complained that “Saxon policemen make themselves the executive of Pegida.” On social media, the hashtag #Pegizei – a port-manteau of ‘Polizei’ and ‘Pegida’ – went viral.

A video of the incident involving the journalists

This episode of police misconduct was capped off by the revelation that the agitated Pegida sympathiser who called upon the policemen to detain the journalists turned out to be an employee of the Saxon Criminal Police Office himself.

The role of the Christian Democrats

In spite of fierce public criticism, Saxony’ conservative Minister President, Michael Kretschmer, defended the police and their treatment of the journalists. Kretschmer’s Christian Democrats have ruled the Land of Saxony since German reunification in 1990. To many, the conservatives are in part responsible for the proliferation of an extreme right in the region by catering to its rhetoric and sympathising with their agenda.15

None of this bodes well for minorities in Saxony and beyond. Although there are some civil society organisations that seek to combat racism in Germany’s institutions and public authorities, they are few and far between. Moreover, in order to help authorities diversify their workforce and sensitise their employees to structural forms of discrimination, activists are dependent on being invited to do so. Yet in many quarters, the political will to even acknowledge the problem is surely lacking.


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  2. http://www.spiegel.de/panorama/gesellschaft/doener-mord-wie-das-unwort-des-jahres-entstand-a-841734.html  

  3. http://taz.de/Die-NSU-Serie-Teil-2/!5350062/  

  4. https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article158451826/Das-ist-eine-voellig-neue-Qualitaet-des-Skandals.html  

  5. https://www.freitag.de/autoren/der-freitag/schuld-und-staatsversagen  

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  7. https://www.welt.de/politik/deutschland/article179145584/NSU-Urteile-in-Muenchen-Rangelei-vor-dem-Gericht-nach-Prozessende.html  

  8. https://www.zeit.de/2013/16/nsu-helfer-eminger-zwillinge/komplettansicht  

  9. https://www.cicero.de/innenpolitik/hans-georg-maassen-kuenftiger-verfassungsschutz-chef-gilt-als-hardliner/51289  

  10. http://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/afd-und-verfassungsschutz-maassen-soll-petry-erneut-vertraulichkeit-zugesichert-haben-a-1224690.html  

  11. https://www.zeit.de/politik/deutschland/2018-08/verfassungsschutz-afd-hans-georg-maassen-stephan-brandner-treffen-opposition  

  12. https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/pegida-polizist-wuenscht-pegida-einen-erfolgreichen-tag-1.3189405  

  13. https://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/sachsen-aufregung-um-saechsischen-polizeipanzerwagen-1.3796407  

  14. https://www.zeit.de/gesellschaft/zeitgeschehen/2016-02/clausnitz-polizei-sachsen-rafael-behr-kritik-uwe-reissmann-fluechtlinge  

  15. https://www.zeit.de/kultur/2018-08/rechtsextremismus-dresden-pegida-demonstrant-chemnitz-aufmaersche