Germany and US eye extremist movements

By Erik Kirschbaum and Laura King
Los Angeles Times/TNS
Protesters storm the Capitol and halt a joint session of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

BERLIN -  In the heart of the capital, the crowd was amped up and angry, shouting hoarsely that the people had been betrayed. Brandishing smartphones and waving flags emblazoned with far-right symbols, a breakaway faction from a larger protest shoved aside barriers and scrambled up stone steps leading to the country’s best-known symbol of its democracy, the seat of government.

Just over four months before a mob overran the U.S. Capitol, triggering the second Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, Germany was shaken by chaotic scenes outside its own parliament building, the Reichstag. The country’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called the spectacle an “unbearable attack on the heart of our democracy.”

The Aug. 29 episode in Berlin ended much differently from the Jan. 6 assault in Washington, D.C., which resulted in at least five deaths and some gruesome injuries. German police repelled a few dozen assailants, not a mob of hundreds, and no one was killed or hurt. The entrance to the Reichstag - a historically fraught structure whose burning nearly 90 years earlier helped cement Nazi rule - was not breached.

Perhaps most crucial, no sitting national leader applauded the attackers, and the protesters, though angry over government coronavirus policy, were not attempting to overturn the results of a democratic election, as the Capitol rioters were.

Yet watchers of far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic saw a perilous shared pattern: domestic extremists seizing a volatile moment to try to press a violent agenda underpinned by wild conspiracy theories and seething ethnic and racial grievance.

“Far-right extremists tend to find inspiration from far-right actions in other countries around the world,” said Michael Luehmann, a German political scientist who studies extremism. “They’re all looking across the pond for ideas.”

“There’s absolutely what I’d call cross-pollination between these individuals in the United States and abroad,” said Colin Clarke, a researcher on domestic and transnational terrorism at the New York-based Soufan Group, a security consulting firm.

The dark legacy of Nazism forced Germany, Europe’s most populous and powerful democracy, to enact sweeping measures decades ago to combat homegrown extremism. After the August incident at the Reichstag, that campaign gained impetus, with the government late last year unveiling dozens of new measures to counter far-right violence, including victim assistance and changes to the criminal code, at a cost of $1.3 billion over the next three years.

Analysts said the picture is somewhat different in the United States, where legal protections and cultural traditions would probably short-circuit some aspects of Germany’s approach to reining in extremists - particularly those seen as infringing on free speech, a paramount American liberty.

Shame over the Holocaust prompted postwar German governments to ban symbols associated with Nazism, with exceptions for artistic and educational purposes. For many Germans, one of the most distressing aspects of the Reichstag episode was the sight of the Reichsflagge, the black, white and red banner of imperial Germany, whose colors were later taken up by the Nazis.

The United States, with its own legacy of racism and slavery, has historically shown far more ambivalence regarding displays of the Confederate flag and the honoring of figures associated with Southern states’ insurrection against the U.S. government. That attitude, only slowly beginning to be reversed, has long puzzled German observers.

“There were lots of swastikas on display in Charlottesville,” said Hajo Funke, a German political scientist and author who studies the far right, speaking of the deadly 2017 white supremacist march in the Virginia city. “There’s no reason for that to be allowed. That’s just wrong.”

In both the United States and Germany, a chilling common denominator is the popularity of QAnon, whose bizarre and elaborate conspiracy theories have spread to dozens of countries. Animated by racism and anti-Semitism, with a tangled narrative of nefarious actors, sinister plots and a shadowy elite, such subcultures can give rise to a delusional conviction of fidelity to a higher cause, researchers say.

“They call on people to take action, to act heroically, with meaning and purpose,” said Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a scholar of right-wing movements in both countries, interviewed on a podcast this month by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. ”People feel that they are the ones thwarting an existential threat.”

The rise of Trumpism in the United States deeply alarmed many Germans, some of whom see the former president as an engine of radicalization. In Germany, most of the far-right movements that emerged in recent decades failed to clear a 5% threshold needed to win seats in the parliament.

But the far-right populist party Alternative for Germany became a powerful political force during the last seven years and is now the largest opposition party in parliament. Extremist ties by some members prompted the domestic intelligence agency to consider placing the party under official monitoring - a particularly sensitive issue because of painful memories of the entrenched surveillance state in the former East Germany under authoritarian communist rule.

The United States and Germany have tackled some of the same outgrowths of extremism, but on a different timeline.

Far-right sympathies within the ranks of law enforcement and the military have lately garnered greater U.S. attention, spurred in part by the disproportionate presence of military veterans among those charged in the storming of the Capitol. President Joe Biden’s new Defense secretary, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, has called for a stand-down - a brief hiatus in normal operations - to assess the degree of support for violent extremist views within the military, but the move is seen as a preliminary measure.

For Germany, such allegiances have been a matter of urgent concern for some time. In October, a government report found evidence of structural right-wing extremism within the security forces. Interior Minister Horst Seehofer called such views in the ranks of those entrusted with protecting all citizens “the greatest threat our country is facing.”

Many of the episodes documented in the report involved police or security officials expressing racist, anti-Semitic or Nazi ideology in online chat groups, and dozens of police officers were suspended last year for taking part in such discourse. Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer also took the extraordinary step of disbanding an elite commando unit after some members were found to have covered up comrades’ extreme right-wing views and activities.

Hate crimes, another important barometer of far-right sentiment, have surged in the United States in recent years, the FBI says, including the 2019 mass shooting targeting Latinos in El Paso, Texas, that left 23 dead, and the 2018 assault at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people.

Germany also saw a recent spate of high-profile far-right attacks, including last year’s targeting of immigrant communities in the central town of Hanau, near Frankfurt, where a gunman killed 10 people. A conservative local political leader, Walter Luebcke, was gunned down in 2019 by far-right extremists for supporting migrants, and also that year, two passers-by were killed in a foiled white supremacist attack on a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle.

Even so, analysts caution against making the larger phenomenon of far-right violence the exclusive province of law enforcement. The bulk of the new German anti-extremist measures loop in not only security agencies, but also social institutions and nongovernmental organizations with missions in mental health, education and other areas.

“Part of what we’re seeing here is a transition in what far-right extremism looks like, both nationally and globally,” Miller-Idriss, of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, said on the “Zeitgeist” podcast. “Of course we need law enforcement solutions, but that’s always going to be a Band-Aid that can never fully eradicate or address the problem.”