They have white hoods, Ku Klux Klan badges, and stockpiles of weapons. But these Klansmen aren’t in America—they’re in Germany, where a new wave of far-right extremism is taking cues from the U.S.
Police in eight German states led raids last week on suspected members of a group called the National Socialist Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Deutschland, a name that glorifies both the American Klan and the Nazi party of Germany’s past. The raid, which reportedly turned up more than 100 weapons, comes amid a surge of far-right activity as Germans rally against immigrants.
The Klan isn’t banned in Germany, but its symbols are. A German law aimed at crushing neo-Nazi propaganda also outlaws the Klan’s trademark burning cross, alongside white power symbols, ISIS flags, and symbols of Germany’s Communist Party.
But the raid on 12 suspected KKK strongholds last week surfaced Klan cross T-shirts and patches (sometimes combined with Nazi imagery), alongside a hoard of guns, knives, throwing stars, swords, and collapsing batons. The Klan recruited online, financed itself with monthly membership fees, and was planning to arm itself further, Germany authorities said, adding that members promoted “violent fantasies.”
The raids on the group come after years with little oversight from authorities said Frederik Obermaier, a German journalist and author of a book on Germany’s Klan.
“German authorities definitely underestimated the KKK and considered it as not a dangerous group,” Obermaier told The Daily Beast.
Germany’s Klan is small compared to America’s, Obermaier said, but it’s as old as the country’s defunct Nazi party. The two groups launched in the same climate of racism and post-World War I instability in the 1920s.
TM Garret, a former German KKK member who has since exited the movement and founded the Memphis-based anti-racism group C.H.A.N.G.E., linked the German Klan’s success to American influence. The movement began with a German-American reverend who launched the movement in Germany in the ‘20s, he said.
“The U.S. was always the land of endless opportunities,” he said, adding that “a lot of racist skinheads define themselves not just through nationalism, but as a white-power movement worldwide.”
Both groups took inspiration from the U.S.’s sharp racial divisions. With its white robes and borrowed name, the German Klan modeled itself more explicitly after the American hate group. But Nazis also cited Jim Crow laws and sterilization programs in their campaigns of eugenics and genocide. Hitler spoke approvingly of white settlers’ massacre of Native Americans.
Germany’s Klan lost out to the Nazis by the end of the 1930s, but membership came springing back after World War II, reportedly reintroduced by American soldiers, Obermaier said. Garret said the group continued its rise in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the emergence of racist skinhead music from America.
Now with far-right sentiment on the rise in the U.S. and Germany, neo-Nazi rallies are on the rise; and the German Klan is finding its way back into the headlines. In 2016, German authorities announced that approximately four KKK groups were operating within the country, albeit with a “very low number of members.”
Still, "the low membership numbers cannot discount the danger that emanates from such organizations," one Left Party politician said, according to German outlet Deutsche Welle. Investigators linked the German Klan to 68 crimes between 2001 and 2016.
Some of the German KKK’s ties are to the country’s most violent neo-Nazi group. The National Socialist Underground was a terror group behind 10 murders (nine of the victims were immigrants), three bombings, and a series of robberies. Prosecutors identified three people as NSU members, at least one of whom attended German KKK meetings. In 2012, two German police officers were discovered to have kept their jobs, despite being revealed as Klansmen.
German police’s supposed sympathy to the far right is under scrutiny after a wave of extremist riots in Chemnitz, Germany this summer. Chemnitz police are accused of setting off the protests by leaking an arrest warrant to far-right groups, which used social media to summon approximately 6,000 anti-immigrant and fascist demonstrators, some of whom were photographed throwing a Nazi salute (illegal in Germany).
Not every German KKK group is as formidable as it seems, Garret said. The U.S. Klan sometimes allows understaffed foreign branches to open, leading to groups with “five members and seven official roles,” he said.
American racism can be a recruiting tactic in Germany’s KKK. Of the German Klan members he’s interviewed, “all former members share a fascination with the U.S., the U.S. Klan and U.S. history,” Obermaier said.
Garret said American valorization of guns and free speech (no matter the cost) was also a powerful propaganda tool.
“Guns aren’t banned in Germany, but they’re very hard to get. The U.S. gun culture was very attractive to the German far right,” he said, adding Americans “can also talk openly about things things that are banned in Germany, like national socialism and the race war. It was the ultimate freedom of speech.”