MUNICH — While much of the liberal West watched the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in horror, right-wing extremism and anti-Semitic ideas are gaining ground in certain corners of the globe.
German officials say the violence in Washington, together with coronavirus skepticism and anti-lockdown sentiment, has emboldened right-wing groups. The rising extremism has prompted the country’s intelligence services to place a number of people under surveillance.
“The security services are wide awake and are monitoring all developments,” Alina Vick, a spokeswoman for Germany’s Interior Ministry, said at a news conference Jan. 25 in response to questions from NBC News.
According to provisional police figures released Thursday, the number of crimes committed by right-wing extremists jumped to its highest level in at least four years in 2020.
Suspected coronavirus deniers have attacked a number of people and organizations in recent months. In October, the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s center for disease control, was the target of an arson attack. The same day, an explosive detonated at the Berlin office of the Leibniz Association, a group of research institutes that has also researched the coronavirus.
Anti-lockdown demonstrations have intensified in recent weeks as Germany has tightened coronavirus restrictions, which are in place until at least mid-February.
Intelligence agencies have taken a particular interest in the group Querdenken 711, whose name loosely translates as “thinking outside the box.” The anti-lockdown group, which was founded in Stuttgart, the capital of the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, has inspired similar groups across the country that espouse a mixture of QAnon conspiracy theories, anti-Semitic ideas and frustration at coronavirus restrictions.
In December, Baden-Württemberg’s intelligence service placed the group on a watchlist and warned about rising extremism.
“We are dealing with a movement that formed on the occasion of the corona protests and then radicalized further on,” Beate Bube, the president of Baden-Württemberg’s intelligence service, said in a recent interview with a local newspaper. “We see an anti-state attitude at demonstrations and in online activities. Such attitudes are specifically fanned by the organizers.”
She said that the group was not interested in legitimate protest and that it was simply seeking to spread false information about the coronavirus and undermine the rule of law. The riot at the U.S. Capitol has added fuel to those sentiments.
“What we saw in Washington can be a breeding ground for radicalization and violent action in the right-wing scene,” Bube said. “Within the state’s scene, we are currently seeing verbal approval for the violence at the Capitol.”
While official national statistics on extremism for 2020 are not yet available, preliminary numbers released by a German lawmaker indicate that police recorded the highest number of far-right crimes since 2016. Police recorded 23,080 crimes with far-right backgrounds, around 700 more than in the previous year.
A report by RIAS Bavaria, a nonprofit organization, documented 46 anti-Semitic incidents related to coronavirus conspiracy theories in the state of Bavaria alone from Jan. 1 to Oct. 31, 2020. Many incidents occurred at demonstrations, while others occurred online or in daily life.
Annette Seidel-Arpaci, the head of RIAS Bavaria, said in an interview that the coronavirus protests have helped promote anti-Semitic beliefs more broadly, raising the possibility of violence.
“The danger is that ideas turn into public speech and through that potentially into actions,” Seidel-Arpaci said.
Even before the pandemic, right-wing attacks have shocked Germany in recent years. In 2019, a gunman attacked a synagogue on Yom Kippur, and a man with far-right views shot and killed a politician.
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According to the RIAS Bavaria report, a Jewish pedestrian was accosted in a Munich park last year by a man wearing a T-shirt that read “corona denier” and “anti-vaxxer.” The assailant claimed that Jews had created the coronavirus, according to the report.
In another documented case, a German rapper posted a video to Instagram claiming that the Rothschild family was behind a curfew that had been instituted to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Seidel-Arpaci said that signs of anti-Semitism were evident in early protests against coronavirus measures last year but that those sentiments have become much more prevalent now.
“Victims are feeling more fear and insecurity,” Seidel-Arpaci said. “Not just because of the coronavirus pandemic, but in general, anti-Semitism is acted out more openly, especially in everyday life.”