German special forces exit a helicopter during training in June 2017. In 2020, the German Defense Ministry dissolved a unit of the special forces due to extremist incidents. Photo credit: Tim Rademacher via Wikimedia; CC BY-SA 4.0
Editor’s Note: As the United States wrestles with the threat of white supremacist violence, observers often look to Germany for lessons on how to deal with a racist past. The University of Nottingham’s Anna Meier argues that this is a mistake. She finds that German officials often minimize the extent of the problem and, as a result, ignore the deeper structural reforms needed to reduce racism.
“I cannot see any structural problem,” Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer insisted, following a 2020 report finding more than 370 suspected cases of right-wing extremism in German police and security agencies. The same year, the German military reported 477 similar cases. Within the span of a few months, 29 police officers in North Rhein-Westphalia were suspended for sharing Nazi images, 17 in Baden-Württemberg were investigated for similar activities, 25 in Berlin were investigated for joining a racist WhatsApp group, an entire unit of the elite Special Commando Forces was dissolved due to far-right incidents, and three employees at the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (roughly equivalent to the British MI5) tasked with monitoring far-right chat groups were investigated for instead being active participants in those groups.
The sheer volume of incidents—still more soldiers were suspended in October 2021 for far-right involvement—is striking for a country U.S. commentators often paint as an example of successfully reckoning with white supremacy. Following the racial justice uprisings of summer 2020 and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, numerousobservers turned to Germany and its Nazi past as a blueprint for how to heal and move forward. Yet the current crisis in the security services casts serious doubt on this narrative, raising questions about how white supremacy persists in security institutions rather than how it is overcome.
The German government’s reluctance to name white supremacy as a structural problem has led to a focus on a small number of bona fide Nazis while ignoring far more common institutions and practices that also contribute to harm, aggression and violence against Jewish people and people of color. In other words, this reluctance both exceptionalizes white supremacy’s most extreme manifestations and minimizes more routine white supremacist practices that enable extremism. Moreover, the tendency to turn to Germany as a model for dealing with white supremacy misunderstands German history and betrays U.S. observers’ own reluctance to consider the structural nature of white supremacy—in security institutions and in the state more broadly.
White Supremacy in a Permissive Environment
In contrast to dominant narratives told throughout the West, Germany’s passivity toward white supremacist violence continued long after the fall of the Third Reich. Following reunification in 1990, immigrant communities faced a rash of racist attacks as German nationalism reared its head. Somewhere between 2,285 and 4,587 acts of “xenophobic” or “right-extremist violence” occurred in 1992 alone, with both popular and institutional support. In Rostock, hundreds of militant right-wing extremists attacked an apartment complex housing asylum-seekers, with nearly 3,000 bystanders cheering on the attackers. In Kempten, an attack on migrants in 1990 was not investigated by police as a racist crime until 2021, despite a neo-Nazi group claiming the attack days after it happened. The strength of the racist scene during this period, which would later birth the most prolific violent neo-Nazi group of the early 2000s in Germany, and its potential for further violence went largely unrecognized by the security services.
These facts and figures may seem disconnected from white supremacy among soldiers, police officers and intelligence officials—ignoring attacks is not the same as planning them. Yet the reluctance to recognize racism as a threat, or even to acknowledge racism within particular crimes, betrays the deeper structural nature of white supremacy. To view white supremacy in a structural sense means understanding it as a system of institutions and practices that position white people as the dominant group in society and make that positioning so natural as to be unremarkable. This distinguishes “white supremacy” as a concept from “white supremacist extremism,” which refers in the U.S. context to Klan members, neo-Nazis and similar actors that seek government overthrow through race war. Similar constellations of racist groups exist in other Western countries.
This most extreme form of white supremacy is often assumed to be all of white supremacy, with troubling consequences. As Olivia Rutazibwa writes, the “Hitlerian connotation” attached to white supremacy individualizes and exceptionalizes it, masking its prevalence and mundanity. And in doing so, more routine white supremacy makes possible its most extreme forms. As one German parliamentary staffer I interviewed explained, the failure to take white supremacy seriously in the 1990s—in other words, the failure to prioritize the safety of people of color over the comfort of white people—created a permissive environment for more violent manifestations of the ideology to take hold.
Indeed, one of the most egregious cases of white supremacist violence in the German security services demonstrates the problems of a permissive environment. German army lieutenant Franco Albrecht was taken into police custody in April 2017. Over the next several months, it emerged that Albrecht had posed successfully as a Syrian refugee, planning to assassinate a left-wing journalist and frame his fake refugee identity for the attack in a false-flag far-right operation. This was not the first time Albrecht had expressed white supremacist sympathies, either: A reviewer on his master’s thesis concluded that it was a “radical nationalist, racist appeal,” only for senior army officers to choose to break the law and not discipline Albrecht or investigate him further so as not to jeopardize his career. Albrecht’s case further underscores that putting rules in place to address white supremacy is ineffectual unless those with power are willing to enforce them.
