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How right-wing extremists have infiltrated German security forces

In Germany, prosecutors on Wednesday asked for life imprisonment for a right-wing extremist charged with killing two people outside a synagogue last year. The move comes amid growing calls to investigate neo-Nazi infiltration of the country’s security services -- which are creating a frightening echo of Germany’s past. Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Berlin.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    German prosecutors today asked for life imprisonment for a right-wing extremist charged with killing two people last year outside a synagogue in Germany's east.

    That comes as calls grow to investigate the extent of neo-Nazi infiltration of the country's security services; 1,400 cases of far right extremism among soldiers, police officers and intelligence agents have been documented over the past three years, a frightening echo of Germany's past.

    From Berlin, special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Back to the future in a bleak East Berlin suburb. Right-wingers marked 30 years of German reunification with a rally ripe with 1930s attitudes.

    Up went a chant from a banned neo-Nazi song predicting ultimate victory. This group has sprung from an outlawed extremist party, The Third Path, that shares ideology with similar European groups. Its logo contains a nod to Hitler's Third Reich.

  • Man (through translator):

    The last three to four years have clearly shown that multiculturalism has failed, and it's our job to end it. We have to rely on our own people for our future, for the safety of our children and grandchildren.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The command? Advance on Berlin. Alarm bells are ringing about the far right's surge. These protesters wanted to confront the neo-Nazis. The police kept them apart, as an anti-fascist anthem played.

    Militaristic displays are outlawed in Germany. The police ordered them not to march, but to — quote — "saunter casually." The instruction was ignored.

    These people are some of the most extreme neo-Nazis in Germany. And there are many groups like this. But what the authorities are worried about is not these people so much who are out in public. It's those neo-Nazis who're hiding in the establishment, in the shadows.

    This video by the Bundeswehr, the German military, eulogizes the prowess of an elite special forces unit called the KSK. But, today, it's in disgrace. One company has been disbanded because of a right-wing extremist culture. A cache of weapons, ammunition and explosives was found buried at the home of one soldier.

  • Timo Reinfrank:

    If you're looking for a special unit who could take over the German chancellory or the most important ministries within Berlin, then this was the most important unit to do so.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Timo Reinfrank's mission is to counter right-wing violence. He heads a foundation named after Amadeu Antonio, an Angolan immigrant murdered by extremists in 1990.

    Reinfrank worries that neo-Nazis have infiltrated other branches of the German military.

  • Timo Reinfrank:

    The problem about the army is that we don't know anything. There is a more or less closed shop that we only hear about in the public from special incidents. But we know that the majority of the right-wing scene is full of trained people from the German Bundeswehr.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    These concerns are shared by Germany's highest echelons. Last month's celebrations, muted by COVID-19, were supposed to toast the 30-year-long marriage of East and West Germany after the Iron Curtain disintegrated.

    But President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was compelled to call for vigilance against neo-Nazis.

  • Frank-Walter Steinmeier (through translator):

    They want another state, an authoritative state that aggressively excludes parts of society. They see themselves as part of a tradition that this republic doesn't stand for and that has nothing to do with our democracy.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Hours after that speech, outside Hamburg Synagogue, a man in military fatigues attacked a Jewish student with a shovel, inflicting grave head injuries.

    Germany's anti-Semitism czar, Felix Klein.

  • Felix Klein:

    Nobody can deny the deadly dimension of anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism in Germany anymore. Right-wing extremism is a big threat of democracy in Germany.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The German police are not immune either. Confidence in the police was rocked after 30 officers were suspended for sharing extreme material in online chat rooms that included images of Adolf Hitler and depictions of a refugee in a gas chamber.

    Heike Kleffner leads a nonprofit that supports victims of right-wing violence. She's one of hundreds of people named on right-wing death lists.

  • Heike Kleffner:

    We have police officers who supply right-wing terror networks with information from police database on political enemies. And we have police officers who spread anti-Semitic and national socialist propaganda.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Ferat Kocak, a left-wing politician with Turkish heritage, almost lost his life because of police collusion or negligence. A police inquiry admitted officers knew neo-Nazis were planning an arson attack on Kocak, but failed to inform him.

  • Ferat Kocak:

    The fire spread to the house, and it was luck that we survived with my family.

    I get a lot of messages with death threats. And I'm not the only one. So a lot of friends also get these death threats, but they always say, it is — we will wait for the right time to kill you.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The government insists that 99 percent of police officers are anchored in the law, and only a minority are rotten, a view echoed by Berlin police spokesman Thilo Cablitz.

  • Thilo Cablitz (through translator):

    For us as police officers, it hurts. It hurts because we join this profession with a certain idealism, and we stand firmly on the ground of our liberal democratic constitution.

    And if there are people within our ranks who call themselves police officers, but who do not share our common understanding and our oath, then it hurts us no end.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Despite official admissions of culpability from both the military and the police, activists believe there is not enough transparency.

  • Ferat Kocak:

    We have a lot of Nazis in authorities, and it's important to start to change this now.

  • Heike Kleffner:

    One thing that absolutely needs to happen is an independent scientific research on the percentage of hard-core racists and anti-Semites within the German police force.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Germany's main concern is the neo-Nazis' ambition to launch a violent uprising one day in the future.

  • Man (through translator):

    This situation is precisely our chance to excite people again for a real alternative, to completely change the system, so that the German people can once again live in a country worth living in.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Although he doesn't believe the Third Reich could be resurrected, President Steinmeier warned against complacency.

  • Frank-Walter Steinmeier (through translator):

    The colors of this democratic history are the colors black, red and gold, the colors of unity, justice and freedom. We will not allow them to be driven away, misused or appropriated

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The anniversary celebrations culminated at the Brandenburg Gate that once marked the division between East and West. Beneath its neo-Nazi cloud, Germany is a long way from being truly united.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Berlin.

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