“We must never underestimate the murderous danger posed by right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism.” That’s the warning from Germany’s interior minister as new figures show a rise in violent extremists in the country.
A report today by intelligence officials estimates 14,000 violent right-wing extremists are living in Germany.
It labels the far-right the biggest extremist danger inside Europe’s largest economic power.
Right-wing extremism continues to be “the greatest extremist threat to the basic democratic order,” interior minister, Nancy Faeser told journalists as she unveiled the report alongside domestic spy chief, Thomas Haldenwang, in Berlin.
Violence from right and left-wing extremists, Islamist terrorists and foreign extremists were among the dangers assessed.
The report found the number of right-wing extremists has risen to 38,800 in 2022, from 33,900 the previous year.
Just over a third of them are classed as “violence-oriented”.
Violent crimes committed by this group are also up 7.5% and include two attempted homicides.
“Extremists use crises to gain a foothold in the middle classes, sharing conspiracy myths, disinformation and propaganda,” says Mr Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.
“It is worrying that the actors are becoming increasingly violence-orientated and in some cases younger.”
Victims of far-right intimidation agree.
‘I regularly received life-threatening emails’
Suleman Malik, a spokesperson from the Ahmadiyya Islamic community in Erfurt, East Germany, shows me the mosque they have been trying to build for around a decade.
He says he has received death threats and contractors have been scared away by extremists who warned them not to work with Muslims.
On one occasion, he says he arrived at the construction site to find a pig’s head on a stake and pork scattered around.
“We were attacked, I regularly received life-threatening emails….there were letters. There were attacks on the site. They just wanted to harm us,” he says.
While right-wing extremists come from a mixture of groups, there’s a new focus on the so-called “Reichsburger” after authorities foiled a coup plot planning to violently overthrow the government.
Twenty-five people were arrested in raids in December accused of plotting to storm the German parliament and take control.
“Reichsburger”, which translates to citizen of the Reich, are defined by spy agencies as conspiracy theorists who don’t recognise the legitimacy of the post-war German state.
In 2022, the number of extremist crimes attributed to “Reichsburger” and “Selbstverwalter” (“self-governing citizens”) increased by 34.3%, with violent offences up 55.4% including two attempted homicides.
In total, it’s believed 23,000 “Reichsburger” live in Germany as part of different organisations.
The ‘King’ who wants to overthrow the government
Around two hours’ drive from Berlin is the headquarters of the “Kingdom of Germany”, one of the groups being monitored.
Set up around a decade ago, the “Kingdom” is a self-proclaimed independent state with its own self-appointed king.
On the day I arrive to interview King Peter I, I’m given a visa to allow me to cross the invisible border.
A charismatic figure with a long brown ponytail, King Peter confirms I should call him “Your Majesty”.
He explains that the group has their own IDs, passports, banking system and currency. He shows me the constitution which the 5,500 members live by bound in a neat cream-coloured book.
While King Peter does not class his followers as “Reichsburger”, he is clear that they do not recognise the elected government.
“That is the goal, to completely take over the power of government in Germany, so to speak,” he says.
“But only if the people want it. If they don’t want it, then let them keep what they seem to be happy with.”
‘It could have led to a bloodbath’
As the kingdom’s membership expands, their efforts to buy more land around Germany has also caught the attention of the authorities.
While some critics accuse them of trying to infiltrate society, they were not part of the group arrested in December and King Peter rejects the idea anyone in the Kingdom would support the use of violence.
“Are you a threat?” I ask. He says they’re not but adds “We are perhaps a threat to the system, because we want to create the common good, because we want to create freedom…and we question the instruments of domination that we have today…we question this legal system of the Federal Republic because it is a system of domination and not a system of freedom.”
While “Reichsburger” groups have often been dismissed as crackpots, December’s failed coup plot shows that they are a danger to be taken seriously and a major concern for the domestic spy chief.
Around 10% (2300) are believed to be violent.
“The Reichsburger plot in December 2022 could have led to a bloodbath at the Bundestag,” says Nicholas Potter, a journalist and researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation in Berlin which monitors right-wing extremism, racism and antisemitism.
Far-right party’s popularity soars
“The reality shows that the Reichsburger ideology is ultra-nationalist, antisemitic and driven by far-right conspiracy myths – and that it frequently results in violence, shootouts with authorities, or recently, plots to kidnap ministers or storm the Bundestag.”
But it’s not just fringe groups being watched.
The far-right party “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) has 78 seats in parliament and is soaring in popularity.
According to a recent poll by German newspaper BILD, the AFD has become the second strongest political force in Germany together with the ruling Social Democrats.
It found 19.5% of respondents support the party and that 28.5% of Germans could imagine voting for them.
According to domestic intelligence chief, Thomas Haldenwang, his office will take a closer look at the AfD in 2023 because of a progressive radicalisation with more than 10,000 members classed as right-wing extremists.
The party is now under surveillance as a “suspected threat” because of their far-right ideology while their youth organisation, the “Junge Alternative” (“Young Alternative”), was classified as a right-wing extremist group at the end of April 2023.
Both reject the allegations.
“The surge in support for the AfD is highly alarming,” Mr Potter says. “Since it initially entered the Bundestag in 2017, the party has continued to veer to the hard right, with its comparatively more moderate members leaving.
“The crises of previous years, from the COVID pandemic to Russia’s war in Ukraine and the ensuing energy crises, have given the AfD new opportunities to play on fear and spread hate.”
‘We are the opposite of dangerous’
At a rally in Erfurt, Bjorn Hocke, the AfD’s regional leader in Thuringia and influential figure on the party’s hard right disagrees.
Mr Hocke has recently been charged over his alleged use of the Nazis’ SA stormtrooper slogan in a speech in 2021.
He denies he and his party are a risk to security in Germany.
“We are the opposite of dangerous, and we do not divide society…. We want to preserve Germany, that is our mission,” Mr Hocke says. “The other parties want to more or less overcome Germany, to abolish it, and we don’t want that. And that is a normal reaction of a people that wants to have a future.”
But opponents are increasingly concerned by their growing popularity among the middle classes.
Around the corner from the AfD rally, left-wing supporters have launched a counter protest.
They are holding up signs and banners reading “Against Neo-Nazis” or “No room for fascists”.
A group of women calling themselves “Grannies against the Right” are holding placards saying “Bjorn Hocke is a Nazi”.
Loki, a left-wing activist, says right-wing ideology has divided her family.
Her relationship with her father has broken down. She believes the rise of the right is splitting her country in two.
“We have to take action now, we have to defend democracy here”, she says, beginning to cry.