‘A Big Wake-Up Call’: Filmmaker Evan Williams on Germany’s Neo-Nazis and the Far Right
Evan Williams in a still from FRONTLINE's documentary "Germany's Neo-Nazis & the Far Right."
In Germany’s Neo-Nazis & the Far Right, producer Evan Williams sets out to trace that country’s recent rise in far-right extremism and violence by documenting attacks and plots against Jews, immigrants and political opponents, as well as how the authorities have responded to the threats.
Williams spoke with FRONTLINE about what motivated the investigation, what he found and what he hopes we can understand about the resurgence of a dangerous ideology.
You’ve been covering the far right in Europe for almost a decade. What sort of arc has the story taken over that period of time?
There’s definitely been an increasing far-right sentiment in many parts of Europe growing over the past several years. And it’s been manifesting itself in different ways. For example, in France and Austria, there’s this interesting movement called the Identitarians, who see themselves as not strictly neo-Nazi but certainly anti-immigration, pro-white European, usually educated, quite wealthy, young people who are part of a new movement trying to establish or work for a Europe which is more like them. That’s in response to multiculturalism and to immigration.
And then on the more extreme side, you had manifestations such as the Golden Dawn in Greece … which was a much more avowed and obvious neo-Nazi party and group, that was more into intimidation, as much as they were also into supporting poorer aspects of the Greek community, [quote unquote]. And one of the members at the time compared themselves to Hezbollah and said: “Hezbollah look after their people. We’re a social organization.” And they were tapping very deliberately into an electorate of the Greeks who were struggling at the time from the economic crisis and who felt abandoned by the government.
Now we see ourselves in Germany, where there’s also been a great upsurge in far-right, extremist violence, in terms of threats, in terms of the issues we cover in the film — the attacks. Also, there’s been a [more than] 20% rise in antisemitic attacks of all forms, not just violence, but all forms, over the past three to four years in Germany. And I think all of these things have a consistent thread, which is, they are often a response by a section of the community to what they perceive to be changes — whether it’s immigration, too many refugees, jihadi attacks, of which there’ve been many in Europe, or an economic crisis or economic crises that continue.
And these groups, what I’m noticing over the past several years is, they’re certainly not going away, and they’re not weakening. If anything, they are developing different strategies to expand their support. And we saw that in Germany, very interestingly, with the far right trying to co-opt or influence the anti-COVID restriction rallies that had been organized in very great number by the Querdenker movement in Germany. There’s an issue there with the state intelligence service, warning that the extreme far right is trying to boost its popularity and support through those sort of movements. …
What did you learn about whether Germany’s far right is connected to or inspired by extremists in other countries?
I think all of us collectively, internationally, are only just coming to terms with what’s going on online. And it was a revelation to me. When we started looking at the young man who attacked the synagogue in Halle, Germany, with the intention of a mass shooting, there were [more than 50] Jewish people inside during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of their year. … He also had handmade grenades and other explosives. So had he got into that synagogue, it would have been potentially a massacre on the scale of Christchurch [2019 attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 51 people and left dozens injured].
And what we discovered, through experts who’ve looked at this and through also plaintiffs in the case or survivors, was that he was radicalized online. He had no overt connection to the far-right scene in the real world [through] person-to-person contacts. It looks like he was completely radicalized online.
And this happened through his gaming connections. What we discovered is that there are these international groups who are playing violent games with each other — a community, a clan. Within these clans they start communicating ideas, and they start radicalizing each other — in this particular case, often with antisemitic … conspiracy theories, wild conspiracies [that are] anti-immigrant, often misogynistic as well, very crude and upsetting thoughts. An underlying part of this is antisemitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. …
And it became apparent when we talked to the plaintiffs who were in the trial every day and also to online extremism experts, that the federal prosecutors who were prosecuting the case really had no idea how they should go about finding out more about this radicalization. And nor did they, by their own admission in court. …
There has been an explosion in the amount of neo-Nazi, antisemitic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim material — overtly neo-Nazi, which is illegal in Germany — being shared online. The effect is it’s normalizing antisemitic, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant thought. And one of the state prosecutors in the [film], Christoph Hebbecker, says to me when he started this three, four years ago — he set up the country’s first unit to look at prosecuting online hate — he had no idea about the scale of this stuff.
And he said a really interesting thing, which was the people that are doing this are not your classic skinhead neo-Nazis. They are increasingly normal people living normal lives. … And he said that’s what worries him the most, and he’s talking about tens of thousands of people being involved in sharing this stuff. And it doesn’t mean everybody’s going to go out and become a mass shooter. But it certainly means that there’s more normalization for those who may then go and do that — that this is OK.
Germany criminalizes Holocaust denial and has strict laws against Nazi symbols and hate speech. How did you find that impacted German authorities’ response to extremism?
If somebody shares a swastika or overtly Nazi material, which is illegal, or they overtly deny the Holocaust, then they’re breaking the law, and if the authorities become aware of it, they will be pursued. What happens in our conversations with people who are more of that far-right ideology or thinking [is they’re] aware of the limits and will go up to the line. Their idea is still very clear. Their beliefs are still very clear. But they won’t necessarily break the law when they talk to you.
