How the Franco A. Case Changed the Way Germany Confronts Extremism
A German court convicted a military officer of plotting to attack prominent politicians. While this alone seems shocking, the case triggered a wave of outrage, policy changes, and self-reflection within the German government, military, and public. So, what exactly happened?
Who Is Franco A.?
The 33-year-old officer—dubbed 1st Lt. Franco A. by the court in line with German privacy rules—was sentenced on 15 July to five-and-a-half years in prison for preparing a serious crime meant to endanger the state, violations of weapons laws, and fraud. He was found to have right-wing extremist views.
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In February 2017, Franco A. was arrested when trying to retrieve a pistol he had stashed in an airport bathroom in Vienna, Austria. He was released, but on further investigation, it was uncovered that his fingerprint matched ones he had given when registering—disguised and under a false name—as a Syrian asylum-seeker, the Associated Press (AP) reported.
The soldier was arrested again in April 2017 as the investigation uncovered more alarming implications of his actions.
Franco A. allegedly was plotting to kill prominent politicians—including then-Justice Minister Heiko Maas and the Jewish head of an anti-racism organization—and blame the attack on refugees.
A military officer in Germany who had posed as a Syrian refugee was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for his role in a far-right terrorist plot to murder prominent public figures in the hopes of bringing down the democratic order.https://t.co/gS7CQVySIJ— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 15, 2022
To fulfill this mission, he had stockpiled four firearms (including an assault rifle), more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than 50 explosive devices—some of which had been stolen from military stores, the court found. Franco A. also allegedly took a trip to the parking garage of a presumed target.
Franco A. denied planning attacks, but said he had hoarded weapons in case public order collapsed in Germany. He claimed to have posed as a refugee to expose weaknesses in the asylum process. The court did not accept that his intention was to blame an attack on the refugee population, but Franco A. was convicted of planning an attack.
What Does This Mean for Germany?
Before the arrest of Franco A., German authorities largely denied the presence of extremism—especially far-right extremism—in its military ranks.
“For years, German politicians and security chiefs rejected any suggestion that the security services had been infiltrated by the far right, acknowledging only ‘individual cases,’” The New York Times reported in 2020. “The idea of networks was routinely dismissed, and the superiors of those identified as extremists were protected.”
In 2019, a senior defense ministry official told a Times reporter that only four far-right extremists had been identified in the military.
But since 2017, that perspective has been changing, and a three-year report studying far-right extremism in Germany’s security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism among soldiers, police officers, and intelligence agents. In June 2020, the German defense minister disbanded a whole company of special forces after explosives, a machine gun, and SS memorabilia were found on a sergeant major’s property. Police officers have been suspended for joining far-right chat groups or sharing neo-Nazi propaganda, the Times reported.
But extremism spreads much further than military ranks. The Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, the country’s domestic intelligence agency) found that there were 32,080 right-wing extremists in Germany in 2019—up from 24,100 in 2018—and 13,000 of these cases were classified as prepared to use violence. Criminal acts motivated by extremists—both left and right leaning—climbed in 2019, the report found.
BfV also found that 40 percent of far-right extremists in Germany are believed to support the use of violence for political ends, ABC News reported.
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Digital communication and connectivity enhance the ability of extremism to spread. The investigation into Franco A. uncovered labyrinthine networks of extremists operating online and regionally across Germany. One group run by a former soldier and police sniper in northern Germany hoarded weapons, kept enemy lists, and ordered body bags, according to the Times.
In addition, COVID-19 lockdowns and other pandemic measures pushed more and more people to seek community and air grievances online. Often, these communities met in person, especially to protest pandemic-related restrictions—resulting in blends of extremist and non-extremist protests marching together. In these environments, experts warned, ideologies could spread from one group to another.
Radicalization via the Internet was a major issue in 2021. In September, we took a look at how memes and Internet irony were being hijacked to promote radical views and conspiracies online: https://t.co/ywYtHUnz7m— Security Management (@SecMgmtMag) December 31, 2021
In response to the rise of anti-democratic extremism in Germany, top security officials unveiled a 10-point plan in March 2022 to address the issue. The plan includes disarming around 1,500 suspected extremists and tightening background checks for people looking to acquire guns, according to the AP. It will also crack down on online activity, including the spread of conspiracy theories.
“We want to destroy far-right extremist networks,” said Interior Minister Nancy Faeser. She added that this would involve targeting financial flows that benefit these groups, including merchandising, music festivals, and martial arts events.
A particular emphasis in the plan will be put on rooting out extremists who work in government agencies—including security forces.
The Conspiracy Climate in Germany
Franco A.’s voice memos and diaries have been used as a roadmap for prosecutors to demonstrate his extremist leanings. In these, “he praises Hitler, questions Germany’s atonement for the Holocaust, indulges in global Jewish conspiracies, argues that immigration has destroyed Germany’s ethnic purity, hails President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as a role model, and advocates destroying the state,” the Times reported.
There were early warning signs of Franco A.’s worldview. When he attended the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy in France with a select few other German officer cadets, his master’s thesis, “Political Change and Strategy of Subversion,” declared that the downfall of great civilizations was tied to immigration and the dilution of racial purity. He argued that if Europe did not defend itself against ethnic diversity, it would be the next to fall. He also claimed that the Biblical Old Testament was a blueprint for Jews to gain global dominance.
The French commander of the military academy was horrified and reported the thesis to Franco A.’s German superiors, but after the thesis was assessed by a historian (who deemed it was “a radical nationalist, racist appeal”), Franco A. was neither removed from service nor reported to the military counterintelligence agency.
A man known only as Franco A. represents the rise of a new brand of extremism in Germany. A military officer who was caught posing as a Syrian refugee, he is now accused of plotting political murder.— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 27, 2021
His story is part of our new podcast series.https://t.co/mGVMkAAtEr
This case may feel like an obvious missed opportunity to intervene, but the rise of political extremism has shifted the balance on what is sayable in Germany, says Sam Denney, a German Chancellor Fellow for the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung who is studying threats to democracy in Europe.
With the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and the growth of extremism and conspiracy theories online, he notes, the boundaries of politically acceptable speech have shifted in a country that—after the end of World War II—has historically been very careful about how it addresses ethnic diversity and democratic values.
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The far-right may not have grown significantly in recent years, but it has become more public. Previously, a common criticism of German institutions and government leaders was that they were “blind in the right eye,” Denney says, and that they largely ignored the effect of far-right or anti-democratic extremism within the country, instead focusing on far-left or Islamic extremism. But the COVID-19 pandemic and backlash to protective restrictions were an “accelerant for extremism,” he adds. These challenges brought underlying polarizations—especially anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—to the surface. These changes were impossible to ignore forever.
Denney warns that the right/left categorization of threats masks a much broader problem. During the pandemic, the number of people who believed they were being repressed by the state grew significantly, and their political leanings did not appear to affect their reaction.
The number of politically motivated offenses committed in 2021 increased 23 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, and the overall increase in a consequence of the sharp rise in crimes that cannot be assigned to right- or left-wing motivations. Almost 40 percent of all politically motivated crimes do not fall into either category—an increase of approximately 147 percent since 2020—and many of the offenses were recorded in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, the German federal government reported.
Anti-Semitic crimes increased overall by 29 percent, and almost half were committed in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While right-wing extremism represents perhaps the greatest organized threat to German democracy and internal security, as seen with Franco A., Germany has also seen the emergence of new, politically motivated security threats that defy the traditional left-right lens,” Denney says.
The Franco A. case and conviction serve as a signal to extremists and government officials that Germany as a whole is placing “more attention on a problem that has been allowed to fester for a long time,” he adds.