It happened one night in June. They came in the small hours, paint and fire-lighters in hand. They marked the shop-front with a large swastika. Then they set fire to the car parked outside. The night sky was lit up with orange flames, and the bleary-eyed neighbourhood woke to the sound of sirens. This was the seventh attack on the Damaskus bakery in the past year.
“It’s frightening,” said a worker at the Sonnenallee bakery, renowned for its Arab sweets. “They attack again and again. I’m afraid one day they might burn the whole place down. And we can’t rely on the police to stop it.” The Damaskus incident was Neukölln’s fifth arson attack attributed to neo-Nazis in 2020 – a resurgent wave in a long tide of far-right violence in the area. So far, not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice.
Neukölln under fire
It seems unlikely that these are unrelated events. On the same night as the Al-Andalos fire, the tires of an anti-fascist activist in Britz were slashed and neo-Nazi stickers were plastered around the area. Three days later, ex-actress and Left Party MP Anne Helm from Neukölln began receiving a series of death threats signed “NSU (National Socialist Underground) 2.0”. Helm was no stranger to far-right harassment, but in July, a new flood of hateful messages arrived. “The emails combine death threats with sexist insults and massive misogyny,” she says. “It’s really scary.”
To many, Neukölln is known as a welcoming, mixed, and alternative district – an area famed for its authentic falafel, edgy bars, and hip coffee shops. Yet beneath its colourful surface lies a dark undercurrent of organised right-wing extremism and racist violence. Since the early 1990s, attacks have taken place with shocking regularity. The current suspected group of neo-Nazi perpetrators is believed to have been active for a decade. Neukölln police are currently investigating 72 major crimes attributed to this group – including serial assault, arson, and possible murder.
The overall frequency of extreme-right “serious attacks” (attacks where persons are endangered or directly threatened) has increased in Neukölln since 2009. In the last five years, the number has tripled from 19 in 2015 to 56 in 2019. If comparatively minor crimes such as vandalism and Nazi graffiti are included, then total incidents in Neukölln over the last decade number around 1000. And the figures are rising quickly: the first half of 2020 alone saw 56 “propaganda offences” and 10 acts of criminal damage. These numbers – which include both coordinated neo-Nazi attacks and more spontaneous acts of right-wing aggression – provide an insight into the hostile atmosphere that plagues minority communities, even in one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods. Since 2016, Neukölln has experienced a consistently higher number of serious far-right attacks than any other Berlin borough.
The response from law and order has left many outraged. The dedicated investigation group Rechtsextremistische Straftaten in Neukölln was set up in 2017, with a further police initiative called BAO Fokus established in 2019 – but there have been very few convictions, and those have only been for minor crimes. Part of the difficulty may lie in the burden of proof. According to the police, “a well-founded suspicion or a criminalistic probability alone does not justify a suspicion of a crime in the criminal proceedings sense if they cannot be supported by further evidence.” The reasons for the lack of convictions may not all be so benign, however.
Ferat Koçak is a 41-year-old Kurdish-German local politician from the Left Party. In 2018, he was targeted by neo-Nazis after participating in the anti-AfD group Aufstehen gegen Rassismus. “Since it came out that the police knew I was going to be attacked and didn’t warn me,” Koçak says, “I now have a lot of fear – not only of the Nazis, but also of the police.” Sitting opposite K-fetisch, a left-wing cafe that was itself the target of arsonists in 2016, Koçak explains how the attackers, who had been spying on him for months, climbed the wall into his garden in the middle of the night. They set fire to his car, which was parked up by his house. Luckily, he was awakened by the light and was able to evacuate his elderly parents in time. It was later revealed that police had been tracking the attackers for several months and had known via wiretapped phone-calls of their plan to attack, but had failed to warn Koçak. The police claim that the fault was due to a spelling mistake in their system. Ferat, however, suspects the cause might be more sinister. “It seems like there are people in the security services that actively stand on the side of the Nazis,” he says.
