Link to article (Translated version of article published in German in Die ZEIT)
Right-wing extremists are building international networks. The author advises the German government on how to deal with the resulting danger, suggesting possible counter-strategies.
In mid-January of this year, two leading German right-wing extremists speculated on Instagram and YouTube that a potential accident involving key members of the German energy supply would have catastrophic consequences for Germany. The summation was: „Goodbye, Federal Republic. Funny, isn’t it?“
For years, the older of the two right-wing extremists has been organising large-scale music events, where thousands of like-minded individuals from a dozen countries network with each other. The younger organises transnational martial arts events with hundreds of visitors and dozens of fighters. Right-wing extremists train there, not only for the physical confrontation with political opponents, but also to recruit previously apolitical fighters.
Both seem to earn very well from the international networking of their comrades. Estimates put the turnover at around 40,000 euros for the large martial arts events, while music festivals probably bring in several hundred thousand euros. The right-wing extremist music and martial arts scenes are transnationally conceived and integrated into a corporate network of music producers, fan-article distributors, clothing brands and fitness products with partners in Sweden, Switzerland, France, Great Britain, Ukraine and Russia, among others. „Because the only way to build structures is through commercial success“, said a leading German right-wing extremist a few years ago, who is active in the German far-right party NPD. This commercial strategy also includes private security companies and at least 140 properties in Germany that serve as „castles in enemy territory.“
The right-wing extremist hero’s journey
The right-wing extremists in their respective countries are united by their transnational far-right ideology of human inequality. Fighting the concept of an open society is an ideal they all share.
Three developments in particular are new and dangerous. A recent study by the Counter Extremism Project (CEP), commissioned by the German Foreign Office, highlights that from around 2014, a leaderless, transnational, apocalyptic and violence-oriented far-right movement has emerged, staging itself as a victim of left-wing political domination, migration and refugee movements, and a global Jewish conspiracy. National right-wing extremist scenes are linked by narratives that conjure up the downfall of the entire „white race“, and not just the respective „people“. The „Große Austausch“, or „Great Replacement“, painted on walls by right-wing extremists is understood as an apocalyptic „white genocide“ [editor’s note: „Great Replacement“ is a conspiracy theory which postulates the existence of a secret plan to replace white majority populations for Muslim or non-white immigrants]. The theory posits that the „white race“ can only be saved from Jews, Muslims, feminists and other white „traitors“ if believers go into battle together.
The new movement is not hierarchically structured. Its followers, however, feel closely united by common values and enemy images, and thus, have formed a kind of unorganised collective, which also offers a new home to German right-wing extremists – be they so-called lone perpetrators, comradeships, angry citizens, hooligans, or entire parties such as the NPD, Die Rechte and the III. Weg. The supposedly apocalyptic dimension of the threat allows the supporters of this collective to feel like heroes in the supposedly emerging and often wished-for civil war.
The saviours of the West
What is also new is the orientation towards eastern Europe. Until just a few years ago, German right-wing extremists would often not even have drank a beer peacefully with Polish, Ukrainian, Czech or Russian comrades-in-arms. National resentment was omnipresent among German right-wing extremists – above all, the idea that the stated countries were in fact on German territory. Today, German right-wing extremists look fondly to the east and see precisely there the future saviours of the west. This complete turn from national to transnational ideology can also be explained by the fact that since 2014 the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has created the opportunity to gain combat experience on both sides and to receive paramilitary training.
Commercialisation of well-known extreme right-wing activities
Extreme right-wingers from Germany are important partners for the Ukrainian Azov movement – a heavily armed militia with a political and social wing – and for the Russian Imperial Movement (RID). And, although Azov and RID are hostile to each other in the Donbas War, they meet in Germany.
The third new development is the aforementioned professionalisation and successful commercialisation of long-established far-right activities, especially in the areas of music, martial arts, merchandise, and mail ordering. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, major events are currently cancelled. Through shared conspiracy myths and enemy images, however, right-wing extremists have unexpectedly discovered potential fellow fighters among opponents of the state’s pandemic measures.
Seek and you shall find
Effective prevention and combating of right-wing extremism requires an understanding of the dimensions, ideology, strategies and operational approaches of the enemy. However, there is no EU-wide definition of right-wing extremism. Internal security is a matter for EU member states to identify for themselves, in terms of what they perceive as the problem and how best to deal with it. In Germany, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) classified a total of 32,080 people as right-wing extremists in 2019; of those, 13,000 were violence-oriented. France, with a population of 67 million, has only 3,000 far-right extremists, of which about 1,000 are considered violence-oriented. And, according to government figures in some eastern European countries, there are supposedly so few right-wing extremists there that one can only wonder why Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria are so popular as meeting places for large marches and festivals of right-wing extremists worldwide.
A complete understanding of the national and transnational dimensions of right-wing extremism, however, not only includes political will, but also involves resources and professional competence. Terrorism as a strategy combines violence with propaganda. A terrorist attack is a deadly theatre: brutal violence serves the purpose of building a stage upon which terrorists can display their demands. In contrast, right-wing extremist violence is often not claimed, without demand or explanation, and thus constitutes an anomaly.
This raises the question of the extent to which the dimension of right-wing extremist terrorism is properly understood. The 10 murders of the NSU [editor’s note: so-called National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi terrorist organisation in Germany formed around 1999, which murdered people as a result of racist and xenophobic motives], just like many other violent attacks by right-wing extremists, were not classified as terrorism because they were not directly linked to political demands. Terror spread anyway, just in a different way – namely, through false suspicions, rumours and the fear of not being safe in Germany.
There is of course also the opposite, political murder as bloody public staging, integrated into right-wing extremist narratives, perpetrator manifestos and live broadcasts online. Here, we listen and watch because the perpetrators emblematically scream at us during the process.
What needs to be done?
EU-wide definitions and coordinated strategies are necessary, but unrealistic in the foreseeable future. There are, however, lessons to be learned from combating violence-oriented Islamist extremism and terrorism that could be applied in a modified form to right-wing extremism as well. It is striking that none of the transnational, violence-oriented far-right groups are classified as terrorist at the EU level – unlike in the USA or Canada. The scope of applicable legal instruments therefore remains limited, especially with regard to financial networks.
At the regional or municipal level, there are some positive examples across the EU – particularly in Germany – of how activities of violence-oriented right-wing extremists can be disrupted, eg, through alcohol bans at music festivals, and bans on martial arts events, due to the danger to public safety. However, there are many disturbing examples of enemies of the constitution being allowed to operate undisturbed; all reveal that structural cooperation between security authorities, local governments and tax offices, as well as voluntary dialogue forums within civil society, are urgently needed.