German army, intelligence agencies, and CDU party embroiled in far-right network

The elite KSK brigade of the German Army is a notoriously secretive military unit: composed of 1,000 hand-picked soldiers, it is tasked with conducting covert operations, hostage rescue abroad, and counter-terrorism interventions.

In recent weeks, however, the KSK – the abbreviation stands for Kommando Spezialkräfte – has been dragged into the spotlight: after two soldiers were suspended for their neo-Nazi and/or far-right commitments, a public debate has begun to rage about the political orientation of the KSK, the Germany army, and the country’s public institutions more broadly.

In fact, revelations about the right-wing orientations prevalent among KSK soldiers have been a constant for years. However, in summer 2019 Germany’s military intelligence agency MAD seemingly decided that it could no longer ignore the issue and ramped up its attempts to penetrate the KSK’s secretive structures. Since then, the agency has opened investigations into more than two dozen soldiers and alerted policy-makers to what it perceives as a “need for further action” in weeding out extremism among the armed forces.1

A new ‘Central Office’ tracking ‘right-wing extremism’ in state institutions

Partly in response to the KSK cases, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced the creation of a ‘Central Office for the Reconnaissance of Right-Wing Extremist Activities in the Civil Service’, to be housed under the roof of the country’s main domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution.2

Somewhat problematically, however, the agency – called the Verfassungsschutz in German – has its own history of far-right and neo-Nazi sympathies, rendering its institutional capability and willingness to effectively carry out its new mission questionable.

In this context, the so-called NSU affair looms large: the National Socialist Underground (NSU) was a neo-Nazi terrorist group that killed 10 – mostly Turkish or Turkish-origin – victims in the early and mid-2000s, as well as committing numerous other assassination attempts, bomb attacks, and robberies.

Political and juridical responses to the group have largely treated it as a trio; a view that has been widely contested by victims’ organisations, activists, and scholars. They instead speak of a NSU-Komplex – of a large field of up to 200 core supporters, which, significantly, included many Verfassungsschutz employees actually tasked with monitoring the neo-Nazi scene, as well as their superiors.3

The ‘National-Socialist Underground’ and the ‘NSU-Komplex’

Seda Başay-Yıldız, a Frankfurt-based lawyer who represented a family of the NSU’s victims, recounts the “loss of trust” in the state their clients experienced due to the complicity of the Verfassungsschutz in the NSU’s killing spree, as well as due to state institutions’ unwillingness to get to the bottom of the NSU-Komplex.4

Başay-Yıldız has since become the target of death threats herself, which once more implicate state authorities from the security field: she has received a number of messages vowing to do her and her family harm; undersigned as ‘NSU 2.0’, these messages turned out to have been sent by officers from the Frankfurt police department.5

Nor are these political links and sympathies confined to the bottom rungs of the hierarchy. In fact, the Verfassungsschutz’ former President Hans-Georg Maaßen caused a major political crisis when his proximity to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party became public; an affair that nearly resulted in the break-up of the current German government, with Interior Minister Seehofer initially hell-bent on protecting Maaßen. Since his ultimate ousting from office in November 2018, Maaßen has become a prolific public commentator on behalf of the AfD and various far-right, anti-immigrant, ethno-nationalist causes.

The Uniter network

Significantly, far-right activists in the security and intelligence sectors are not isolated individuals operating unbeknownst to each other. In fact, investigative journalists have uncovered the role played by a network named Uniter in bringing together sympathisers of a range of neo-Nazi and far-right causes. The network’s members hail from the KSK, the army, the Verfassungsschutz, the police, as well as from private security contractors, and politics. The Uniter logo actually closely resembles the official emblem of the KSK, both consisting of a drawn sword encircled by a wreath of oak leaves. (Martina Renner of the Die Linke party has also pointed out that both logos share an affinity with the insigna of a Nazi-era Wehrmacht division.)

Founded by KSK soldier André Schmitt in 2012, Uniter has received notoriety in recent years for spawning a number of far-right terror plots. Schmitt himself donned the codename ‘Hannibal’ and began building a network of supporters, hoarding weapons, and conducting military training exercises in order to prepare for ‘Day X’, when a coup and the mass killing of political opponents were to bring Uniter and their allies to power.6

Once more, the German intelligence community appears bogged down knee-deep in the kinds of far-right conspiratorial groups it is supposed to be watching over: Hannibal’s network extended deep into the military intelligence agency MAD.7 (Ironically enough, it is the MAD that has now been tasked with investigating far-right networks among KSK special forces.) And a Verfassungsschutz employee was among the founders of the Uniter group.8

Complicity of intelligence agencies

Unlike the NSU, Uniter and the ‘Hannibal network’ do not appear to be directly connected to far-right plots that actually came to fruition. Thus, their high-flying plans for overthrowing the political system and exterminating their left-wing opponents mainly exist in their heads, their online chat groups, and their networks of safe houses, weapons depots, and military training sites.

However, like in the case of the NSU, investigating Uniter and Hannibal has been hampered by the fact that the agencies tasked with bringing light to the murky waters of these conspiratorial groups are themselves individually and institutionally entangled in the far-right world. Like in the NSU case, these agencies thus have overwhelming incentives to obstruct and subvert the investigations they have been tasked to carry out. Once more, it seems like the fox has been put in charge of the henhouse.

The Uniter affair reaches the CDU

Yet the Uniter affair has taken another, unexpected turn: in early December 2019, Robert Möritz, local councillor of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, uploaded a photo on his social media channels where he can be seen posing with a large Uniter flag.

Coming after the continuous trickle of Uniter-linked revelations of the preceding months, this sparked journalists’ curiosity. And when they dug deeper into Möritz’ activities, they not only uncovered his Uniter membership but also his endorsements for neo-Nazi rock bands, his tattoos of National Socialist symbols, and his participation in neo-Nazi marches.9

Publication of these findings came towards the end of protracted coalition talks between the CDU, the Social Democrats, and the Greens in Saxony-Anhalt: after the far-right AfD had made large-scale gains at the ballot box, this coalition – cutting across the traditional left-right divide – emerged as the only feasible path towards a government with a parliamentary majority in the east German Land. When the Möritz affair threatened to undo this fragile governing arrangement, it spurred the CDU into action: Möritz was given an ultimatum to renounce his views; he reacted by quitting the party.10

Quo vadis, CDU?

However, the issue continues to simmer: at least two further CDU politicians from Saxony-Anhalt have membership ties to the Uniter network. Like Möritz, they are also part of the Konservativer Kreis inner-party pressure group, which advocates for a rightward shift in the CDU and aims to form governing coalitions together with the AfD.11

To be sure, there are policy-makers within the CDU who are the far-right’s bête noire: this includes not only Chancellor Merkel herself but also Walter Lübcke, a local CDU politician shot and killed by a neo-Nazi in June 2019 for his pro-refugee stance. Yet the Uniter memberships of a number of CDU politicians points to another current within the party, much more in tune with – and actually complicit in – the recent far-right surge in Germany.

The Muslim satirical online magazine Noktara thus reacted with derision to Interior Minister Seehofer’s abovementioned announcement that, as a response to Uniter and other incidents, a ‘Central Office for the Reconnaissance of Right-Wing Extremist Activities’ would be created. Noktara tweeted: “Investigative success: #Seehofer presents the culprit for right-wing extremism”. In the accompanying picture, Seehofer can be seen holding up a picture of – himself.

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