Koçak’s fears may not be unfounded. In June, it emerged that Detlef M., an officer working in an area where the Neukölln AfD is based, had direct contact with suspected local terrorist Tilo P. via a private Telegram group. Detlef M. had also been investigated in 2016 for sharing confidential police information in a chat group with local AfD members. In an- other incident in 2018, a Landeskriminalamt (LKA) officer was caught by two agents of the Berlin state security agency meeting privately with three neo-Nazis, including one known as Sebastian T., in Rudow. Since the LKA are responsible for monitoring political crimes, this officer could have been privy to information that could benefit neo-Nazi groups. Criminal proceedings were started against the officer, but later dropped as the police were unable to find “sufficient further evidence” linking him to individuals on the right-wing extremist spectrum. Most recently, Stefan K., a police officer who until 2016 was part of the investigation group focused on neo-Nazi attacks, is facing trial for racially motivated assault against an Afghan refugee.
It is difficult to determine quite how deep the problem of officers with far-right sympathies really goes, and even harder to establish the extent to which this problem has contributed to extremists getting away with crimes. According to the police, “references to crimes committed by police officers or involvement in the right-wing extremist milieu are being investigated consistently. The BAO Fokus has also launched and carried out intensive investigations. However, no connections [between officers and neo-nazi groups] have been found.”
But it is difficult to know who to trust. This August, two public prosecutors involved in the Neukölln arson series were suspended from the case over “suspected bias” following the discovery of a text message between suspects Tilo P. and Sebastian T., in which the former said that they “needn’t worry” about the public prosecutor because he was “an AfD supporter” and “on their side”. Neither the police nor other public prosecutors working on the case reported this revelation upon learning of it. It was only by chance that one of the victims’ attorneys came across the message during an overview of surveillance records.
These local cases must be understood within the context of recent national scandals. Most infamous are the so-called NSU murders, a series of killings between 2000 and 2007 that primarily targeted Turkish and Kurdish small business owners. These murders, derogatorily named the “Döner murders” in the press, were first blamed on Turkish gangs and community infighting; right-wing groups were not investigated until a botched bank robbery in 2011 brought light to the case. In the subsequent hearing, numerous revelations raised suspicions that elements within the BfV or Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz (Germany’s national domestic security agency) had been helping the NSU. Most notably, the agency head resigned when the BfV was found to have destroyed many of its own files on the NSU after the investigation became public. To give a more recent example, this year, Hessen police chief Udo Münch was forced to resign after it was revealed that Left Party politician Janine Wissler had been receiving “NSU 2.0” death threats – and that her personal information had been leaked from police computers.
Entnazifierung jetzt (“De-nazify, Now”), a Berlin-based organisation dedicated to exposing right-wing extremism in the security services, argues that the problem is endemic: “It’s not that every single police officer or Bundeswehr soldier is a Nazi, but there are several people in these agencies who are connected, and that’s what makes it so dangerous – because they share secrets, they have contacts to regional neo-Nazi scenes and to AfD politicians. (…) These networks make it possible that real cases are not investigated or solved,” says a representative of the organisation. For them, “the ‘single-perpetrator’ narrative – the prevailing idea that these cases are merely individuals acting on behalf of themselves – is completely delusional, and has hindered investigations for years.” For some commentators, the neo-Nazi scandals are just the teeth of a much larger monster that is discriminatory police practices, which feeds (and is fed by) distorted political and media narratives.
Media misrepresentation and toxic politics
Critics point to a broader system of media-driven stigmatisation and populist politics that demonises immigrants and minorities. German tabloid headlines often feature Arab and Turkish “clans,” which are widely blamed for urban crime. Mohammed Ali Chahrour of campaign group Kein Generalverdacht (“No General Suspicion”) argues that “undifferentiated and one-sided reporting” and the “uncritical trumpeting of these tropes by politicians” cause growing resentment towards minorities: “This is the ideological breeding ground of right-wing extremist networks and perpetrators of violence.” Kein General- verdacht believes there is a direct link between the clan narrative and a number of far-right terror attacks. For example the Hanau attacker, who killed nine people and injured five more in February 2020, specifically targeted a shisha bar – a kind of businesses commonly portrayed as a hotbed for clans.
