On Wednesday 25th January, Nicholas Potter, journalist and researcher at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, addressed the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. The hearing on the challenge of far-right ideology to democracy and human rights in Europe will be the basis of a report to be written by the committee this year. Nicholas Potter was invited by the committee as an expert on far-right violence. You can read the full speech below.
Amadeu Antonio was murdered by neo-Nazis. The year was 1990, the place Eberswalde in former East Germany. The wall had fallen, but far-right violence was rising. It was a time scarred by hate. A time that would later come to be called the Baseball Bat Years.
Amadeu Antonio had arrived in the GDR from Angola three years previously as a contract worker, packing meat in a factory for the socialist “brotherland” of his native country. After the collapse of state socialism, he wanted to stay in the newly reunified Germany. To build a life. A family.
But on the night of November 24th of that year, a far-right mob marched through Eberswalde chanting racist slogans. “Germany for the Germans” or “Foreigners out!” echoed through the streets. Their goal, as one defendant would later admit in court: “to beat up N*****”.
As the neo-Nazis caught sight of Amadeu Antonio and his friends, they stormed towards them, armed with baseball bats and wooden slats. Amadeu Antonio was brutally beaten into unconsciousness, never to re-awaken. 11 days later, he succumbed to his injuries.
Similar scenes were unfolding across Germany in the 1990s. People deemed not to be German were attacked. Windows were smashed. Refugee homes torched. Places such as Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Hoyerswerda and Mölln became synonymous with the racist, far-right attacks that occurred there. Places on both sides of the former wall.
Boots, braces and bomber jackets became the symbols of a nascent far-right subculture, which fell on fertile soil among youths driven by hate instead of hope. But in reality, new Nazis were merely schooled by the old ones. While democracy was still finding its feet in this new Germany, neo-Nazis were among the first to put reunification into action.
It was a movement centred on white supremacy and violent nationalism. And a movement that would spawn terror groups from Combat 18 to the National Socialist Underground or “NSU”.
The fate of Amadeu Antonio, in honour of whom my organisation is named, is not an isolated incident. Since 1990, we have documented at least 219 victims of right-wing violence in Germany, of which Amadeu Antonio was merely one of the first.
It’s a timeline of terror that pierces into the present. A timeline without end – if we fail to act decisively and determinedly.
In 2011, the NSU was uncovered after a decade-long racist murder spree. The neo-Nazi terror group killed nine people of Turkish, Greek and Kurdish descent, as well as a police officer.
The NSU was uncovered not because of diligent detective work. Not because of an effective strategy against right-wing violence. And not even through the numerous undercover informants of the intelligence services within their orbit, who somehow seemed to know nothing about anything.
In fact, the core trio of the terror group had disappeared from the authorities’ radar. Back in 1998, police found bombs in their garage and issued warrants for their arrest. They escaped, living under false identities for years, supported by neo-Nazi networks.
Instead, the authorities chose to focus their investigations on the families and friends of the NSU’s victims. It must be “foreigner criminals”, not neo-Nazis, so the racist logic went. The killings were dubbed “kebab murders”.
In the end, it was only a botched bank job, a double suicide and a series of videos sent to the press claiming responsibility that exposed the group and put an end to one of the most horrific far-right killing sprees in post-war Germany.
But the end of the NSU was by no means an end of the violence.
As over a million refugees sought shelter and safety in Germany in the summer of 2015, there were once again mobs armed with Molotovs. Refugees were attacked on a daily basis, their homes torched by right-wing extremists.
More recently, in June 2019, Walter Lübcke, mayor of Kassel, was executed with a close-range headshot in front of his home. The perpetrator: a neo-Nazi with links to Combat 18 and the NSU network. He killed the Christian-Democrat for his pro-refugee stance, for his unwavering belief in Merkel’s words, “Wir schaffen das” – We can do this.
Just three months later, in October 2019, a heavily armed far-right terrorist attempted to storm the Synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, with the aim of murdering the congregation inside. Unable to enter, he attacked a neighbouring kebab shop, killing two people in total.
In February 2020, a far-right terrorist murdered nine people in Hanau, racistly targeting people he believed to be “foreign”, before killing himself and his mother. With weapons he legally owned.
Just last month, a far-right terror plot in Germany made global headlines. The Patriotic Union, a conspiracy-driven network of right-wing extremists from the Reichsbürger movement, was planning a coup before Christmas.
But behind the absurd, even fanciful reports of an eccentric, self-styled prince planning to overthrow the German government, lies a far-right ideology that is deadly serious. And a very real threat to democracy.
