Far-Right Political Violence Is on the Rise in Germany

In Germany, conservatives responded to the high-profile trial of a left-wing activist by creating a panic around the rise of left-wing extremism. But it is neo-Nazi violence that has actually increased in the country, and the far-right that has institutionalized itself.

Police in riot gear advance towards demonstrators during a gathering to demand freedom for Lina E., whom a Dresden court sentenced to five years and three months in prison for assaults against neo-Nazis in Saxony and Thuringia between 2018 and 2020. (Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

In Germany, a high-profile trial has drawn the attention of the media and reignited debates around the political nature of the country’s judiciary. On May 31, the Higher Regional Court of Dresden sentenced Lina E., a left-wing activist, to five years and three months in prison for attacks on high-profile neo-Nazis. Public debate surrounding the case was quick to paint her as the alleged figurehead of a nascent “left-wing extremism.” What has been dubbed the Antifa-East trial constitutes one of the most significant cases targeting someone associated with a left-wing political organization since the Red Army Faction, the West German militant urban guerrilla network that carried out bombings, assassinations, and bank robberies from the 1970s to the early 90s.

The prosecution has accused Lina E. and her three codefendants of having organized and carried out at least six assaults against prominent neo-Nazis in the period from 2018 to 2020, injuring thirteen people. However, the prosecution did not just allege that Lina E. and her associates had caused bodily harm, but that they were involved in the “foundation of a criminal organization.” Most of the reporting focused on Lina E., the alleged ringleader, a twenty-eight-year-old student of social pedagogy with no previous convictions. Brought to the general federal prosecutor in Karlsruhe by helicopter, surrounded by masked police officers, Lina E. became an effective symbol of a movement whose existence is dubious. The conservative politicians have used the public obsession with Lina E. — whom the right-wing tabloid Bild called “Germany’s most dangerous far-left extremist” — to motivate a relentless campaign of fearmongering about “left-wing terrorism.”

The German state based its charges primarily on Paragraph 129 of the German Criminal Code, a highly contentious section dealing with the formation of criminal associations. According to Paragraph 129, anyone who founds or attempts to establish an association aimed at committing offenses can receive a prison sentence of up to five years. Law enforcement initially used this law to criminalize communist organizations in the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1950s. Since then, however, Paragraph 129 has remained an important juridical mechanism for justifying almost unlimited investigative authority. Since lawmakers reformed the law in 2017, prosecutors no longer need to provide detailed proof of an organizational structure in order to charge defendants. This does not just allow but necessitates the use of circumstantial evidence by the jury to support the existence of a coherent criminal organization.

Importantly, invoking Paragraph 129 allows the court to consider several separate criminal offenses within one case, which legitimizes far-reaching surveillance measures to prove the connection between individuals alleged to be part of a single organization. In the context of the Antifa-East trial, the definition of an offense under Paragraph 129 lends itself to the legitimation of extensive information gathering about the leftist scene as a whole.

Paragraph 129 also criminalizes being a member of, recruiting members to, or generally supporting any criminal organization, effectively creating a situation in which a liberal, democratic state puts political activism in close proximity to criminal liability, while also moving towards the criminalization of anti-fascist sympathies. The judgment in the Antifa-East trial should therefore be understood as part of a larger wave of repression against left-wing activism. In these cases, the application of Paragraph 129 is part of the state’s deterrence mechanism — the narrative of “state-threatening offenses” aims to undermine both left-wing solidarity and public sympathy.

In some cases, however, this tactic has had the opposite effect. When the Centre for Political Beauty, a political performance art collective, built a replica of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial on the plot of land right next door to Björn Höcke’s home in 2019, the group gained significant public approval. Höcke, a former history teacher and, since 2014, the leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Thuringia, had described Peter Eisenman’s original Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe as “a monument of shame” in a relatively routine exercise of neo-Nazi rhetoric. In response, Höcke, backed by the right-wing media, attempted to create a public campaign against the Center for Political Beauty, which he wanted to see treated as a terrorist organization under a law closely related to Paragraph 129.