Just a few weeks earlier, Herbert Reul (CDU), Minister of the Interior for North-Rhine-Westphalia, had publicly stated that “shisha bars are the grounds of clan criminality.” In Neukölln, the attacks on Damaskus bakery began shortly after it was featured in a 2019 Bild documentary, Clans von Berlin, which claimed the building was owned by a local clan.
Initial police reports on the Damaskus bakery attack made no mention of the swastikas and SS symbols sprayed over the shop-front, so the investigation was referred to the fire commissioners’ office rather than state security. Even much later, following press reports that identified the Nazi symbols, police refused to rule out non-political motives for the attack – including potential “clan-criminality”. According to Kein Generalverdacht, this response is common. In cases where political motives are clear, police insist on “investigating in all directions” – which in practice means further “harassment of the very communities that are under attack”.
Ferat Koçak agrees. “The Nazis attack, and the police investigate Arabic, Turkish and Kurdish families,” he says. “And so, not only do the Nazis get away with it, but they actually benefit from the police investigation – so they are encouraged to do more. The police are making the same mistakes as they made with the NSU.”
In response, the Berlin police states that it “has explicitly placed a focus on combating politically motivated crime…. [It has] followed the recommendations of the Bundestag Investigation Committee on the NSU and, in 2014, implemented the overall strategy for combating politically motivated right-wing crime. This is an extensive catalogue of preventive and repressive measures.”
The numerous scandals and dismal investigatory record have solidified the community’s lack of trust towards the police. One victims’ group has collected over 26,000 signatures to demand an independent parliamentary investigation into the matter. Such an investigation has not yet materialised due to resistance from politicians.
Frustrated Neuköllners have responded by taking independent action. Neukölln Watch has been set up to chronicle far-right activity. The new Antifa off-shoot Migrantifa has worked with more established groups to organise protests, the latest of which gathered several thousand people in Hermannplatz. Groups of locals have conducted semi-regular night-time patrols around Neukölln for the past two years. But the attacks have not stopped.
“Many live in fear,” says Matthias Müller of the Mobile Beratung gegen Rechtsextremismus Berlin (MBR), an organisation offering advice and consultation to victims of right-wing violence. “There are people who tell me they have sleeping problems, who wake up every night between 2 and 3am, the time of previous attacks.” Müller has seen the trauma of witnesses and the pain of victims having to explain to their children why their cars – not their neighbours’ cars – were burned. He suggests that fear is not a byproduct of far-right terror but its intended result. “A major goal of this strategy of anonymous right-wing violence is to create a climate of insecurity,” Müller explains. “What is new in the current series is that the focus is no longer just on shops and well-known progressive spaces, but also on individuals directly – at their private homes and addresses.”
Left Party politician Anne Helm’s experience corroborates this claim. “The threats always come at night, usually by email,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning I immediately check to see if something new has come.” Helm is particularly worried that the threats contain the kind of private information that cannot be easily found in the public domain.
Many of the victims are featured on “target lists” which the neo-Nazis put together after collecting data from various sources over a number of years. One such list was found on a confiscated hard drive belonging to Sebastian T.. Some of this data could, according to MBR, have been leaked from police computers, as occurred in Hessen.
The most striking characteristic of far-right violence is not the recent rise in incidents or the changing nature of attacks – it is the continuity of the problem. These crimes have occurred for over a decade, and little has been achieved in the way of justice. Activists and community members are demanding that politicians take the problem seriously. Doing so would involve recognising that the security services have not only failed to tackle the issue – they may in fact be part of the problem. For Entnazifizierung Jetzt, the solution must include a permanent civilian-led oversight committee.
“Up to now, there are usually only internal investigations, but the security agencies have such insane entanglements with the right-wing sphere that there really has to be a separate, democratic institution that watches over them,” they argue. “A parliamentary investigation is necessary – but only a first step.”