Until the discovery last year that a string of unsolved killings had been perpetrated by neo-Nazis, few in Germany considered far-right extremism a major threat.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, security agencies around the world poured energy into fighting Islamist terrorism, and Germany did so with special urgency because several of the hijackers had lived in Hamburg. But the shift led to the neglect of other types of homegrown violence in this nation of 82 million people, critics now say, allowing a neo-Nazi movement to flourish.
Although security services were keeping an eye on neo-Nazi groups, official assessments declared that the threat of right-wing terrorism was insignificant. But while resources were being concentrated on Islamist extremism, a small cell of neo-Nazis went undetected while it killed 10 people, nine of them with immigrant backgrounds, over seven years.
Police never suspected a right-wing connection — they found it only after the neo-Nazis virtually dropped into their laps after a bungled bank robbery. Last week, Germany installed a new head of its equivalent to the FBI. He has sworn to overhaul the country’s intelligence services.
Monitoring Islamist terrorism and other threats can be a difficult balance in any country, with shootings Aug. 5 at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin only the latest reminder. There, police say, Wade Michael Page, with ties to “white power” groups, killed six people before turning his gun on himself.
In Germany, “our institutions didn’t have right-wing terrorism on their screens,” Sebastian Edathy, a member of Germany’s Parliament who is leading an inquiry into the intelligence failures, said in an interview. “Society has focused over the last 10 years on the threat of Islamist extremism, but this is not the only extremist threat that we’re facing.”
The string of killings was underway by Sept. 11, 2001, and the slayings continued as Germany turned its attention away from neo-Nazis. A 2006 intelligence overhaul merged offices dealing with left-wing and right-wing extremism, in part to free resources to fight al-Qaeda and Islamist terrorism.
The focus had shifted so thoroughly by last year that a 473-page annual intelligence report by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, roughly equivalent to the FBI, said that “no structures of right-wing terrorism were detectable.”
It was released not long before the neo-Nazi cell was discovered.
As for the killings, police initially said that they probably were part of an underworld dispute among Turkish crime gangs, and media dubbed them the “doener murders,” after a popular Turkish kebab sandwich. The final victim was officer Michele Kiesewetter, slain in April 2007, who police theorize may have been targeted so that her attackers could secure another weapon.
The gang is also alleged to have committed more than a dozen bank robberies and the bombing of a hair salon in an immigrant neighborhood of Cologne. But until the dramatic discovery of arms in the neo-Nazis’ home in southeastern Germany after a bungled bank robbery in November — weapons that linked them to the killings — police had not zeroed in on a racist motivation for the deaths.
“There was no political will” to go after neo-Nazi groups, said Hajo Funke, a professor at the Free University of Berlin who is an expert on right-wing extremism. “This is one of the reasons the groups could go so widespread.”
Revelations this summer that German security service members had destroyed files related to the case the day after a neo-Nazi link became public only deepened criticism about the authorities’ seriousness in pursuing the investigation. The German Interior Ministry has said that the shredding was a routine file purge unrelated to the news, but the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution resigned as a result.
Neo-Nazis have found a home in the ex-Communist eastern portion of Germany, where jobs are scarce, anti-immigrant sentiments run high and Nazi-era attitudes toward minorities never fully disappeared. A neo-Nazi-linked political party, the National Democratic Party, holds seats in two state parliaments. This weekend, it held a rally in a town near the Polish border.
“The biggest success of the neo-Nazi movement is that eastern Germany is still white, because they’ve threatened people,” said Anetta Kahane, the head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that works to protect minority rights. “People with an immigrant background would never go there. And this is a third of the territory of a democratic country in the center of Europe.”
Anti-neo-Nazi groups say that the attention given to the problem since November has helped sensitize security agencies to the violent potential of right-wing extremists, but controversy remains as to what to do to fight the problem.
The new head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, who was installed Friday, has resolved to improve communications between his federal office and the patchwork of 16 regional intelligence agencies. He promised a “comprehensive and self-critical” review of his agency’s work.
But for many critics, change at the top is insufficient to alter an institutional culture that allowed the neo-Nazi group’s string of crimes to continue for so long. Nor are greater resources the answer, they say; instead, all levels of the security services, and society, need to be more conscious about the threat of crime driven by racism.
“It is very essential and crucial to keep in mind that you don’t have only one kind of extremism, and you can’t neglect one part of it to focus on another,” said Edathy, the member of parliament. “You have to deal with the threat appropriate to its relevance.”
Petra Krischok contributed to this report.