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In late August last year, close to 40,000 demonstrators gathered in Berlin to protest Germany’s novel coronavirus lockdown restrictions. A small group, numbering in the hundreds, broke off from this larger demonstration and approached the Reichstag, the historic building that houses Germany’s parliament. Carrying the infamous Reichsflagge—the banner of World War I–era imperial Germany and the precursor to the flag of the Nazis—these far-right agitators attempted to storm the building, overpowering law enforcement and scaling the main stairs to the entry hall, where police officers finally stopped them.
Inevitably, Germans saw shadows of this event in the January attack on the U.S. Capitol—in which a group of supporters of President Donald Trump violently attempted to overturn the results of the presidential election. Yes, there were plenty of differences between the two incidents. The U.S. insurrection was much larger and more violent—troublingly, it was also more successful in causing disruption. But there were also many similarities. In both cases, well-equipped right-wing extremists used the backdrop of raucous demonstrations to sow chaos and mayhem. In both Berlin and Washington, the extremists then methodically breached police cordons and goaded others to follow them. And in both countries, conspiracy theories—notably QAnon, the now infamous movement that imagines Trump to be rescuing the world from a secret cabal of pedophiles—and the vilification of mainstream media and political elites played an extraordinary role in stoking the violence.
Conventional thinking about far-right extremism often frames it as a domestic problem within nation-states. But such groups and movements are transnational, sharing ideas and tactics across borders. The U.S. government should therefore consider how governments abroad are tackling this growing global menace.
In the wake of the Capitol attack, U.S. officials have focused efforts on criminal prosecutions and reviewing security, intelligence, and law enforcement practices. On his second full day in office, President Joe Biden directed national intelligence officers to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to conduct a review of the threat that violent domestic extremism poses, promising that “fact-based analysis” would shape future policy. The Biden administration is playing catch-up after years of inadequate attention to the problem of domestic militancy. But these early actions suggest that his government’s primary method of combating domestic extremism will be through security measures. Noticeably absent so far are serious efforts to address the roots of extremism through investments in relationships with community organizations, educational initiatives, research into domestic militancy, working with victims, and the training of teachers, mental health professionals, parents, and others to recognize early signs of radicalization.
The German government, by contrast, used the attack on the Reichstag to pursue a wide-ranging reform agenda that treats far-right extremism as not simply a security threat but a societal problem. The United States, too, would benefit from an approach that seeks a broad understanding of the rage and violence that exploded so shockingly on the steps of the Capitol.
The assault on the Reichstag last summer provoked horror in Germany. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German president, called it “an unacceptable attack on the heart of our democracy.” The incident recalled the hugely symbolic burning of the Reichstag in 1933, an event that marked the country’s descent into Nazi rule. Officials turned outrage into action. In November, the government approved a mammoth 89-point plan to tackle racism and right-wing extremism, allotting the program more than one billion euros, to be spent over three years.
These measures had been in development for some time, following a series of terrorist incidents—including the 2019 neo-Nazi assassination of a high-ranking German politician, the 2019 attack on a synagogue in Halle, and a 2020 attack on a Turkish shisha bar in Hanau—and a number of scandals over the penetration of far-right extremists in the military, security services, and law enforcement. As a result, Germany was primed to respond to the parliament attack with sweeping investment and a campaign to make combating extremism a society-wide obligation rather than just the responsibility of law enforcement.
Germany has made combating extremism a society-wide obligation.
The plan demands that the state clean up its own house first: it requires much more transparency regarding far-right extremism within the police, the military, and other governmental departments, through mandated annual reporting, polls on political attitudes, and a bevy of additional research. German officials recently acknowledged that the penetration of these extremists into the ranks of the security services poses a significant problem. Germany has long relied on a dedicated military intelligence agency that is tasked specifically with identifying and removing extremists from active duty; new measures to strengthen these investigations will make law enforcement and the military more publicly accountable.
The German Ministry of Defense, for example, now must significantly stiffen punishments for extremist behavior—broadly understood as any act that undermines German democracy or threatens the country’s core values—among active-duty soldiers. The Defense Ministry will also conduct extensive investigations into the prevalence of extremist beliefs among military personnel and will better coordinate with and support the military intelligence agency in its work against extremist radicalization. Federal police, meanwhile, will separately conduct a study on radicalization within its own ranks.
The German plan contains several other conventional counterterrorist and security-focused reforms. These include, for example, changes in the German domestic intelligence law to allow for the use of spy software on mobile devices and a revamp of the joint counterterrorism center focused on far-right militancy, adding new personnel and internal working groups on anti-Semitism and deradicalization. Other measures promise to improve coordination across various security agencies and the judiciary and to boost efforts at the state level to combat extremism.
