Amid the recent surge of neo-Nazi violence in Germany, reports disclosed that agents of the former East German secret service had infiltrated and supported neo-fascist groups in the West during the Cold War. This seems a decidedly strange partnering. But the prime objective of the Stasi, according to documents discovered in the Gauck archives that contain the communist-era secret police files, was to embarrass and discredit West Germany’s government.
These revelations came as German leaders deliberate over how to respond to a recent wave of neo-Nazi hate crimes, including the brutal murders of several foreigners and a bomb blast that injured six Jewish immigrants.
The newly released Stasi records indicate that East German intelligence established ties to the neo-Nazi Hoffman Wehrsportgruppe (Hoffman Military Sports Group) that sprang up in West Germany in the 1970s. “We had an especially dense network of agents in this group,” a former high-ranking Stasi official told the magazine Welt am Sonntag. “It ensured that we were able to steer the activities of these right-wing radicals in the right direction and never against East Germany.”
Hoffman group members were linked to several terrorist incidents, including the 1980 slaying of a Jewish publisher in Erlangen, West Germany. Another Hoffman group fanatic blew himself up while planting a bomb at Munich’s crowded Oktoberfest celebration in 1980. The final count of 13 dead and 200 hurt made this the worst terrorist incident in postwar Germany.
The Hoffman group was banned by the West German government after police raided a castle near Nuremberg that served as a paramilitary camp for neo-Nazis from several countries. The raid netted a large cache of explosives, automatic weapons, uniforms, poisonous chemicals, antiaircraft guns and an armored car--all supplied by sympathizers inside the West German army.
Stasi contacts within the West German neo-Nazi scene included Odfried Hepp, a young Hoffman group trainee who unleashed a spate of bombings that injured military personnel and damaged property at four U.S. Army bases in West Germany in the early 1980s. After hiding at a neo-Nazi safe house in Britain, Hepp resurfaced in East Germany. The East German government’s refusal to provide financial reparations to Jewish Holocaust survivors and its anti-Israeli foreign policy appealed to Hepp, who later became a paid employee of the Tangiers-based Palestine Liberation Front, or PLF, led by Mohammed Abu Abbas.
Hepp’s terrorist odyssey came to an abrupt halt in April 1985, when he was arrested while entering the apartment of a PLF operative in Paris and deported to West Germany. Later that year, the hijack of an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, was masterminded by Abu Abbas. Included on the PLF’s list it unsuccessfully demanded for Achille Lauro hostages was none other than Hepp.
As it turns out, collaboration between West German neo-Nazis and communist secret service organizations began far earlier-than is suggested in the declassified Stasi files. A key figure in this strange political alliance was Maj. Gen. Otto Ernst Remer, who served as Adolf Hitler’s bodyguard and personal security chief during the final months of World War II. In 1949, Remer emerged as head of the Socialist Reich Party (SRP), which campaigned in local and state elections on a platform that denounced Bonn’s affiliation with the Western alliance and criticized democracy as an alien form of government unsuited to the German people.
As Remer’s neo-Nazi party gained momentum at the polls, he entered into secret negotiations with Soviet authorities in East Germany. “I sent my people there,” Remer said in an interview shortly before he died in 1997. “They were all received at the Soviet headquarters in Pankow.” These contacts led to covert Soviet financial support for Remer’s neo-Nazi organization, which publicly favored Josef Stalin’s controversial proposal for a neutral, reunified Germany--a proposal condemned by U.S. and West German officials. In 1952, the West German government outlawed the SRP, describing it as the successor to Hitler’s Nazi Party.
An unrepentant Remer continued to carry the banner for neo-Nazi groups in West Germany and elsewhere. Through his proselytizing, he mentored a new generation of young extremists who would go on to play key roles in Germany’s current neo-Nazi movement.
Though he harbored no sympathy for communism as an ideology, Remer called for a strategic partnership with the Soviet Bloc. Those Nazis who looked to the East after the Third Reich fell took their historic cue from Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian realpolitiker who insisted that Germany align with Russia, its proximate and mineral-rich neighbor. Racial factors also influenced Remer’s decision to play the eastern card: Russians were white people, while the United States, as he saw it, was polluted by racial minorities and controlled by a Jewish cabal.
Yet, even as Remer made furtive overtures to the Soviet Union, many other Third Reich veterans believed that cooperating with the United States and the West was the best way for Germany to regain its national strength.
During the early years of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited thousands of ex-Nazis to serve as espionage assets in the U.S.-led clandestine crusade against the Soviet Union. Ironically, some of these same CIA assets would later become leading figures in German neo-Nazis organizations that openly despised the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Consider the checkered career of Friedhelm Busse, formerly one of the youngest members of the Hitler Youth. In the early 1950s, he joined the Bund Deutscher Jugend, an elite, CIA-trained paramilitary organization composed largely of ex-Wehrmacht and SS personnel in West Germany. Busse’s cadre was primed to go underground and engage in sabotage in the event of a Soviet invasion. But instead of focusing on foreign enemies, Busse’s “stay behind” unit proceeded to draw up a death list that included future Chancellor Willy Brandt and other leading Social Democrats (then West Germany’s main opposition party). The Bund’s cover was blown in 1952, when the West German press learned U.S. intelligence was backing an ultra-right-wing death squad.
Undaunted, Busse went on to direct several West German neo-Nazi groups. A few months ago, this veteran neo-Nazi agitator was the featured speaker at a May Day rally in Berlin organized by the National Democratic Party, or NPD, the most radical of several far-right political parties in reunified Germany. Violence erupted after Busse, age 71, roused the crowd with anti-foreigner and anti-U.S. vitriol, drawing cheers from skinhead teenagers and other extremists. The German government is now debating whether to ban the NPD because of mounting neo-Nazi attacks, particularly targeting immigrants and refugees.
In the 10 years since German reunification, a chorus of public-policy analysts has been quick to blame the legacy of communism for the prevalence of neo-Nazi and ultranationalist sentiment in eastern Germany. The latest round of Stasi revelations will do little to discourage those intent on scapegoating the communist past for Germany’s current problems. But they should also consider the hard evidence of CIA links to German neo-Nazis--such as with Busse of the NPD.
German officials should resist the temptation to play the blame game as they ponder appropriate measures to counter the rise of the far right, for it is not only an eastern problem. Nor are resurgent fascist movements merely pawns in an elaborate secret-service chess match. Rather, high unemployment, widespread disillusion with the democratic political process, a festering national identity crisis and other deep-rooted factors are fueling racist attitudes and a dangerous receptivity to right-wing extremism throughout the country. *