German Right-Wing Terrorism

German right-wing extremism is currently on everyone’s lips. The right-wing threat in Germany is increasing in violence, as the recent rallies and demonstrations in the eastern German cities of Chemnitz and Köthen have made clear. Adding to the danger is the fact that right-wing activists are now closely linked, from football hooligans to neo-Nazis to Pegida and the far-right party AfD. While events in the news are a great cause for concern, a review of postwar German history will show that violent and terrorist right-wing extremism in Germany is not a new phenomenon.

Far-right militancy and far-right terrorism have enjoyed a long and continuous history in the Federal Republic of Germany, as reflected in the statistics alone: since 1971, far-right motives have led to at least twelve kidnappings, 174 armed assaults, 123 bombings, 2,173 arson attacks, and 229 murders.  Among the most infamous far-right organizations was the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, or “Hoffmann Military Sports Group,” with at least one of its members implementing the 1980 Munich Oktoberfest bombing that led to twelve deaths, and another committing two antisemitic assassinations in the city of Erlangen. Another example was the Deutsche Aktionsgruppen, or “German Action Groups,” led by Manfred Roeder, who was ultimately sentenced to thirteen years; this organization carried out five bombings and two arson attacks, with targets including refugee housing, a Jewish school, and an exhibition about Auschwitz.

Other cases included: the compilation of “enemy target lists” by the Nationalist Front; the deaths of four people during a 1988 racist arson attack in the town of Schwandorf by Josef Saller of the Nationalist Front; the paramilitary activities of the Viking Youth; and the frequent street-level assaults by members of the Free German Workers’ Party. Equally noteworthy incidents include the incitement to violence by Der Einblick, an anti-Antifa newsletter that published the addresses of declared political enemies in the early 1990s, and the rampage by Kay Diesner, a neo-Nazi who shot a Berlin bookseller in 1997 and was later captured during a shootout that resulted in the death of one police officer. Furthermore, asylum seekers and migrants were the targets of many arson attacks and murders in the early 1990s, most prominently including the arson attacks in Lübeck with ten deaths and in Solingen with five deaths, the Molotov cocktail attacks in the town of Mölln that resulted in three deaths, and of course the far-right riots against refugees in Rostock and Hoyerswerda.

According to the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, during the period from 1990 to mid-2015, violence by neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists resulted in 179 dead (and perhaps 21 more suspected cases), among whom were many who had previously suffered routine violence by far-right attackers. And even below the level of murder and attempted homicide, the everyday acts of racist violence have become increasingly brutal. Recent years have also a seen a dramatic rise in attacks on refugee housing, including arson and bombings. The statistics of Germany’s federal police office show that in 2015 alone, there were 1,031 such attacks against refugee housing, both occupied and under preparation; in the following year, there were 921 attacks. The escalation of far-right violence can be measured by comparing this with the year 2014, which saw some 150 attacks on refugee housing in Germany—but even this represented a tripling of the 2013 total, which itself was a doubling of the 2012 figure.

In order to quantitatively assess the current potential for far-right violence and terrorism, this rapid increase in recorded offences also needs to be compared with the number of far-right extremists who have gone into hiding. As of late March 2017, there are some six hundred outstanding arrest warrants against 462 far-right offenders, of whom 104 are wanted for violent offences. This includes 98 persons who have been on the run since 2015 or earlier.

The growth of right-wing terrorism in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s culminated in the formation of the National Socialist Underground or NSU in the 1990s, which committed at least ten murders from 1998 to 2011, along with several bombings and bank robberies. This group represented the next logical step, as it adopted and further developed numerous principles from the preceding decades, before ultimately executing the demands of Nazi ideology in all its brutality. The example of the NSU shows that Nazi terrorism had been logistically embedded within the legal and semilegal structures of German right-wing extremism for a long time. There is every reason to fear that the NSU will inspire copycats within the militant neo-Nazi scene. It is equally conceivable that the NSU network still contains other cells that have yet to be uncovered, and that these might later continue the murder spree; after all, even in just the immediate NSU milieu alone, there are estimated to be anywhere from one hundred to two hundred individuals.

And in fact, the first right-wing terrorist groups since the NSU case have already been uncovered: in May 2015, four people calling themselves the Oldschool Society were arrested for preparing terrorist acts; in October 2015, three persons from the Bamberg area in Bavaria were arrested immediately after a letter bomb was intercepted; in April 2016, five persons were arrested in the Saxonian town of Freital during a sweep conducted by the GSG 9, an elite tactical unit of the German federal police; and in January 2017, seven persons were arrested nationwide under suspicion of belonging to a right-wing terrorist group led by a Nazi “Druid,” with the group accused of planning attacks on refugees, Jews, and the police. And in the case of the July 2016 shooting spree that killed nine people at a Munich shopping mall, it cannot be ignored that the gunman was also a right-wing extremist. From this historical survey, it’s clear that the NSU did not represent an entirely new phenomenon in Germany, but was instead just another chapter in the reorganization of old Nazism into neo-Nazism. Beginning right after World War II with an initial phase of organizational experimentation, this process ultimately gave birth to a steady stream of violent acts and terrorism, becoming particularly prominent in the 1980s and continuing into the present day.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Technical University Berlin. See his profile here:

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).