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The rise of extremism in Germany's military

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It sounds like something out of a Graham Greene novel, but it's true. Two dozen people were arrested in Germany last week on allegations they planned to overthrow the government. Among those arrested were a prince, a former member of Parliament and various members of Germany's armed forces. And that got our attention not just because of the event itself - because this actually isn't the first time in recent years where members of Germany's military have been involved in a far-right extremist network. In 2017, a lieutenant in Germany's elite unit, or KSK, was discovered to be posing as a Syrian refugee and planned to carry out attacks against politicians in the hopes that it would sow fear of refugees. In 2020, another KSK officer was found to be hoarding weapons, some stolen from his military unit, and collecting Nazi memorabilia.

Peter Kuras is a freelance journalist in Berlin who has been reporting extensively on the rise of extremism in the German armed forces, and he's with us now to tell us more. Peter Kuras, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PETER KURAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Let me just start off by asking, what was your reaction to the news of these arrests? Because I have to tell you, it seemed shocking to those of us here in the United States, even after having experienced the armed attack on our own Capitol nearly two years ago. Was it shocking to you?

KURAS: I think the specifics of this particular plot are certainly, as you put it, seem like something out of a spy novel, and that's always shocking. But that there are such plots and that they involve high-ranking members of government and the military does not surprise me at all.

MARTIN: And why is that?

KURAS: We've seen, you know, for ages not only that there have been these sort of series of serious conspiracies within the German military. We've also seen that the - exactly the organizations and agencies that should be responsible for observing them have been failing to do so and failing to act against them. And while part of that is certainly that these are complex issues and not easy investigations to carry out, it's also hard to avoid the feeling that there's some real complicity or some real sympathy with these figures within many parts of the military and police establishment in Germany.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, you wrote in a piece for The Economist where you say that right-wing extremism has become prevalent in the German armed forces. You cited this parliamentary report from 2020 finding - and I'll quote you here - "the security establishment had become entangled with extreme-right organized structures," unquote. How high in the chain of command does your reporting indicate these connections are, and how did this happen?

KURAS: It's really hard to tell how high exactly up in the chain of command it goes. I mean, what's clear is that there are very highly placed figures within both the military and the political elite in Germany who just don't want this to be true or who have at least not wanted this to be true for a long time and therefore have directed resources away from investigating this issue.

In terms of how it's happened, I think there's a sort of, you know, a long-term and a short-term answer to that question. The short-term answer would be the - 2015, 2016, the refugee crisis in Germany radicalized a large number of the security forces as well as a large portion of the German population and pushed sort of people who had sort of potentially right-wing leanings into right-wing extremism. The longer-term answer would be that following the Second World War, the Allied forces were eager to create a bulwark against Stalinism and against communism and were therefore ready and willing to work closely with many former Nazis in order to prevent the spread of communism.

MARTIN: So how is this - how is the government responding to this? And how would you say the story is being received more broadly around the country?

KURAS: I think there's still a lot of shock, and people are still trying to shake out or, you know, figure out what's happened and how seriously to take this. I mean, there's certainly a tendency among conservatives in Germany to take this story not that seriously. And, you know, one has to say that there's some legitimacy to claim that these are old men who have probably been caught up in the internet and didn't always have the very best operational security, let's say. I think that's a very shortsighted and foolish position, given that they did have access to weapons. They did have a network. They did have a plan that could certainly have cost a great number of people their lives, even if the idea that they were going to overthrow the state is pretty ridiculous.

I think more broadly, there's great concern on the part of the government. I think there's some sense that the government is finally starting to wake up in a very comprehensive way. I mean, there were certainly individual actors in government before who were very concerned about these problems. But I think there's a much more widespread acknowledgment now that Germany has a systemic problem with extremism in the military and security forces.

MARTIN: So you're American, but you live in Germany, obviously, and have been working there. The similarities between this plot in Germany and the January 6 attack on the Capitol are striking, I mean, given that we know that there were a number of veterans participating in that. And frankly, in the past, there have been a number of people with military backgrounds who have participated in prior terrorist incidents. I'm thinking specifically of Timothy McVeigh, who was motivated by racist ideology and, you know, orchestrated the attack on the Oklahoma City Federal Building, you know, some years ago. Perhaps - I'm not - I don't know if you've reported sort of deeply on this, but, you know, what stands out to you about that? Or have you thought about the similarities between the two? And what stands out if you have?

KURAS: I mean, I think there are lots and lots of similarities. And I think there is this sort of worldwide, or at least a very widespread, global, movement towards a kind of reactionary paranoia. And I think that the problems in Germany have a slightly different flavor than those in the U.S. I mean, this idea of the Reichsburger, the, you know, citizen of empire, is a little bit different than QAnon. You know, one of the ways I always think about it is that Americans on the far right tend to think of themselves as cowboys who are going off into frontier. They want no government or very minimal government. Whereas Germans on the far right, you know, want to recreate an aristocratic or - state or the Third Reich, depending a little bit on their particular political valences. So that seems like a pretty substantial difference. But, you know, you see a lot of similarities in sort of this paranoid style of politics in Germany and the U.S. both.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, what are you looking for next? Like, what's the next iteration of the story? What will you be following as this story proceeds?

KURAS: Well, I think the real question is whether Germany is willing and able to create some kind of state security apparatus that's not susceptible to being targeted by right-wing extremists. And, you know, that's - in my reporting, one of the things that's come up time and time again from people who are very far to the left in Germany and who, I think in general, are very critical of American police and American military presence, but they have told me time and again that they wished Germany had something like the FBI because the FBI has been fairly effective in comparison to German security agencies. And there are agencies that play a similar role in terms of the structure of German government, but I - you know, they've all been compromised.

I think in terms of why none of them have been effective in remaining sort of uncompromised by right-wing extremists is a complicated question, but I think it probably has a lot to do with the demographic breakdown of the countries and the fact that, you know, Germany, until recently, was nowhere near as diverse as the U.S. and certainly didn't have as many people from diverse backgrounds who were capable of sort of standing up to right-wing extremists from within positions of power.

MARTIN: That was journalist Peter Kuras. He's based in Berlin. Peter Kuras, thanks so much for talking to us about this.

KURAS: It was my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.