Since the anniversary of the killings in Hanau, which took place a little over a year ago, my Berlin neighbourhood has been plastered with posters featuring simple but compelling line drawings of Ferhat Unvar, Gökhan Gültekin, Hamza Kurtović, Said Nesar Hashemi, Mercedes Kierpacz, Sedat Gürbüz, Kalojan Velkov, Vili Viorel Păun and Fatih Saraçoğlu, the nine victims of the far-right terrorist attack that continues to shape German discussions of rightwing extremism. The posters have been part of a broader campaign committed to drawing attention to and naming the victims of these crimes.
The campaign came to mind when news broke on Wednesday 3 March that the Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s internal state security service, has placed the entirety of the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) under observation. More than an empty formality, the step has concrete consequences for Germany’s largest opposition party in parliament, which must now expect to be monitored by confidential informants, and have its mail intercepted and its phones tapped. It’s a radical step, and is unsurprising that it’s been met by a series of legal challenges.
Indeed, the Verfassungsschutz had been granted provisional permission to place the party under observation by the constitutional court. But the court’s initial approval was dependent on it remaining a secret. Since the news broke, the court has withdrawn its approval and the legal status of the observation remains unclear for the foreseeable future. Much of the party will remain under observation – AfD branches in much of former East Germany have been surveilled for some time, and the extreme rightwing of the party was placed under observation in 2019. Yet, as the AfD’s legal actions and loud complaints have indicated, last week’s news constitutes a major shift in the relationship between the party and the German state.
The basis of this shift, according to German news media, is an approximately 1,000-page dossier consisting of material collected by the Verfassungsschutz from AfD speeches and marketing materials, and evaluated by a team of lawyers and experts on rightwing extremism. More properly, however, we must understand these changes in the domestic intelligence agency’s relationship to the AfD to be the result of activist work organised by victims of rightwing violence. Indeed, the Verfassungsschutz itself has long been suspected of complicity in extremist violence.
When rightwingers went on an extended rampage in the east German city of Chemnitz in 2018, Hans-Georg Maaßen, then the head of the security organisation, rushed to downplay the violence, suggesting that footage showing migrants being chased through the streets by an angry mob had been faked, though they had already been verified by news media, corroborated by eyewitness testimony and referenced as legitimate by Angela Merkel. Hessen’s Verfassungsschutz was also connected to the murder of Christian Democratic Union politician Walter Lübcke in 2019 – the man who bought the gun used to kill Lübcke was known by the agency to have sympathies with rightwing extremists, which should have prevented him from legally purchasing weapons. But it neglected to provide this information to the judge responsible for issuing the permit that was later used to buy the murder weapon.
The Verfassungsschutz is hardly unique in its relative inaction on rightwing violence. While German police can only rarely be accused of the kinds of direct violence that are commonplace in the US, it has also become increasingly clear that police have often tolerated or even enabled rightwing violence. In Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a member of an elite police unit called the Spezialeinsatzkommando was recently convicted for illegally possessing an Uzi and more than 55,000 rounds of ammunition. He was part of a group called Nordkreuz, which primarily consisted of members or veterans of Germany’s police, military and intelligence services, and which claimed to be preparing for an eventual downfall of German society. Their preparations included compiling a 25,000-person list of enemies and ordering a supply of body bags. A separate group of rightwing extremists, meanwhile, has been using police computers to send death threats to antifascist activists, and authorities have been suspiciously slow to investigate the more than 100 such threats that have been signed “NSU 2.0” to date. Furthermore, police in Berlin, Nordrhein-Westfalen and Hessen were discovered to have taken part in rightwing extremist chat groups. Despite all of this, interior minister, Horst Seehofer, vehemently rejected calls for an independent study of racism in the German police.
Thomas Haldenwang, who assumed control of the Verfassungsschutz after Maaßen was forced to step down in 2018, began his tenure by placing elements of the AfD under observation, and has made rightwing extremism a special focus of his work. But top-down changes can be hard to implement in any organisation, and harder yet in the face of intelligence agencies’ entrenched cultures and expertise in keeping secrets – Haldenwang was already in charge of the Bundesverfassungsschutz when Lübcke was murdered. Given the abysmal track record of German intelligence agencies with regards to rightwing extremism, the news that they will now observe the AfD should be greeted with cautious applause. As the scale of Germany’s problems with institutional rightwing extremism grows clearer, we should celebrate these small steps toward resolving an endemic problem of fascist tendencies in German society.
Peter Kuras is a writer and translator based in Berlin.