Just after midnight last Sunday, around 50 vigilantes gathered in east Germany to ‘patrol’ the country’s border with Poland. They were there to stop illegal immigrants, armed as they did so with batons, a machete, a bayonet and pepper spray.
They were discovered by local police forces, but a certain nervousness from the authorities was palpable as they pleaded with residents in the eastern border regions to not take the law into their own hands.
While the array of confiscated weapons suggests a well thought out plan, these ‘patrols’ are by no means coherent. The largest single group was reportedly stopped by the police in the border village of Groß Gastrose and contained just 30 people. Other clusters were discovered around the town of Guben, a few miles to the north.
The vigilantes were following a call-to-arms by the far-right party The Third Path. Formed in 2013, the group is heavily influenced by neo-Nazi ideology. Germany’s domestic intelligence keep a close eye on them.
On the face of it, these groups look insignificant. Their support is very localised, mainly in south and east Germany. Indeed, The Third Path only contains a few hundred members and has, by its own admission, no ambitions to grow further. If anything, it actively cultivates its identity as a small ‘neo-Nazi elite’.
With their small reach and even smaller active membership, neo-Nazi groups in Germany rarely draw the attention of the federal government in Berlin. But the new chancellor that will replace Angela Merkel — most likely Olaf Scholz — should address the issue. Police may have had no problems this time dispersing the small clusters, but there are indications that vigilante actions are far more widespread and often go uncovered.
Another east German neo-Nazi cell called ‘Action Group Zittau’ reportedly claimed on Telegram channels to have detained ‘30 to 35 male migrants’ at the border before handing them over to the police. When the German newspaper Tagesspiegel asked for confirmation from the local police headquarters, they confirmed that they had arrested a group of 30 illegal immigrants after they had received information from ‘the public’.
On other Telegram channels, neo-Nazi groups called for action against immigration. Videos were posted in which ‘activists’ confront people in the local area. ‘We don’t complain, we act’ and other such slogans were used to whip up local crowds.
What makes these small groups of extremists so dangerous is their appeal to sections of society who feel left behind, unheard and excluded. The rhetoric and ideology evolves around concepts like nationalism and belonging — all things that have a strong psychological pull on those who feel isolated and ignored.
So it’s hardly surprising that these groups enjoy their strongest support in the economically deprived, rural areas of the former East. There is also strong local support in south Germany, where rural isolation mixes with the suspicion that the central government does not do enough to combat illegal immigration.
Reports of migrant trails that run through Poland before reaching the German borders were widely discussed in far-right circles but did not feature highly in wider public discourse over the last month. But figures of illegal immigration rapidly rose during October. Where since the beginning of the year, 6,162 illegal migrants had been registered to have entered Germany through the Belarus trail, nearly half of that number arrived in October. This peaked last week when 500 new arrivals had been registered in just two days, triggering the vigilante groups into action.
Many Germans fear a return of the chaos triggered by the scale of migration that Germany saw in 2015-16, when Merkel opened the country’s borders to well over a million migrants. The very real worries of many citizens over wages, crime, housing, healthcare and the rapid social transformation of local neighbourhoods were suppressed then, but continued to simmer under the surface. Extremist groups will fill a vacuum if the German government fails to address these concerns with more than platitudes.
There can and never should be a justification for political violence. But to try and understand the anger should not be to legitimise fascists. The new government has to take the border issue seriously if it wants to prove that such groups lie in Germany’s past, not its future.