Possible links between the assassination of a German politician to members of highly violent underground neo-Nazi groups are alarming Germany’s security agencies. A murder confession midweek by a far-right extremist is stoking fears in the country about a possible resurgence in organized neo-Nazi violence.
The confession Wednesday by Stephan Ernst, a 45-year-old German man with a string of convictions for anti-migrant crimes, to the murder earlier this month of Walter Luebcke, a pro-migrant politician in the state of Hesse, is raising the specter of far-right terrorism.
Some security experts fear Germany could be on the cusp of more far-right violence and heading for a repeat of a murder spree seen in the late 2000s, when dozens of people were killed by members of a militant group calling itself the National Socialist Underground, NSU.
Investigators say Ernst had ties not only with the ultra-nationalist National Democratic Party of Germany but also with Combat 18, a violent neo-Nazi group which originated in Britain but has spread to other European countries and also has chapters in the United States and Canada.
Combat 18 members have been suspected in numerous murders of immigrants. The “18” in the group’s name is derived from the initials of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler - A and H are the first and eighth letters in the Latin alphabet.
On Wednesday, the Canadian government proscribed Combat 18 and the related neo-Nazi group Blood & Honor, the first time right-wing extremist groups have been added to Canada’s list of terrorist organizations.
Ernst served a prison sentence after attempting to plant a pipe bomb outside a shelter for asylum -seekers in 1993, and he was arrested 10 years ago at a neo-Nazi march in Dortmund and sentenced to seven months’ probation for breaching the peace.
Head of a regional government in the city of Kassel, Luebcke was found dead outside his home with a gunshot wound to the head on June 2. The 65-year-old was a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, or CDU.
Ernst told police he acted alone in the assassination, but Germany’s interior minister Horst Seehofer said investigators are hunting for possible co-conspirators. “The investigation of this political murder is not yet complete,” Seehofer said. He promised to “do everything humanly possible to investigate this terrible act,” adding “We will continue to work hard to establish whether there were accessories or even accomplices. We owe that to the public.”
Luebcke’s killing has sparked memories of the NSU, a neo-Nazi cell, also in Hesse, that murdered nine foreign nationals as well as a policewoman over ten years. Detectives failed to link the killings, prompting claims that the NSU had sympathizers inside the state police itself.
Fears of neo-Nazi infiltration of the police and security agencies have been prompted also by this latest killing. Germany’s domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) held no active file on Ernst, despite his neo-Nazi history and violent past. Some federal lawmakers are questioning whether that was because Hesse’s state-level intelligence service failed to share information on Ernst with Berlin.
Bundestag lawmaker Ulla Jelpke of the socialist Left party, and a member of the German parliament’s interior affairs committee, says it is bewildering that the BfV had had no active file on Ernst. “It couldn't even be confirmed whether [the agency's] office in Hesse had a file," she told Germany’s press agency dpa. He appears “to have gone out of sight, out of mind, so to speak,” she added.
She said: “I get the impression they're trying to investigate with some urgency, but at the same time they're hitting their own boundaries, because for years they didn't acknowledge the phenomenon of terrorism in far-right extremism.” Some federal lawmakers are questioning whether there might be links with the old NSU.
On June 18, the head of the BfV, Thomas Haldenwang, told reporters at a press conference in Berlin that his agency estimated that there are nearly 13,000 violent right wing extremists in Germany, adding that the security services did not have the resources or manpower to be able to monitor their activities. Analysts say the BfV is already hard-pressed countering the radical Islamist terror threat and has been forced to overlook dangerous neo-Nazi networks.
“We currently have 12,700 rightwing extremists willing to use violence in Germany, and it’s difficult to have an eye on them all,” he told a press conference. Defending the agency’s lack of active file on Ernst, he said: “People who for almost a decade have behaved inconspicuously are not considered a high priority.”
Ernst was arrested after DNA found on Luebcke’s clothing was matched with a DNA sample from Ernst held in a police data bank.
German Interior Minister Seehofer says the Luebcke killing should serve as a wake-up call. Several mayors have received death threats since the slaying in Hesse and authorities have redoubled security at the Bundestag and the security arrangements of prominent politicians in Berlin.