Germany's neo-Nazi terror front
A foiled plot against a Munich synagogue is raising fears of a fresh wave of right-wing violence.
BERLIN — Police with assault rifles stand behind a barricade, casting a suspicious eye over passersby. Visitors are asked to open their bags and walk through a metal detector. There is more security at the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse in the heart of the German capital than at many airports.
Some 65 years ago, this house of worship was in flames as Nazis rampaged against Jews in the pogrom known as Kristallnacht. In many cities, synagogues were destroyed and to this day have not been rebuilt.
Now, there is fear of a new escalation of right-wing violence and possibly the emergence of organized right-wing terrorism.
For the past week, police have been unraveling plans by a neo-Nazi group in Munich to carry out a series of bomb attacks. Police say they uncovered specific plans by the group to set off a bomb on Nov 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, at the cornerstone-laying ceremony of a new synagogue in central Munich. The bombing was to be just the first of an undisclosed number of attacks, investigators said.
The latest arrest in the case - of a 17-year-old girl on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization - took place Tuesday, but wasn't announced until yesterday. Police have made a total of 11 arrests in the case since late last week. Two of those detained have since been released. The rest remain in police custody.
For years, right-wing violence in Germany has been increasing.German investigators insist that there is no evidence that a new generation of brownshirts is organizing armed resistance along the lines of Germany's last domestic terror group - the leftist Red Army Faction (RAF). But that view might be changing.
"This group has the structure of a 'Brown Army Faction,' " Bavarian interior minister Günter Beckstein told reporters.
The evidence: For the first time, neo-Nazis appeared to network nationally to carry out a terrorist act. They were found with hand grenades and 30 pounds of explosives, police said. They carried out surveillance on German politicians, as the RAF in the 1970s did, and police found a "hit list" with names of politicians who might be targeted for an attack. Racially motivated targets on the list included several Munich mosques, a Greek school, and an unspecified Italian target, Beckstein said.
The politically motivated RAF, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, carried out a wave of terror over the course of two decades, kidnapping and killing German business leaders and politicians and also attacking US military sites in then West Germany. They had close ties to Palestinian terrorists and to the East German secret police. In the early '90s, their members largely dead or in jail, the group gave up the fight.
While there are some parallels to the RAF, analysts say the right wing extremists lack some key qualities and characteristics of a terrorist organization.
One German counterterrorism official, who asked not to be named, said there is still no evidence that the splintered extreme right is capable of pulling together to follow a common goal and strategy. There is also no evidence that they acquired skills that were old hat to the RAF: falsifying passports, robbing banks, and working with complex electronics to detonate explosives.
"The RAF was simply a group of people with a much more sophisticated intellectual background," the official says.
Bernd Wagner, who runs a program called "Exit-Germany" for youth who want to leave right-wing groups or Skinhead gangs, also dismisses a direct comparison to the RAF. But he warns against underestimating the danger that such a movement could emerge.
"All the ingredients for right-wing terrorism are there," he says. "Part of the scene is really steaming and looking for a way to take action."
Hajo Funke, an expert on right-wing extremism at Berlin's Free University, says the most striking characteristic of the group behind the Munich bomb plot is that it is not yet a full-fledged terrorist group. But he also warns against underestimating their potential and failing to act in time to head off greater threats.
"Munich is different because they tried to organize," he says. "There have been attempted acts of right-wing terrorism, but there isn't a terrorist structure yet."
The group behind the Munich plot is allegedly led by Martin Wiese, a neo-Nazi leader who originally comes from Anklam, in eastern Germany near the Baltic Sea. Wiese gained his social education in the disillusionment and unemployment in the east following German unification. In the early 90s, eastern neo-Nazis and skinheads attacked hostels for asylum seekers, in one instance setting a hostel on fire while local townspeople cheered. Wiese is best known for spearheading demonstrations to protest a traveling exhibit documenting war crimes of the German Army in World War II. He moved to Munich three years ago and has become the inofficial leader of the right-wing scene.
Wiese embodies a growing faction of right-wing extremists who remain aloof from far-right political parties and instead build loose autonomous groups called Kameradschaften, or comrades. Analysts estimate that there are as many as 160 Kameradschaften throughout Germany. Increasingly they seek contact with international right-wing extremists, especially a group called Combat18, a British organization known for militant violence. Wiese is listed on Combat18's Web site as the group's contact in Germany.
"During the years of imprisonment after the actions of the '90s, the people around Wiese spent a lot of time thinking about how they could become more effective," says Funke. "Terrorism is an alternative for them."
The German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which monitors extremist groups, says that while membership in right-wing organizations fell around 10 percent last year, the number of right-wing extremists willing to commit violence is rising. Their favorite targets are foreigners, especially blacks, Turks and Jews.
The Munich bomb plot has sent a shudder through the Jewish community. But community leader Charlotte Knobloch says that the plan to rebuild the synagogue will proceed.
"We had hoped that we could rebuild the synagogue in the heart of the city and finally return to some kind of normalcy," she says. "We haven't even laid the cornerstone yet, and already those eternally living in the past have cast their ugly shadow across our plans. But we won't back down."
In the past decade, about 100 people have died in far-right or racist violence in Germany. Among the worst incidents was the firebombing death of five Turks in the western German city of Solingen in 1993.
Germany's main Jewish leader, Paul Spiegel, urged Germans Monday to increase vigilance against rightist threats. "Such groups will continue to agitate until the people finally understand that such attacks are not against Jews ... but attacks on democracy and humanity in this country," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "It's not about protecting Jews. It's about protecting this land from rightist terror."