FREITAL, Germany—For months, members of an alleged right-wing terror cell spent their evenings standing around a gas station in Freital, a small city in the eastern German state of Saxony. They drank beer, munched bockwurst and planned attacks against refugees and left-wing dissidents.
This was right under the nose of the local police, whose station was across the road. And, now, it appears, one officer was helping them all along.
The 51-year-old policeman, who was dismissed from his job last week, is currently being investigated for tipping off the group about the time and place of police deployments around town—useful information for those who want to blow up the car of a city councillor from a left-wing party or send fireworks through the windows of an asylum seeker’s home.
When the so-called Group Freital’s members were arrested for belonging to a terror organization last April, it looked as if the town would become a model for the fight against right wing-terror in German, where the number of attacks against refugees has increased dramatically in the past two years. This was the first time that the attorney general (traditionally more interested in Islamists and left-wing extremists) decided to prosecute such attacks as terrorism.
But this latest revelation about a complicit cop adds to the flak that police and the judiciary are facing for their suspiciously sloppy investigations.
The spokesperson for Saxony’s Green Party, Valentin Lippmann, spends a lot of his time pestering the state’s conservative government with parliamentary enquiries. He is, as he described it, “personally irritated“ about this issue. He believes that the prosecutor’s office tried to play down the case against the Group Freital and is annoyed about the lack of information being released about it.
Last week, the Green Party launched a brief enquiry where demanding to know, among other things, when exactly the case against the police officer was opened. Because the 27-year-old gang leader, Timo S., reportedly gave authorities the policeman’s name back in December last year.
In Saxony and in other former Soviet-occupied East German states, the press, conforming to the official state ideology, simply did not report incidents of right-wing extremism. In 1989, shortly before his demise, Communist Party leader Erich Honecker claimed, preposterously, “Xenophobia is very strong in the German mentality. Here in the GDR it has been overcome.”
Such denial seems to have lingered on through the decades. “For 26 years [since reunification], the state government has acted like, ‘Saxons are immune to right-wing extremism,’“ Lippmann says, citing Saxony’s first minister president, Kurt Biedenkopf, who spoke these words in an interview in 2000 and never took them back.
Like Honecker, Biedenkopf probably knew better. Most likely he was blinded by his Heimatsliebe (love of the homeland). Saxony has long been accused of thinking itself distinct from the rest of Germany: The Holocaust was the fault of the Germans (not Saxons). And the DDR, Communist East Germany? Those were the Prussians.
But Saxony? In fact it is anything but immune to right-wing extremism.
The state’s capital, Dresden, birthed the virulently anti-immigrant Pegida protest movement and has served as a magnet for soul-searchers of the far right ever since the ultranationalist National Democratic Party got elected to the state parliament in 2004.
In 2011, a Neo-Nazi terror cell guilty of nine anti-immigrant murders was discovered in Zwickau, a city close to Dresden. The three-person crew, who called themselves the National Socialist Underground, had been hiding, robbing and shooting people there for over a decade.
Nor was Saxony immune to xenophonic violence last year when hundreds of thousands refugees came to Germany. There were 64 attacks against refugee accommodations in the region (the highest number for any German state) and 201 right wing extremist offenses (the second highest, behind much more populous North Rhine-Westphalia).
Freital in particular stood out as one of the places that greeted asylum-seekers with raised middle fingers, shattered glass windows, and explosives, rather than with candy and flowers (as in some other German cities). Bottles, eggs and fireworks flew through the air in June last year when hundreds of people showed up repeatedly to protest in front of an old hotel intended to serve as a temporary asylum home. Then at a counter-protest in July, one reporter captured a pensioner sitting in a fold-out chair outside his local bar, giving a Hitler salute. The man later apologized, claiming he was “totally wasted.”
It was after a demonstration that summer that an elderly care worker, two bus drivers, a railway trainee, a warehouse worker and one guy who was unemployed but once belonged to the hooligan group “Fist of the East,” got together in Freital’s gloomy Kellerbar and decided to start their own circle of alleged terrorists.
Their attacks would soon escalate in brutality. When the group blew out the windows of a kitchen at an asylum home in November last year, deaths or severe injuries were only avoided because four young Syrians were able to get out of the kitchen and into the hallway in time.
A few days before the attack an anonymous witness provided the police with screenshots from the group’s chats on the Korean messenger app KakaoTalk. The group had chatted about the Cobra-12-explosives they were buying from Chechnya (for which they used the code name “Fruit”), and mused about possible attacks (or, “Remmidemmi” as bus driver Phillipp W. playfully called them).
It’s great that thousands of refugees were coming to Dresden, ring leader Timo S. typed in one of the messages, adding that he would take in a few, to cook and clean, and by the way, his oven needed something to burn.
The local Dresden prosecutor began investigating four of the group members individually for causing explosions (no one was killed or severely injured from the attacks). Then in April, the federal prosecutor demanded the files and took over the case.
On a Friday night, the Aral gas station, where the gang used to meet, is almost deserted. The sticker from the football team Dynamo Dresden, with the slogan “Aggressive Kreative“ (agressively creative), which reportedly once hung in the driveway, has since been taken down.
“They weren’t in here! They were outside… and very quiet,“ the friendly looking cashier said when asked about the group.
The new national scrutiny is hard to take for this ambitious region. Since Germany’s reunification in 1989, Saxony has worked hard to be the paradigm of a modern German state, acing school evaluations and outshining the other former eastern states economically. But now the region is being rebranded by the press with headlines like: “Saxony has a Problem,“ “This is why Saxony is a Breeding Ground for Xenophobia,“ and “Failed State.”
Even the Green Party’s Lippmann thinks this is over the top. “All states are pointing their fingers at Saxony, even though they would surely make some of the same mistakes,” he told The Daily Beast.
He believes that part of the problem is the overly complacent attitude of the long-term reigning conservative CDU party, police and judiciary, where no one wants to admit mistakes.
“That’s really coming down around us now,” he explains, “The state definitely has problems dealing with right-wing extremist structures, and nothing is being done about it.”
When asked what it is like to be in the Green Party in such an environment, he chortles, “Let me tell you, it’s not easy.”
In Freital, the Left Party has set up its office on the high street next to a derelict copy shop. Posters in the window advertise, “100% Social.“
For Timo S. and his mates, the “übertolerant” left was an obvious target. In addition to blowing up the car of a city councillor who had spoken out in defense of refugees, they are also charged with vandalizing the party’s offices and trying to blow up an alternative housing project in Dresden.
As the bus station, as we wait, two young women with elaborate piercings are complaining about the bad rep their city is getting.
“Everyone is pointing at us, even though all of Germany is joining in,“ one woman said.
She was talking, specifically, about another right-wing terrorist who is not a Saxon: the 44-year-old man from Cologne who has been charged for stabbing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ally Henriette Reker in the neck with a butterfly knife in October last year. Reker was left severely injured. But no one called Cologne “the place that Germany is ashamed of,” as one German tabloid labelled Freital last year.
“It’s not true what they write about us—that everyone here is a Neo-Nazi. We ‘Ossis’ [the nickname for residents of former East Germany] are always the target,“ she says.
Travel books on Saxony barely mention Freital. Restaurants, playgrounds, parking lots (and now the gas station) are mostly empty. The former industrial city has become a ghost town, not just since last year, but also over the course of the past century. It’s not quite Dresden, not quite a village, and people tend to leave rather than to arrive.
The anti-extremist band “Loud against Nazis“ offered to do a concert in Freital this February, but the mayor declined. None of that for him.
“Freital is peaceful in the night,“ he told reporters.