As Neo-Nazis seed military ranks, Germany confronts ‘an enemy within’
By Katrin Benhold
As Germany emerged from its coronavirus lockdown in May, police commandos pulled up outside a rural property owned by a sergeant major in the special forces, the country’s most highly trained and secretive military unit.
They brought a digger. The sergeant major’s nickname was Little Sheep. He was suspected of being a neo-Nazi. Buried in the garden, police found 2 kilograms of PETN plastic explosives, a detonator, a fuse, an AK-47, a silencer, two knives, a crossbow and thousands of rounds of ammunition — much of it believed to have been stolen from the German military.
They also found an SS songbook, 14 editions of a magazine for former members of the Waffen SS and a host of other Nazi memorabilia.
Germany has a problem. For years, politicians and security chiefs rejected the notion of any far-right infiltration of the security services, speaking only of “individual cases.” The idea of networks was dismissed. The superiors of those exposed as extremists were protected. Guns and ammunition disappeared from military stockpiles with no real investigation.
The government is now waking up. Cases of far-right extremists in the military and police, some hoarding weapons and explosives, have multiplied alarmingly. The nation’s top intelligence officials and senior military commanders are moving to confront an issue that has become too dangerous to ignore.
The problem has deepened with the emergence of the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which legitimized a far-right ideology that used the arrival of more than 1 million migrants in 2015 — and more recently the coronavirus pandemic — to engender a sense of impending crisis.
Most concerning to authorities is that the extremists appear to be concentrated in the military unit that is supposed to be the most elite and dedicated to the German state, the special forces, known by their German acronym, the KSK.
This week, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, took the drastic step of disbanding a fighting company in the KSK considered infested with extremists. Little Sheep, whom investigators have identified only as Philipp Sch., was a member.
Germany’s military counterintelligence agency is now investigating more than 600 soldiers for far-right extremism, out of 184,000 in the military. Some 20 of them are in the KSK, a proportion that is five times higher than in other units.
But German authorities are concerned that the problem may be far larger and that other security institutions have been infiltrated as well. Over the past 13 months, far-right terrorists have assassinated a politician, attacked a synagogue and shot dead nine immigrants and German descendants of immigrants.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, has identified far-right extremism and terrorism as the “biggest danger to German democracy today.”
In interviews conducted over the course of the year with military and intelligence officials as well as avowed far-right members themselves, they described nationwide networks of current and former soldiers and police officers with ties to the far-right.
In many cases, soldiers have used the networks to prepare for when they predict Germany’s democratic order will collapse. They call it Day X. Officials worry it is really a pretext for inciting terrorist acts, or worse, a putsch.
Ties, officials said, sometimes reach deep into old neo-Nazi networks and the more polished intellectual scene of the so-called New Right. Extremists are hoarding weapons, maintaining safe houses and in some cases keeping lists of political enemies.
But investigating the problem is itself fraught: Even the military counterintelligence agency, charged with monitoring extremism inside the armed forces, may be infiltrated.
A high-ranking investigator in the extremism unit was suspended in June after sharing confidential material from the May raid with a contact in the KSK, who in turn passed it on to at least eight other soldiers, tipping them off that the agency might turn its attention to them next.
“If the very people who are meant to protect our democracy are plotting against it, we have a big problem,” said Stephan Kramer, president of the domestic intelligence agency in the state of Thuringia. “How do you find them? What we are dealing with is an enemy within.”
The KSK are Germany’s answer to the Navy SEALs. But these days their commander, Gen. Markus Kreitmayr, an affable Bavarian who has done tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, is a man divided between his loyalty to them and recognizing that he has a serious problem on his hands.
“I can’t explain why there are allegedly so many cases of ‘far-right extremism’ in the military,” he said. The KSK is “clearly more affected than others; that appears to be a fact.”
It was never easy to be a soldier in postwar Germany. Given its Nazi history and the destruction it foisted on Europe in World War II, the country maintains a conflicted relationship to its military.
For decades, Germany tried to forge a force that represented a democratic society and its values. But in 2011 it abolished conscription and moved to a volunteer force. As a result, the military increasingly reflects not the broad society but a narrower slice of it.
Kreitmayr said that “a big percentage” of his soldiers are eastern Germans, a region where the AfD does disproportionately well. Roughly half the men on the list of KSK members suspected of being far-right extremists are also from the east, he added.
Officials talk of a perceptible shift “in values” among new recruits. In conversations, the soldiers themselves said that if there was a tipping point in the unit, it came with the migrant crisis of 2015.
As hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria and Afghanistan were making their way to Germany, the mood on the base was anxious, they recalled.
“We are soldiers who are charged with defending this country, and then they just opened the borders — no control,” one officer recalled. “We were at the limit.”
It was in this atmosphere that a 30-year-old KSK soldier from Halle, in eastern Germany, set up a Telegram chat network for soldiers, police officers and others united in their belief that the migrants would destroy the country.
His name was André Schmitt. Schmitt left active service last September after stolen training grenades were found at a building belonging to his parents. But, he said, he still has his network: “special forces, intelligence, business executives, Freemasons.”
“The forces are like a big family,” Schmitt said. “Everyone knows each other.”
When he set up his Telegram chats in 2015, he did so geographically — north, south, east, west — just like the German military. In parallel, he ran a group called Uniter, an organization for security-related professionals that provides social benefits but also paramilitary training.
Several former members of his chats are now under investigation by prosecutors for plotting terrorism. Some were ordering body bags. One faces trial.
Schmitt’s situation is more complex. He acknowledged serving as an informer on the KSK for the military counterintelligence agency in mid-2017, when he met regularly with a liaison officer. Today the military is paying for him to get a business degree.
He himself was never named a suspect. German officials denied that they protected him. But this week the domestic intelligence agency announced that it was placing his current network, Uniter, under surveillance.
Authorities first stumbled onto his chats in 2017 while investigating a soldier in the network who was suspected of organizing a terror plot.
Investigators are now looking into whether the chats and Uniter were the early skeleton of a nationwide far-right network that has infiltrated state institutions. As yet, they cannot say.
Initially, Schmitt and other members said, the chats were about sharing information, much of it about the supposed threats posed by migrants, which Schmitt admitted to police he had inflated to “motivate” people.
Soon the chats morphed from a platform for sharing information to one dedicated to preparing for Day X. He portrayed a Europe under threat from gangs, Islamists and antifa. He called them “enemy troops on our ground.”
His network helped members get ready to respond to what he portrayed as an inevitable conflict, sometimes acting on their own.
“Day X is personal,” he said. “For one guy, it’s this day; for another guy, it’s another day. It’s the day you activate your plans.”
Chat members met in person, worked out what provisions and weapons to stockpile and where to keep safe houses. They practiced how to recognize each other, using military code, at “pickup points” where members could gather on Day X.
Schmitt denies ever planning to bring about Day X, but he is still convinced that it will come, maybe sooner rather than later with the pandemic.
“We know, thanks to our sources in the banks and in the intelligence services, that at the latest, by the end of September, the big economic crash will come,” he said. “There will be insolvencies and mass unemployment. People will take to the street.”