And they say: “This is a problem for freedom of speech. We should be able to say whatever we like. We should be able to question whatever we like.” This is one of their platforms. And it’s one of the things that they use in a way that gains some support and popularity, because it’s presented as a freedom of speech issue, rather than the denial of an abhorrent part of history. …
And to get back to an earlier question you had about the online thing: German authorities and online experts told us that a large amount of this neo-Nazi online hate is actually being generated from the United States. And it is often presented on sites which are being created in the States. And there’s an increasing popularity or an appetite for this material in Germany. So, it’s almost like there’s sort of an echo between the two. But what’s going on in the States is having an impact globally, on online hate and extremism around the world, and particularly in Germany. And as we saw with the Halle attacker, and that then led to actions.
And it’s a point made by a couple of people in the film. One is the father of a man who was killed in Hanau [in Germany]. Armin Kurtović, who says it starts with thoughts, it leads to words, and words lead to actions. And by that stage, it’s too late. There’s a big wake-up call for all of us here about how these neo-Nazi, extremist thoughts are being echoed in the online world. Nobody really knows.
The issue about the Halle shooter — this is a point made to us by one of the plaintiffs and the survivors: Because the police didn’t investigate his connections online, nobody knows what’s still out there. Nor do we know exactly how he was radicalized and by whom. What were the steps? What is the clan? Who are these people? What are they saying to each other? …
In the film, there are examples of how radicalization is happening on social platforms: propaganda being shared, people being recruited, etc. Since you began reporting this story, have you seen any new efforts by German authorities to tackle this?
Let’s take the online hate, to start with, and the neo-Nazi material there. [State prosecutor Christoph Hebbecker] told me that I think he was the first one to start [a specialized unit dedicated to digital hate crimes]. He’s in Frankfurt. In the past couple of years, he told me, other states have started to realize the potential threat here and the problem … [and] are starting now to set up these digital hate crime units. But he said a very interesting thing. When he first set his up, he was sort of laughed at by other prosecutors saying: “Look, we’ve got a lot of things to do. Why are you worried about this?”
So there’s this general and possibly generational change that is only slowly starting to occur, where people are realizing this material is out there, it’s being shared to an extraordinary degree, it breaks the law in Germany — not necessarily in other places — but it’s also connected to and leading to acts of real violence in the real world. … [I]t’s early days, I think, in terms of law enforcement. …
Did you get a sense for how underreported this story is within Germany? Or is it reported but dismissed by politicians and/or the general public?
Well, there’s some extraordinary, fantastic reporting done in Germany. There’s a very vigorous and sophisticated media landscape there, of course. I found that a lot of issues are reported within Germany. They’re not so much reported or understood outside Germany. I don’t think we have a real understanding of what’s going on inside Germany at the moment, in terms of this.
My feeling was, certainly when I started researching this probably a year ago, maybe even a little bit more, there was not as much official response or reaction to this issue as there is today. I would say there’s been a change in the past year, that they’re taking it more seriously. … In fairness, I think there is an understanding now officially, at the top levels of government, that this is a problem. As we show in the piece, it’s not just a problem with a bunch of guys in a field or a garage getting together, known neo-Nazis. This is now a problem inside the police forces, inside the military. There is this far-right, extremist sensibility and belief system going on that they’re only just starting to root out slowly, almost bit-by-bit. …
What do you hope an American audience takes away from this film?
I hope it’s a greater understanding of what’s going on in Germany. I think it’s important for us to understand what’s going on there, given its history, given the fact that the Holocaust was there, and Nazism was effectively born in Germany. It’s increasingly important, with the interconnected world that we’re now living in. We know that ideas are transmitted very quickly between Germany and the United States, particularly in these far-right extremist circles. What’s happening in Germany is fed into America and echoed very quickly. And vice versa. So, I think we’ve got to understand that there’s that connection. …
One thing I’d like us to take away from this is: We talked to a few people in the piece, and we talked to more in the research period. People who receive far-right threats — and one of the main motivations for me doing this was to try and get a greater understanding of what that really means and feels like, because we hear about it, but we don’t often really think about it. If you’re receiving a threat from the far right, I was intrigued journalistically and on a human level, just what does that mean for your life? How serious is that?
And we found, in Germany, that it’s very serious indeed. If you are identified by the far right publicly, and named, all sorts of things start to happen. Your address is shared, for example; you start receiving all sorts of hate mail and threats. And we know now that there are some individuals who are not very far away from actually performing violent acts against those they think are targets of the far right.
So, it is a very dangerous situation for many, many people in Germany, much more dangerous than I think we understand outside the country. … And I just think we need to be aware of that and understand what that means for people. Because if you let that happen, and you let it grow, that’s a major problem for society, I think.
For an in-depth look at the far-right threat in modern-day Germany, watch Germany’s Neo-Nazis & the Far Right. The documentary is supported by Exploring Hate, a multiplatform public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York aimed at offering an in-depth understanding of the rising tide of hatred, hate crimes, antisemitism and racism. Watch the documentary Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at 10/9c on PBS (check local listings) and on YouTube, or stream it that same day starting at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App.