The head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency has warned that the country's far-right "Identitarian Movement" (IBD) is becoming increasingly radicalized.
"There are several indications of contacts and intertwining of the 'Identitarians' with far-right people or groups, so that we are working on the assumption that there is a far-right influence," Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Bundesverfassungsschutz (BfV), told the Funke Media Group newspapers on Sunday.
This "increasing radicalization," he added, was likely to take the form of spontaneous, provocative actions aimed at political parties, mosques, and Islamic cultural centers, or homes for asylum seekers.
Germany's intelligence agencies keep the Identitarian Movement under surveillance - as they do all radical groups deemed a threat to Germany's political order - and say they have noticed increased activity among its 300 members in Germany (the group itself says it has 500 members).
Identitarian activists have mounted high-profile publicity stunts in recent months - most famously, a handful scaled the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on August 27 last year (as the government was holding an open day), and hung a banner on the monument that read "Secure borders, secure future."
Protecting Europe's identity
The Identitarian Movement, which calls itself a "meta-political project," began life in 2002 in France and has grown into a pan-European youth movement that claims its purpose is to protect European identity. It argues that its targets are not immigrants and refugees, but the "fatal incentive policy of the political and social elites that is at least indirectly forcing immigration streams because of the ideological misconception of the multicultural social experiment."
As such, the group delivered a withering response to Maassen's interview, posting a sarcastic statement on its Facebook profile accusing the BfV and "much of German media" of becoming increasingly radicalized.
"We can only comment on it ironically, because Maassen is doing publicity work for his authority that is completely without substance," said Daniel Fiss, a movement spokesman. "He says there are supposed networks, but he can't name these networks - apparently it's so secret that his own authority doesn't know about them."
"It's made up - it's really pure fairy-tale logic," he told DW, before speculating that, since the BfV is run by the interior ministry, it is not always politically neutral. He also said that the group was considering taking "legal steps" against the surveillance.
Definitely not Nazis...
Fiss, who belongs to the leadership of the German movement, said the group rejected all association with the far-right. "Of course we see ourselves as patriotic youth tied to our homeland, but we show a clear separation from far-right extremism," he said. "So if far-right extremists try to take up contact, we refuse them immediately. We have often emphasized our rejection of the nationalism of the 19th and 20th centuries - for us patriotism cannot be equated to that."
Fiss defines far-right extremists as "people who openly or confidentially show certain sympathies to the Third Reich or National Socialism, or work in an openly racist way by putting their biological group above other groups."
And yet, despite Fiss' protests, there is no doubt that the Identitarian Movement thinks in racial terms: its website talks about "building up a self-confident relationship to one's own ethno-cultural identity."
Nor are the BfV's latest suspicions new: In 2015, the Berlin Interior Ministry concluded that the Identitarian Movement was part of a network of other German far-right groups in the German capital - including the National Democratic Party (NPD), Hooligans Against Salafists (HoGeSa), and Pro Deutschland - who had formed an "action unit" targeting refugees.
Fiss' arguments don't convince Johannes Baldauf, a specialist on the movement at the Amadeu-Antonio-Stiftung, an NGO that tracks far-right activity in Germany.
"There is a difference - it's not traditional far-right extremism, it's the 'New Right,'" he told DW. "It was just a historical thing - they split from each other in the 1960s or so: they said we can't use National Socialism, we need to advance, and be more intellectual. But content-wise it's exactly the same things that we know from classical racism - they just label it differently."
That's why, Baldauf explained, the Identitarians emphasize "cultural identity" rather than "race." "Racism isn't defined via a constructed race, but via culture or identity - that's what they say needs to be defended," he said. "It's called cultural racism, but it's still racism. They talk about identity, but that's very vague - it can mean everything and nothing - but of course background always plays a role. How is identity even constructed? They say themselves - they only want French people in France and Germans in Germany."
Even Germany's biggest right-wing nationalist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has previously shown cold feet about the movement - albeit ambiguously. Last summer, the AfD issued a resolution officially rejecting cooperation with the IBD.
This line was soon softened by the more radical wing of the AfD. In an interview with the right-wing magazine "Compact," deputy party leader Alexander Gauland suggested it was just a matter of primacy: "We are the AfD, we're the original," he said, so therefore he didn't see why "we should work with the Identitarian Movement, because they can all come to us."
At the end of January, the AfD came clean. Thorsten Weiss, chairman of the Berlin branch of the AfD's youth organization Junge Alternative (JA), confirmed that some of its members were working together with the IBD. Weiss, an AfD representative in the Berlin state parliament, told local broadcaster RBB that it was "not at all reprehensible" that AfD and IBD members "attended each other's events or took part in demonstrations together."
He added that IBD members "don't have a very different mentality to us, they just express it differently."
For what it's worth, there is no doubt that Germany's myriad of right-wing movements see plenty of overlap between the IBD and the AfD. Last June, a right-wing blog called the "Patriotic Platform" wrote, "We would like to see closer cooperation between the Identitarian Movement and the AfD, because the AfD is also an identitarian movement, and the Identitarian Movement is also an alternative for Germany."Ben Knight