Influenced by Höcke’s campaign, Thuringia’s state prosecutors pressed what was a clearly a baseless case against the center, exposing in the process the influence the political right holds over Germany’s judiciary. Allegations made by Höcke, and unsuccessfully pursued by the public prosecutors, that the collective’s artistic director, Philipp Ruch, could, according to Paragraph 129, be described as the “founder and leader of criminal association,” proved insubstantial. They did, however, succeed in one respect: they provided an effective marketing campaign for the Center for Political Beauty that called on willing “accomplices” to incite “public unrest in the service of aggressive humanism.”

Most recently, public attention was captured by investigations into the German chapter of the climate protest group Letzte Generation (Last Generation). Earlier this year, the Bavarian state targeted seven activists under Paragraph 129 for having “formed or supported a criminal organization.” Arguing that the group posed “a considerable threat to public safety,” the state legitimized electronic surveillance, raids targeting fifteen properties, freezing bank accounts, and temporarily blocking the group’s website.

Ironically, the group is known for their overwhelmingly peaceful actions aimed at raising awareness about the climate emergency through road blockades, hunger strikes, dumpster diving, and art stunts. Their “extremist” demands range from adding a speed limit on German motorways to reducing the price of public transport and forming a democratic emergency council to address climate policies. However, two activists linked with the German environmental movement at large have been charged with attempting to sabotage the Trieste-Ingolstadt oil pipeline in 2022. Thanks to Paragraph 129, these two arrests allow the police to investigate Letzte Generation as a whole.

Critics of politically motivated investigations conducted under Paragraph 129 tend to foreground the question of parity across the political spectrum. The Antifa-East trial is, from this perspective, yet another case which contrasts with the large number of far-right prosecutions that lack a similar level of investigative vigor and public attention. Citing the case of Lina E., the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) — Germany’s domestic intelligence agency — warns against “growing left-wing extremism.” In its latest annual report, the BfV worries about the increasing radicalization, noting “anti-fascism” as key to such “extremist ideological orientation.” Simultaneously, however, it also notes an actual decline in “violent left-wing extremist offenses” by 39 percent, with most offenses only constituting property damage.

In contrast, according to its own numbers, politically motivated right-wing crimes — the vast majority of which are physical assaults — are not only six times more prolific than criminal actions carried out by leftists, but actually on the rise. Meanwhile, public trust in the BfV remains low, particularly following the scandal surrounding the trial of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) group. The case against this neo-Nazi terrorist cell, which was responsible for murdering ten people with immigrant backgrounds in the 2000s, highlighted extensive links between German intelligence services and the far right. Despite the popularity of narratives that laud the seriousness with which Germany has fashioned a culture of remembrance during the postwar era, its investigative authorities are increasingly under pressure for underestimating the sharp rise in violence associated with the populist AfD.

Beyond questions of the equal application of state force, we need a sustained critique of the logic underlying the idea that neo-Nazi violence and militant anti-fascism are two sides of the same coin. Mainstream narratives of left-wing and right-wing radicalism follow what is commonly referred to as “horseshoe theory.” Widely discredited among leading political scientists, this theory asserts that the far left and the far right are similarly “extreme,” creating and perpetuating the illusion of a politically neutral middle ground. The political consequence of such a reductive understanding is the loss of collective ability to not only differentiate between the political substance of various camps, but also to identify regressive, undemocratic positions in the political center. Debates around “left extremism,” such as the one surrounding the Antifa-East trial, play into the hands of the increasingly institutionalized far right.

The populist AfD has already largely succeeded in shifting Germany’s political center to the right. Since its establishment in 2013, the AfD has made significant gains across various sections of society. Split into ethnonationalist, national-conservative, and ordoliberal currents, the AfD is now a well-established presence in the German political landscape. Recent polls that suggest that the AfD is currently the second strongest party, ahead of the ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD), sent shock waves throughout Germany. While cooperation with the AfD at the federal level seems inconceivable for now, the shift towards right-wing populism has not been met with sufficient resistance.

In the aftermath of the judgment in the Antifa-East trial, prominent politicians of the libertarian Free Democratic Party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union, and even the SPD warned against the trivialization of leftist activism, with only the Green Youth chairman Timon Dzienus publicly criticizing the verdict. As Germany’s rising far right continues to make headlines, a compelling leftist project needs to resist its normalization.