Germany Shuts Down Far-Right Clubs That Deny the Modern State

Germany Shuts Down Far-Right Clubs That Deny the Modern State

BERLIN — The German government on Thursday banned two clubs linked to an anti-Semitic movement that refuses to recognize the modern German state, with the Interior Ministry ordering raids on the homes of the groups’ leaders in 10 states as part of a crackdown on Germany’s far right.

“We relentlessly continue the fight against right-wing extremism even in times of crisis,” Horst Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, said in a statement. “We are dealing with an association that distributes racist and anti-Semitic writings and thus systematically poisons our liberal society,” Mr. Seehofer added.

After years of focusing on threats from Islamist extremists, the German authorities have started to train their resources on combating homegrown far-right extremists. There have been three major attacks in the last nine months, including the killing of a politician, a failed attack on a synagogue and the killing in February of nine Germans with immigrant backgrounds, all three of which were carried out by far-right extremists.

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the country’s justice minister, said after the February attacks. On Thursday, she said the decision to ban the clubs brought the fight against far-right extremism and racism to the “highest political level.”

The banned clubs are part of what’s called the German autonomous movement, which is different from other far-right groups that focus on refugees, foreigners or Germans with immigrant background. Its members call themselves “Reich citizens” — or Reichsbürger, as they are known in German.

One of the groups associated with the movement first gained noticed in the 1980s, when a member named Wolfgang Gerhard Günter Ebel falsely claimed that the Western allies had appointed him acting head of a German Reich.

The group is scattered across the country but exists mostly in the south and east. Members primarily focus their hate on the modern German state and people, such as politicians, judges and bureaucrats, whom they see as representing the state. But they also target people seen as not belonging to the country.

The Reichsbürger have long been on the authorities’ radar, but were treated as more harmless than other far-right extremists. At times ridiculed for their eccentricities, such as printing their own passports and ID cards, insisting on place names more than a century out of date and some showing fealty to the last German emperor some members of the group are armed and willing to use violence.

The website of one of the groups contained a banner saying, “We, the indigenous peoples, take over the function of persistent objector and we do not give up our land rights!” By Thursday afternoon, the website was down.

In their denial of a modern German state, members of Reichsbürger have harassed and threatened officials and their families, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2018, German news outlets reported that the group was trying to form an army in the state of Thuringia.

Matthias Quent, the founding director of the Institute for Democracy and Civil Society, a research organization in Jena, Germany, said: “There is quite a large potential for violence in the scene, especially given the widespread possessions of weapons.”

He added, however, “These are not political organizations that are capable of carrying out a coup.”

Their followers have become more visible in recent years. Since 2016, they have been under observation by the German intelligence service. In October of that year, one Reichsbürger shot and killed a police officer and wounded two others during a raid on his house, where the authorities found 30 weapons.

On Thursday morning, 400 police officers in coordinated raids searched the dwellings of 21 leading members of the group in 10 states, including Berlin. They found weapons, propaganda and narcotics, but none of the leaders were arrested.

The clubs that were banned on Thursday — United German Peoples and Tribes, and its subgroup, Osnabrück Landmark — comprise about 120 members, according to news reports. That is far short of the roughly 19,000 people who intelligence services say are part the movement.

Still, the government’s action on Thursday represented the first official federal ban of clubs integral to the movement (earlier raids on the group were coordinated at the state level). The ban comes as the country is experiencing a growing wave of violence against elected officials.

There are currently 32,000 known far-right extremist in Germany and 13,000 of them are prone to violence, according to the country’s intelligence service. How many of the roughly 19,000 Reichsbürger fall into either count remains unclear.

Miro Dittrich, who monitors far-right online activity for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a nongovernmental group, likens the Reichsbürger to the sovereign citizen movements in the United States, who also reject their federal government.

“They tend to be older people, often isolated, who are completely cut off from reality,” he said.

Recently, members of the German group asserted that the coronavirus pandemic was fake and that measures to fight it are a way for the state to exert control, according to Mr. Dittrich.

Despite government calls to stem the outbreak through social distancing, the group held a rally in front of Parliament on Sunday.

Latest Category Posts

You May Also Read