But many of the 89 measures focus not on security threats but on tackling extremism at a societal level. The plan was developed through extensive consultation with migrant communities and victims of racism. It calls for greater civic education about racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia and for strategies to encourage the public to value a diverse and equitable society. This includes purging the word “race” from the constitution, a highly symbolic act because the German word Rasse—unlike the English term—directly recalls Nazi-era, anti-Semitic, and scientific racist ideas about biological and genetic differences (Rasse also means “breed,” which is used to refer to animals). But it is also a strategic move, since racists and right-wing extremists have used occurrences of the term “race” within the German constitution to argue that democratic principles of equality and pluralism are unconstitutional. The German plan further demands that government agencies hire employees from more diverse backgrounds to increase cross-cultural understanding and sensitivity to racism within the government and to build a more inclusive government for all.
The government also hopes to better address far-right radicalization. To combat the toxic effects of some social media platforms, Germany will fund programs to counter online hate speech and to better protect citizens from extremist recruitment and propaganda. Many of these programs will be run by nongovernmental organizations, part of a long-standing German tradition of funding NGOs to develop and test new ways of combating the far right.
The intent of these initiatives is to foster better collaboration between law enforcement and the nonprofit sector, in the spirit of mutual exchange, learning, and trust building. Specialists from antiracist nongovernmental organizations might, for example, be included in expert commissions, training programs, or advisory boards to support law enforcement operations. Better relations between the police and local organizations will also improve trust between the state and local communities.
Germany isn’t the only country that has responded to far-right extremism with research, community outreach, and big investment. After a white supremacist murdered 77 people—mostly children—in Oslo and a nearby island in 2011, the Norwegian government spent millions of dollars to create what is now one of the largest and most rigorous global research centers in the world on extremism, housing dozens of scholars from Norway and around the world who conduct research, produce data sets on right-wing terrorism, and train doctoral and postdoctoral scholars to build a foundation of future knowledge in the field. Counterextremism work in Norway was already firmly housed within the country’s community-based approach to crime prevention—rooted in dialogue between police mentors and at-risk or affected youth and their parents—that has demonstrated success in preventing and countering extremism. The country also pioneered the first exit program for right-wing extremists in the mid-1990s to encourage them to abandon their groups and their radical politics—a program later replicated in Sweden and Germany. After the 2011 attack, Norway updated its national action plan against radicalization and violent extremism with dozens of specific measures reinforcing the notion that extremism is a societal problem that cannot be solved by law enforcement alone.
After the 2019 Christchurch terror attack, the government of New Zealand commissioned a report that urged major changes in counterterrorism policy, calling for community-oriented measures toward building a more “cohesive society.” The report’s recommendations do include measures to strengthen the hand of law enforcement, but as in Germany and Norway, New Zealand’s approach to grappling with domestic extremism calls for collaboration at every level of society and across a variety of agencies and insists on strong support for victims and affected communities. Officials in New Zealand understand that extremist threats are not just questions of law and order but require a broader social response.
In the United States, far-right extremism is a rising threat that could lead to escalating violence. Washington should muster a broad effort to counter it, drawing not only on the knowledge of counterterrorism experts but also on the insights of community groups, victims of extremist violence, educators, researchers, and mental health workers.
An effective response must include a hard look into the ranks of the security services. Active-duty and veteran members of U.S. law enforcement and the military were heavily involved in the assault on the U.S. Capitol. At the time of writing, nearly 20 percent of those charged for involvement in the insurrection are military veterans. In the days leading up to the January 20 inauguration, the FBI and the military vetted all 25,000 National Guard members assigned to inaugural security, resulting in the removal of 12 members, two for possible connections to right-wing extremism. There are some indications that the Pentagon will now step up efforts to address the spread of far-right extremism within the military, but there are currently no concrete government plans to address the problem systemically at a broader national level. This inaction stands in sharp contrast to the German approach, where a dedicated military agency has long been tasked with the responsibility of rooting out extremists within the military and where the new plan launched in November will toughen these obligations across security services and intelligence agencies.
It is hard to overstate the differences between the U.S. and German approaches to extremism.
It is hard to overstate the differences between the U.S. and the German approach to domestic extremism. Germany relies on extensive investments in local and national data collection and intelligence monitoring, coupled with educational and youth-oriented programming, training for teachers and social workers, cooperation with civil society and religious groups, support for victims and survivors, and a wide variety of programming to combat online radicalization. By contrast, the United States is far behind in building trust, networks, and improved communication across agencies and between the federal and local governments and communities.
The German approach—as well as those of New Zealand and Norway—situates counterextremism work within the broader charge of tackling racism and promoting a diverse and inclusive society. In the United States, efforts to combat white supremacy and domestic extremism have operated in a wholly separate orbit from educational and community-based efforts to build a more inclusive society. The Biden administration has pledged to address systemic racism, for example, with several immediate executive orders aimed at improving racial equity and preventing discrimination. But those efforts are detached from discussions about how best to combat far-right violent extremism.
The events of January 6 make abundantly clear—if it wasn’t already—that there are already radicalized domestic extremists working to overthrow the government through insurrectionist violence. The country’s law enforcement and security apparatus needs to take this burgeoning threat head-on. But in the long run, unless the United States embraces a whole-of-society approach that can tackle extremist radicalization at its roots, it will continue to live with the repercussions of the violence it saw at the Capitol.
America Can Learn From Germany’s Response