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The German military has a Nazi problem

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, center, visited the Illkirch barracks after reports that Nazi memorabilia and symbols such as swastikas were found in the premises during an investigation into an alleged far-right terror cell in German defense forces. (Ronald Wittek/European Pressphoto Agency)

The European migrant crisis and antipathy toward outsiders have sparked disdain and even violence toward refugees in Germany and the rest of the continent. But if there's one country that knows just how extreme xenophobia can get, it's the nation that birthed the Nazis.

Now German officials have turned their focus on the country's military, trying to weed out groups that have a dangerous combination of extreme, Nazi-idealizing views and access to military weapons, according to the BBC.

Officials in the Bundeswehr, or German armed forces, plan to search every barracks for any memorabilia that honors Adolf Hitler's regime or the army that served it.

Germany has long had a ban on symbols that glorify the Nazis, but officials found two instances of Nazi material displayed at an army barracks, the BBC reported.

The discovery came as officials investigated a soldier who planned a terrorist attack to bolster his far-right cause, according to prosecutors. The right-wing extremist had registered as a Syrian refugee at a German shelter, wore a disguise and even received a place to live and government payments, according to the BBC.

Investigators retracing the suspect's steps traveled to the soldier's barracks near Strasbourg in northeastern France and found memorabilia of the German army in Hitler's era openly displayed in a common room.

Another barracks in southwest Germany unconnected to the case had Nazi-era helmets arranged in a display cabinet. On a wall, investigators found pictures of current soldiers wearing Nazi military decorations and helmets and gripping Nazi pistols.

The incidents are especially jarring in a country that's highly sensitive about the historical black mark of the Nazi regime.  The Washington Post's Stephanie Kirchner and Anthony Faiola called Nazi portrayals “the ultimate cultural minefield.”

After World War II, Germany sought to de-Nazify itself, and established the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, a domestic intelligence agency that tries to smoke out and prosecute people who break the country's anti-Nazi laws.

Last year, for example, someone projected a giant image of Hitler onto the side of a building as part of an art installation, according to the Associated Press. A passing motorist called police.

Reaction to a Hitler exhibit shows how nervous Germans still are about the Nazis

But Germany and the rest of Europe have seen a surge in far-right thinking as an immigration crisis raises fears of cultural upheaval, according to Andrew Srulevitch, the director of European affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL seeks to combat anti-Semitism across the globe.

Some far-right extremists have chosen to lionize their country's historical figures who espoused similar thinking, Srulevitch told The Post.

“You’d think there’d be a taboo,” he said. “Over time we see that fading in some ways.”

Immigration concerns have led to the ascendance of the right-wing Alternative for Germany Party, which has called for the deportation of criminal migrants.

In Germany, mosques and Jewish centers have received bomb threats. Recently a 66-year-old conspiracy theorist was arrested after posting on social media that he wanted to “annihilate Jews and Muslims” and calling for the death of journalists, bankers and police officers.

As Faiola and Kirchner wrote in March:

Last week, a Munich court found four defendants guilty of forming a far-right terror squad, dubbed the Old School Society, with the intention of bombing refugee centers. Earlier this month, eight Germans went on trial in the eastern city of Dresden for forming a far-right network that allegedly staged five attacks, including the bombing of a left-wing politician’s car and the detonation of explosive devices at two refugee homes.
Preliminary figures for last year show that at least 12,503 crimes were committed by far-right extremists — 914 of which were violent. The worst act: the fatal shooting of a German police officer by a Reichsbürger member. The preliminary figures roughly compare with levels in 2015, but they amount to a leap of nearly 20 percent from 2014.

Despite the increases in far-right attitudes, Srulevitch, of the Anti-Defamation League, said he was “delighted that the German military is taking extremism seriously,” especially because of the soldier's training and access to dangerous weapons.

But internally, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen criticized military officials' screening process and said the suspected terrorist's background raised red flags that were ignored.

Von der Leyen said military officials should have scrutinized a complaint about the soldier after he wrote a master's thesis in 2014 that said large-scale immigration meant Europe was facing “mass genocide,” according to the Irish Times.

“We have to ask systematically how someone with such clear right-wing, extremist views, who writes a master’s paper with clearly nationalistic ideas … could continue to pursue a career in the Bundeswehr,” von der Leyen said.

Read more:

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Anne Frank and her family were also denied entry as refugees to the U.S.