Wilhelm Heitmeyer was director of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at the University of Bielefeld for 17 years. His new book “Right Threat Alliances” has just been published, in which he warns of the dangers of the AfD and the infiltration of German security authorities.
Mr Heitmeyer, after a crash in the Grand Coalition, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) again made it clear this week that there will be “no racism investigation in the police force”, but an investigation into everyday police operations. What do you make of it?
The decisive factor will be whether a serious research design is developed exclusively according to scientific standards and is assessed externally. Otherwise scientists are not to be envied, given the tendency of the Ministries of the Interior to intervene in questions as well as interpretations. In view of the currently overheated debate, there are methodologically narrow limits to determining the extent of racism – it is different with the mechanisms.
Two questions are important: which people go to the police? What behaviors do the risk constellations generate in everyday police life, including racist border crossings?
For months, Seehofer was reluctant to conduct an independent police investigation – despite numerous exposed chat groups, right-wing extremist suspected cases, and flashy address questions from police computers …
I do not understand that. Every society has the right to know what is going on in the institutions it has granted the monopoly of violence, power and weapons. No company should allow itself to be offered such isolation.
This month, however, the minister presented a situation report on right-wing extremists in security services. There are listed 319 right-wing extremist suspected cases in our own ranks.
A pure distraction. The 319 cases are just the bright field – they had already been discovered. Even the protection of the constitution says it depends on the dark field. Nothing was explored for this picture of the situation, there was only one question from the state ministries of the interior. However, such diversion maneuvers are not new.
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Seehofer argues that he is wary of general suspicion against the police.
This is another diversion, or rather, an attempt at immunization against any criticism. I am not aware of any serious voice that expresses general suspicion. So the minister is protesting against an argument that no one is putting forward – and wants to avoid a real discussion. I see no interest in the case with him, only interest in political relief. Seehofer and his lawyers always seem to come up with new variants to avoid delays. In addition, the Minister of Constitution does not protect the police. It arouses suspicion.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s Interior Minister Herbert Reul (CDU) recently made public the existence of the “net4cops” police forum, which networked 770 officers across Germany. Nine of them distributed right-wing extremist content in it, 761 police officers let it happen for a long time. What does that tell you?
There is little internal criticism, especially younger police officers should be afraid of being excluded from the community, upon which they absolutely depend in operations and other dangerous risk constellations. This creates a high pressure to conform. Failure to intervene is also the result of normalization processes. What is considered normal cannot be problematized after a certain moment.
Such processes are of course also recognizable in many other areas of our society – normality standards shift.
Wilhelm Heitmeyer, 75, has been researching right-wing extremism for decades. Photo: Nele Heitmeyer
How is the rule of law faring in the fight against right-wing extremism outside its own ranks?
I see partial blindness there, up to and including state failure. The latter is concerned about the protection of the constitution, at least until the replacement of Hans-Georg Maaßen. Under his successor Thomas Haldenwang, a noticeably different wind is blowing, and it is urgently needed.
“I am afraid that parts of the politicians have still not understood how dangerous the situation is now.”
In your new book “Right Threat Alliances” you also talk about “moral failure”.
This is because the state has only significantly stepped up its activities against right-wing extremism when a politician named Walter Lübcke, a prominent state representative, was assassinated in June last year. But the many people who have already been murdered, for example by the NSU, these people are also prominent, in front of their family and friends. And almost nothing happened.
That means the state has now woken up?
I fear that parts of the politicians have still not understood how dangerous the situation is now. There is a differentiation and dynamization of groups to a greater capacity for terrorism. The entire right spectrum has gone on the attack.
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How this spectrum is related and what makes it so dangerous can be illustrated by a model. They call it the “concentric escalation continuum,” and the AfD is very important in that.
The model can be represented as an onion with different skins connected by bridges of legitimacy and a common ideology of inequality. The outer shell is the attitudes of the population – the discrimination against Muslims, Jews, homosexuals or women, for example. This group-related misanthropy is framed in slogans in the next bowl, especially by the AfD’s authoritarian national radicalism, and brought to the political level.
It, in turn, legitimizes the anti-system, far-right milieu, the next innermost layer. So it goes, in the end there are actual acts of destruction by individual perpetrators or groups. The commonly used term of the individual perpetrator is of course misleading and in turn puts the problem into perspective. These perpetrators live in like-minded communities.
But the AfD is not publicly calling for violence. So she’s not responsible for this either, is she?
That is why it is called the escalation continuum. The AfD plays a very important role in this, because through its representation in parliaments and the public, it works with terms such as “Umvolkung”, “great exchange” or “Fall of the German people”. This legitimizes the role of right-wing extremist perpetrators as victims and a right to resist – without the propagandists within the party being prosecuted.
“Right Threat Alliances” has just been published by Suhrkamp.
Former parliamentary group press spokesman Christian Lüth was filmed with a hidden camera saying that strategic reasons would require more migrants to enter the country, who could later be shot or gassed.
Such a person produces images and requests that – in order to remain in the model – can be used as legitimacy by the inner onion layers. And Lüth was not just any local politician, he had a central position, including a relationship of trust with honorary president Alexander Gauland. The more prominent the person, the more effective the legitimacy for the use of violence by right-wing extremist actors.
Incidentally, the legitimation bridges cause the boundaries between the individual layers to blur: The demonstrations in Chemnitz in 2018 on the occasion of the murder of the German-Cuban Daniel H. All groups in the escalation continuum were there together on the street.
You have been warning for years about firewall erosion, the danger of blurring the lines between the democratic parties and the right-wing spectrum. Did you feel affirmed when Thuringian FDP deputy Thomas Kemmerich was elected Prime Minister with AfD votes in February?
I never thought that the blurring of borders would reach the system level, ie the parliaments, so quickly. That power-hungry democratic parties, in this case the FDP and CDU, already behave like this, I did not think possible.
“I’ve never heard of left-wing extremist comrades or chat groups in the police and army”
For years, the focus of your work has been on right-wing extremism. What about left-wing extremism, please?
I do not share the so-called horseshoe theory, according to which left and right extremism do not differ in principle. Violence, of course, remains violence, it is always destructive. But both the objectives and the amount of left and right extremism have completely different dimensions, including when it comes to the invasion of the security institutions. I have never heard of left wing extremist comrades or chat groups in the police and armed forces. These are dramatic differences.
In Saxony, the horseshoe theory formed the basis of security policy for decades.
If someone takes their political action according to this theory, which I consider wrong, it leads to an underestimation of right-wing extremism. I find that extremely dangerous, also when it comes to the conditions in Saxony. I don’t even know where to get the empirical data to adequately support this theory.