Thuringia's state intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz, has warned that neo-Nazis are increasingly infiltrating shooting clubs to get legal access to weapons.
"We want to and have to investigate here because we can help the clubs that way and work together with the clubs to clean up the sport and keep neo-Nazis away from legal weapons," Stephan Kramer, the president of the agency, told the local Thüringische Landeszeitung.
According to Kramer, gun ownership has become more and more important for both far-right extremists and Reichsbürger, or "citzens of the Reich," the name chosen by people who doubt the legitimacy of Germany's postwar constitution, the Basic Law, and consider themselves citizens of the prewar Reich.
The deadly shooting of a police officer with a gun kept on a revoked license by a suspected Reichsbürger last October led the agency to step up operations. Several members have been caught with illegal weapons hoards in recent months. Police officers and soldiers have also been suspected of harboring Reichsbürger sympathies.
Threat to the state
Kramer told the newspaper that members of Germany's far-right movements had placed increasing emphasis on acquiring weapons. He said the state intelligence agency would work together with Germany's sports-shooting clubs to prevent extremists from getting their hands on guns.
Political scientists who track Germany's far-right groups said it was high time that security forces look into the problem. "It's surprising that this is only being talked about now and that they're only now having the idea of asking the shooting clubs if they have people with xenophobic attitudes," said Jan Rathje, program director at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation. "We know that there are a lot of people from the Reichsbürger scene who own weapons legally."
"But, just generally when it comes to the far-right scene, it's often been mentioned that far-right radicals have an attraction to weapons and are always looking for them and aren't just looking for illegal ways to acquire them," Rathje added. "I do think that the shooting clubs didn't pay enough attention in the past. And I would agree with Mr. Kramer that, of course, you have to talk to them as partners."
When contacted by DW, Thuringia's intelligence agency did not offer an estimate on the number of neo-Nazis or Reichsbürger registered in the state's shooting clubs. But the agency did acknowledge a possible increase in activity. "In the last few months, there were several serious crimes in which members of shooting clubs were involved," a spokesman wrote in an email. "So-called Reichsbürger in particular are trying to infiltrate shooting clubs in order to get at weapons more easily. The number of Reichsbürger in Thuringia has risen drastically."
But, picking up Kramer's caveats, the spokesman also warned against making "blanket judgments" against gun clubs. "Other sports clubs could be infiltrated by far-right extremists too," he wrote.
The Reichsbürger problem
The intelligence agency suspects that there are about 950 Reichsbürger living in the state as part of what the spokesman called a "heterogeneous" network. "The people in question have very different motives and ideologies," he wrote.
Though police have previously declared Reichsbürger and far-right extremists a terror threat, questions have arisen over how such cases are handled. Last week, a 31-year-old suspected Reichsbürger was briefly detained in the Thuringian town of Sondershausen after chemicals and parts that could be used to make a bomb were discovered when police searched his home. But he was released without charge after paying the fine that had constituted the official reason for the raid.
Earlier this year, the federal police reported that there are about 12,800 Reichsbürger in the country, of whom 800 are considered far-right extremists.
In March, Thuringia announced that it would set up a Reichsbürger "information center," where the state's various authorities can share information on threats. Adherents of the movement have threatened various officials in the state, including the judiciary, financial authorities and the police. They have been known to print their own ID cards, and even paint borders around their homes to demarcate what they consider their sovereign territory.Ben Knight