The weird revelations in Germany this month about a small group of neo-Nazi terrorists who killed at least nine foreigners and survived “underground” for 13 years by knocking over the occasional bank have, understandably, embarrassed a number of law enforcement officials.
It’s even more confusing to Germans that the group managed to kill a policewoman in 2007 and plot against a very specific list of 88 politicians and public figures without coming to the attention of “Verfassungsschutz” authorities — Germany’s Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or BfV.
The BfV is a peculiar domestic-intelligence institution set up for West Germany under the Allies after World War II. It’s similar to the FBI, but it focuses on threats to “democracy”: the BfV existed from the start to defend the fledgling state from Nazi holdouts and communist spies. It was a Cold War creation, but it found plenty of extracurricular work: after 2001 it focused on Islamic terrorism, and for decades it’s kept an eye on Scientologists, who are suspected of running an authoritarian cult with anti-government tendencies.
The notion of a bureau to “protect” the state from internal threats to itself sounds un-American, and until George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security it was hard to find a U.S. agency with a similar explicit mandate. But the BfV embodies the principle of “defensive democracy,” which says that some non-democratic methods should be used to keep a democratic state intact. The idea has caught on in America since 2001, without much formal discussion.
For years the BfV worked more or less as the Allies had hoped. In 2001, it famously missed a cell of Islamists in Hamburg before they left for a flight-training school in Florida, but the overall project of keeping West Germany stable after World War II was a success.
Now Germans are wondering what it would have taken for the BfV to notice the neo-Nazi group in Zwickau, a town in the eastern state of Thüringia. “No right-wing terrorist organizations can be observed in Germany,” the agency reported in 2010. But since 1998, a woman named Beate Zschäpe and two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Börnhardt, had conducted a series of racist murders and bank robberies around Germany; they had built bombs and researched public figures with the (unrealistic) goal of toppling the current government and sweeping in a neo-Nazi regime.
Even though the meandering chain of crimes included a cop killing, the murders and robberies remained mysterious until the “National Socialist Underground” self-destructed in in early November. The two Uwes shot themselves in a burning mobile home, and Zschäpe set off a bomb in their house in Zwickau, then tried to disappear “underground” — only to present herself quietly to police three days later, legal counsel in tow.
The National Socialist Underground was probably a bit larger than three off-balance individuals, but even they weren’t hard to find. Zschäpe, Mundlos, and Börnhardt were well known in neo-Nazi circles around Zwickau; and the BfV in the state of Thüringia may have worked to keep them out of jail. The office ran some neo-Nazi friends of theirs as informants and in 2001 paid one of them the equivalent of $100,000 for his work.
This problematic nearness to its own criminal sources has been a known weakness at the BfV for years, and now some Germans think the agency should be closed down. At best, it ignored far-right terrorism because its staff preferred to worry about left-wing terrorists and Islamists. At worst, the Thüringia office covered for the National Socialist Underground. Either way, one state lawmaker said recently to Spiegel Online, “If a regional intelligence agency like that is prepared to ‘work with’ such dangerous criminals … the question arises whether the agency functions as an instrument to protect a democracy.”
A Cold War relic of “defensive democracy,” in other words, may be on its way out in Germany, just as Americans grow used to the idea.