Black, red and yellow German flag waves on top of a building

A new documentary tracks the latest rise in far-right, neo-Nazism in Germany

Evan Williams, director of "Germany's Neo-Nazis and the Far Right," joined The World's host Marco Werman to speak about the investigation behind the film.

The World

A new FRONTLINE documentary investigates the rise of far-right extremism and violence in Germany. 

Shutterstock/Gaby Wojciech

Oct. 9, 2019. It's a date that many Jewish people in Germany cannot forget.

Not even two years ago, a synagogue in the German city of Halle was attacked. It happened on the holiest day of the Jewish calender, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. 

One person reported seeing somebody dressed in military combat fatigues. That gunman tried to enter the synagogue. The door was locked. So instead, he shot two bystanders. The gunman, later identified as Stephan Balliet, was eventually jailed for life.

Related: Is there a 'Nazi emergency' in the German city of Dresden?

This attempted massacre was a wake-up call that right-wing extremism is on the rise in Germany.

“Right-wing extremism is the most vital threat that we face at the moment in the Federal Republic of Germany,” said Stephan Kramer, the intelligence chief in Thuringia state. 

“We have [about] 35,000 considered right-wing extremists across Germany; 13-14,000, roughly spoken, considered to be aggressive and violent. But the problem is, it’s like with an iceberg, you see just a small tip on the surface, and the rest is beneath," he said. 

Related: In Germany, fighting against extremism starts at school 

On June 29, PBS' FRONTLINE will broadcast a new film called "Germany's Neo-Nazis and the Far Right."

The documentary, supported by Exploring Hate, a multiplatform public media initiative from The WNET Group in New York, aims to offer an in-depth understanding of the rising tide of hatred, hate crimes, anti-Semitism and racism.

Speaking with victims of attacks and threats, government officials, politicians, experts in online radicalization and alleged perpetrators, filmmaker Evan Williams explores what has driven Germany's latest surge in hate speech and attacks, and also asks whether authorities are doing enough to confront it.

Williams, the film's reporter, producer and director, joined The World's host Marco Werman from London to speak about the investigation that went into the making of this film.

The FRONTLINE film will begin streaming on, YouTube and in the PBS Video App on June 29, at 10 p.m. Eastern time, 9 p.m. Central time.

Marco Werman: So, a lot of analysts have pointed to Chancellor Angela Merkel opening the doors of Germany in 2014 and 2015 to a lot of people fleeing dangerous situations around the globe and the strident reaction to that. Do you think too much has been made of that as a starting point for this wave of extremism?

Evan Williams: No, it's a really important point, Marco, you make, and it's a very good one. I think what happened was, in our investigation we found that a number of — let's call them far-right leaning organizations, secret groups of soldiers and SWAT police officers and civilians — were starting to coalesce in the early 2000s. But what happened in 2015, when Angela Merkel did open the doors to a large, hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrians, some Afghans and some other refugees, you're quite right. That became a point where these organizations said, "Right, we are in a position where we believe the government might be endangering the state of Germany. We feel, as trained security personnel, that we have to now take responsibility to possibly take control of parts of the country," if you can believe it — and certainly army bases, to basically save what they see as their version of Germany, a white, Anglo Germany, where you exclude mainly Muslim refugees and others.

I think it's really important to illustrate the mindset of where a lot of these far-right actors are coming from. Authorities have pointed out that many of them are waiting for what's known as Day X. What is Day X and what are the chances that it's actually going to occur? 

These guys are army guys. They're army-trained and there's police SWAT teams. And so, Day X was the day that these far-right and partly neo-Nazi military-trained and police officers would take over parts of the country. And some of them thought that they could bring about the actual downfall of the modern state and take over, as in a far-right, more or less, a coup.

Now, to answer your other question, how serious is this as a possibility? Very difficult to see something like this actually happening in Germany, with such a sophisticated security system. However, it's been pointed out to me — that's not really the point. The point, in some ways, is that there is a large number of these guys, very well trained, [who have] access to military equipment and ammunition and safe houses and zones. And if they don't get their wish, then I've been told in their investigations, this is what could lead to frustration and could actually lead to far-right terror attacks in Germany that we're yet to see.

Well, little surprise, then, that some residents of Germany — Jews, Muslims, emigres, especially — feel the threat on a regular basis. There is a climate of fear right now.There's one woman you speak to named Christina who says, "I don't feel safe at all in Germany. Among my friends and other Jewish activists, I do not know a single person who is doing OK at the moment. Nobody is OK."

So unsafe and so not OK that this woman, Christina, eventually moved to Paris. She went on to say in your documentary that what infuriates her is the reaction from some politicians and other Germans, who say they're surprised that anti-Semitism is on the rise. Can you just describe this level of fear?

Yes, it surprised me, as well. And I think we've got to put it in the context. Christina was in the Halle synagogue when that man tried to shoot his way into the synagogue. Now, she was explaining to me how that attack really did send shockwaves through the Jewish community in Germany, because they didn't think this could be possible. The Jewish communities who monitored this have registered a 20% rise in anti-Semitic attacks. And that means, not just physical attacks, but, you know, verbal abuse or minor incidents or graffiti. I was shocked by that figure. And I don't think many Germans understand that that's what the Jewish community is feeling. Anecdotally, they're sharing a lot of evidence that people are seeing this and experiencing this level of hostility rising in the country.

You spoke earlier, Evan, about how Germany's right-wing is threatening people who are raising alarm bells about them. One woman even told you she didn't trust the police to protect her. So, there's deep suspicion that the police and military are not doing enough. What did you find in terms of the efforts being made by the German government to stamp out this wave of extremism and fascism and anti-Semitism? Is the government in Berlin doing enough?

I think they've only just really started in the past year to 18 months. Before that, there was clearly a lack of response, particularly when it comes to far-right and neo-Nazi ideology within the military and the police forces. I mean, almost every week now we're seeing a new story emerging of, for example, two weeks ago there was the main SWAT team in Frankfurt, I mean — a major city in West Germany — was suspended because they were sharing anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi material online, which is another whole part of the story.

So, this sort of thing, they've only just started to act against it and has been put to me in the documentary by people investigating this, that the general security system is not joining up the dots to really investigate what's going on inside the police force, in the military, in particular, because they say they could be worried about about how big this thing is.

If they start investigating the army, where do they stop? 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.