The permissive environment created by structural white supremacy, then, means officers and leaders have little incentive to call out white supremacist behavior or apply consequences. Individual behaviors may seem like one-offs and therefore not worth addressing at length, but viewing them as inconsequential betrays a misunderstanding of what racism looks like and how it persists. To quote Karamba Diaby, who in 2013 became one of Germany’s first two Black members of parliament, “You can’t say we don’t have a racism problem in Germany. One has to name it.”
A Blueprint for the United States?
Despite the complexities of the German experience, scholars and commentators continue to present Germany as an example of reckoning with white supremacy. “Other nations have much to learn from the ways in which Germany has faced the evils of its past,” U.S. writer Susan Neiman argues in “Learning From the Germans,” pointing to reparations, memorials and Holocaust education in schools as examples of what the Germans call Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung—loosely, working off the past. The term carries further connotations of getting through something, shedding weight and refurbishment. Though lauded by some observers, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung presents the country’s history as just that: events confined to the past that can be addressed and then kept in the past, such that the “working through” will eventually end. To quote a German police officer with whom I spoke, “Haven’t we remembered enough?”
To be sure, Germany has taken steps that the United States has not, from building the national Holocaust memorial mere steps from the federal parliament to paying billions of deutschmarks in reparations to victims of human experimentation and forced labor throughout Europe and Israel. These are significant acts of remembrance and, in some cases, deeper reckoning. Nevertheless, contemporary white supremacist incidents suggest, in the words of former German Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, that “our culture of remembrance is crumbling,” raising doubts about the durability of the German model. More concerningly, by adopting the discourse of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, U.S. observers imply that institutional racism is located exclusively in particular historical periods, which should be remembered somberly but do not need to be considered in relation to other events. Such thinking is endemic in discourses that suggest anti-Black racism largely ended with the Civil Rights Act or the election of President Obama, or that identify slavery, but not Indigenous genocide or Japanese internment, as a horrid historical episode, or that recognize the racism of FBI COINTELPRO operations during the Cold War but not of contemporary policing.
In the security services, too, Germany cannot be a model for the United States. Institutions from the German Police University to the Parliamentary Oversight Panel for intelligence agencies have begun investigations and studies on right-wing extremism, and measures have been introduced to detect extremist sympathies among recruits. Such measures are analogous to, if slightly ahead of, U.S. military efforts, exemplified in U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s 60-day leadership stand-down announced after the Jan. 6 insurrection and the stronger screening procedures that followed. In both countries, policymakers have inaccurately identified the problem. Though violent groups do actively recruit current and former service members, the frequent language of “infiltration” presupposes that there is nothing structurally white supremacist about institutions tasked with preserving state power in historically white societies. Though an individual service member may not be racist, the structural nature of white supremacy means institutions designed in the past may nevertheless carry forward racist practices, from venerating the white supremacist Confederacy at military academies to lacking the legal capacity to track or prosecute hate crimes. In other words, structural white supremacy creates the sorts of permissive environments that enable individual acts of racism, unintentional or otherwise.
Addressing white supremacist extremism in the security services, then, requires measures to identify not only white supremacist attitudes among recruits but also white supremacist practices within security institutions themselves. Put differently, it requires viewing white supremacy as an internal, embedded problem rather than something threatening the military or police from the outside. And it requires addressing not only cases like Franco Albrecht’s planned false-flag operation but also a permissive environment in which racist comments during police academy training can be routine.
Horst Seehofer, the interior minister who declared that there was no structural problem with right-wing extremism in the security services, left office after the 2021 German federal elections. His successor, Nancy Faeser, declared right-wing extremism the “greatest threat to [German] democracy” on her first day in office. Though these may appear as different positions on the surface, neither identifies white supremacy—a concept, indeed, for which there is no word in German apart from “Nazism”—as the structure undergirding the surge in violence and hate. Seehofer’s denial of a structural problem is both wrong and right. The more fundamental problem is not widespread “extremism” per se but, rather, the more mundane, everyday white supremacist practices that are equally pernicious but not recognized as extreme and so are allowed to persist.
For U.S. officials searching for a blueprint, the invocation of Germany says more about what the U.S. is not willing to do than what it is. A national conversation about the legacies of colonialism and slavery, persistent racial violence, and the role of the security services in that violence would undoubtedly be useful. The story we tell about our past matters. Without proper contextualization in a larger anti-racist project, however, this story will always seem like something with a neat conclusion, rather than an ongoing series of reckonings. Institutional transformation will ultimately require the police, military and intelligence agencies to look outward not for risks of infiltration, but for the permissive environment in which they are embedded and that shapes their actions irrespective of the individual people making any one decision.