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MAINZ, Germany — Germany’s security services are intensifying their efforts to monitor and contain the threat from modern far-right extremists amid a rise in politically motivated hate crimes.

Earlier this week, the country’s national intelligence service labeled the youth wing of the country’s largest far-right party a dangerous extremist group.

The seriousness with which the authorities take the issue has increased dramatically in recent years, according to Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz in Germany who studies far-right extremism.

“Politicians and the security apparatus have underestimated or downplayed the scale of the problem for decades. Fortunately, this started to change even under the last administration,” he said.

Protesters hold German flags reading «We are the people» during a demonstration by far-right groups in Berlin on October 8.John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images file

Multiple criminal investigations are underway into a small but potentially dangerous group of far-right extremists from the Reichsbürger who allegedly plotted to overthrow the government and install a shadowy hereditary prince, inspired by a flowery mix of right-wingers. Conspiracy theories.

The country’s national intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (known by the German abbreviation BfV), has designated the youth wing of the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as extremist.

A decade after it was founded as a more mainstream party critical of the European Union and integration, the far-right AfD is now part of Germany’s political landscape. An opinion poll by German public broadcaster ZDF on Friday gave it 17% of the national vote, enough to make it the third-strongest party in the country.

German experts on far-right extremism told NBC News the rise of the far-right is real and dangerous, with active-duty ex-military officers and police officers with access to weapons allegedly involved in a conspiracy plot, while the AfD’s popularity has changed. political thought and dragged the parties of the center to the right.

The AfD party rose to prominence around the time of the 2015 refugee crisis, when then-chancellor Angela Merkel invited hundreds of thousands of migrants, most fleeing the civil war in Syria, to settle in Germany. Over a million came, sparking anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany and Europe.

Its youth wing, the Young Alternative for Germany (known through the German abbreviation JA), which has members as young as 14, is the first German group to be branded extremist since the Nazi era, its members described as «arsonists and hate bearers” by BfV President Thomas Haldenwang this week. The AfD as a whole was placed under official surveillance by the national intelligence service in 2021.

The AfD may choose to fight extremism’s decision in court, and despite its «well-documented» links to even more radical far-right activities, it still has enough support at the national level to be considered by some as a respectable party. and primary, Arzheimer said.

“The AfD is the strongest party in some eastern regions and has very respectable levels of support at the national level. Their important delegations in the Bundestag, the European Parliament and most state parliaments give them legal protection, but also access to funds and media to make their position quite entrenched.»

In the former East Germany, which reunified with the West in 1991, it enjoys the support of about a quarter of voters, often making it the strongest party in the eastern regions.

Before the 2021 federal elections in Germany, the Bertelsmann Foundation found in a survey that just under 8% of German voters held «overt attitudes of right-wing extremism». The figure is almost four times higher among AfD supporters.

Björn Höcke at one of the AfD events
Björn Höcke, president of the right-wing AfD, which enjoys the support of about a quarter of voters.Bodo Schackow/DPA via Getty Images

The AfD denies that it promotes extremist views.

Neither the AfD nor Young Alternative responded to NBC News’ requests for comment. But in a statement posted on the party’s website on Wednesday, co-leaders Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel said: «There is no creeping radicalization in the AfD,» adding that the BfV’s decision to classify the youth wing as extremist was a » scandalous action». ”

The rise of the right is felt throughout society.

Of the nearly 60,000 politically motivated crimes recorded by the German police last year, including anti-Semitic crimes and those targeting asylum seekers, 41% were committed by far-right extremists. The number of registered hate crimes increased by 10% compared to 2021 and three-quarters were inspired by far-right ideology, officials saying earlier this month.

Unveiling the figures, Home Secretary Nancy Faeser said she would urgently propose new, tougher gun laws as a result.

And 79% of people polled by the German Center for Integration and Migration Research, a state-backed think tank, said German democracy was in more danger today than it was five years ago.

On Tuesday, Germany’s federal prosecutor’s office said it had arrested three more suspected far-right anti-democratic extremists linked to an alleged plot by the Reichsburger, or the Reich Citizens’ Movement, which is accused of an alleged plot to overthrow the government. .

All three are suspected of belonging to a terrorist organization, the prosecution said in a statement. In December, 25 people from the group were arrested in an operation involving 3,000 agents who recovered firearms, bullets and detailed plans.

While few believe the group could achieve its goal, experts say it is dangerous.

“There was a high probability of loss of life. With more and more of these groups, we see that they are members of the military or ex-military or ex-police,” said Miro Dittrich, an expert at CeMAS, a German group that monitors right-wing extremism.

Like much of the far right across Europe, another catalyst for the movement was resistance to pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.

“A lot of people joined this movement and said people would stand up, but it never led to anything,” Dittrich said.

«So the inner core of the group believes that there is a plan, a conspiracy to wipe out the Germans and it is a war and it is legitimate to use violence in a moment of crisis.»

There is a more subtle but no less important aspect to the rise of the German far-right: a drift to the right in the language and politics of major parties, according to Vicente Valentim, a political scientist at Oxford University in England who studies how it changes. politics. social norms.

“So part of this rise is not that people are becoming more extremist, it’s that people who already held these views are more likely to speak about them in public. It gives voters a clue that there are others who share their views, that they are acceptable,” he said.

There was also a concrete change in electoral trends and attitudes in the last 10 years, argued Valentin OR Valentim, but just as significant was the emboldening of those already anti-immigration and concerned about radical Islam, and the center right. has changed. respectively.

“It has also affected the way other politicians speak: the center right adopts some of the rhetoric of the extreme right. It is a very strong mechanism for changing social norms. We have quite a bit of evidence that once the far right was successful, the remaining parties moved closer to their views on migration,” he said.

Andy Eckardt reported from Mainz and Patrick Smith from London.