The Reichsbürger plot was just the tip of the iceberg. Far-right networks within the Bundeswehr hoard bodybags and prepare for “Day X”, when they will round up political opponents and seize power. Nazis assaults on synagogues or mosques. One group intended last year to kidnap the German health minister and attack the energy grid in order to topple the government.
Security services in Germany put the total number at 13,000 violent right-wing extremists. In 2020, authorities recorded 22,000 far-right crimes, over 1,000 of them violent.
The examples I have mentioned are just a snapshot of Germany, with many angles missing. The bigger picture extends from Utøya to Christchurch to El Paso, it extends from the assault on Washington’s Capitol to the storming of Brasilia.
Far-right violence is a transnational phenomenon – and a global danger.
What are often portrayed as “lone wolves”, are in fact well-networked perpetrators who radicalise on imageboards and Telegram, who share a common language, codes – and ideology.
Classic neo-Nazi networks from the Hammerskins to Blood & Honour continue to forge international alliances. Far-right rock festivals and Mixed Martial Arts tournaments serve as spaces of radicalisation, recruitment and fundraising.
During the Covid pandemic, we have witnessed a fusion of various far-right movements – from traditional neo-Nazis to conspiracy-driven anti-vaxxers to seasoned Holocaust deniers.
In the context of Putin’s brutal war of aggression ravaging Ukraine: Far-right groups in Europe have previously trained with neo-Nazis on both sides of the conflict, with war providing an opportunity for the far right to gain combat experience – and acquire weapons.
These various groups and movements are united by a shared set of ideas. Antisemitism, Islamophobia and antifeminism are core tenets of far-right belief. One common conspiracy narrative, which often combines all three, is the Great Replacement.
The Jews are supposedly behind a secret, diabolical plan, a “white genocide”, to replace ethnic Europeans with Muslims through mass immigration and by promoting feminism to lower birth rates, so the narrative goes.
The Great Replacement was the title of the Christchurch killer’s manifesto. It has been championed by the far-right Identarian Movement. And it has been pushed by far-right parties across Europe.
The bitter reality is that the distance from the streets to the parliaments is alarmingly short. Today, far-right parties are sitting in parliaments across Europe, functioning in many cases as the parliamentary arm of a more radical and violent movement on the ground.
Among those arrested in connection with the Patriotic Union’s plot to overthrow the German government was a judge and AfD politician who previously sat in the Bundestag.
The surge of far-right parties across Europe is very much the elephant in this room.
In German, we speak of “wehrhafte Demokratie” – a defensible democracy. It is our duty as democrats to defend it against anti-democratic elements from within and without, seeking to undermine and overthrow it.
The intelligence and security services undoubtedly play a role here. In theory. But the practice paints another picture.
In 1990, police stood by and did nothing, as Amadeu Antonio was beaten to death on the streets of Eberswalde.
In 2011, it transpired that Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution had over 40 informants within the orbit of the NSU. And supposedly knew nothing.
In 2019, after the murder of Walter Lübcke, we learned that the perpetrator had been on the radar of intelligence services since 1998, but deemed no longer violent in 2009 and thus no longer surveyed – despite his continued membership in far-right organisations and contact with prominent neo-Nazis.
And in December 2022, as a Reichsbürger group was planning a violent takeover of power, they could count on a former police superintendent and ex-Bundeswehr colonel as their co-conspirators.
In fact, the number of right-wing extremists exposed within the German police and armed forces in recent years is a cause for serious concern.
For a truly defensible democracy, we need security and intelligence services to do their job. Right-wing extremists must be removed from their ranks. A zero tolerance approach here is essential. And taking this far-right threat seriously, a must.
We need to carry out open arrest warrants for right-wing extremists. In Germany, some 600 of them are currently wanted by authorities.
We need to revoke weapons permits from known right-wing extremists. Around 1,500 of them currently own firearms legally in Germany.
We need to identify far-right networks – and drain their financial resources.
And we need to consistently counter and combat far-right hate speech online and off.
In this regard, there have been some positive steps by the new coalition in Berlin. Nancy Faeser’s interior ministry has stressed that it prioritises fighting right-wing extremism and has outlined a 10-step plan to achieve this.
But this is only one part of the solution.
We also need to focus on the impact of right-wing extremism on the victims, their families and their communities. We need support for those affected. And protection for those who speak out.
We need to recognise the roles that antisemitism, racism and antifeminism play in far-right ideology. We need to do this by involving those affected in the discussion.
And we need to invest in political education and a strong civil society in order to achieve all of this.
Our democracy depends on it.