Monitoring Right-Wing Violence – Definitions and Assessment Criteria


  1. What is Right-Wing Violence? Two Case Studies
  2. The Vilification of Groups by the Right and its Contexts
  3. The Police Assessment of Right-Wing Violence
  4. Discrepancies between the Police and Opferperspektive
  5. Number of Unreported Cases
  6. Political Backing
  7. Summary: a Definition of Right-Wing Violence

What is Right-Wing Violence? Two Case Studies

On their way to William’s brother’s house, the three young refugees come across an area of a small plaza known locally as the »Doppelgänger,« situated on the steps heading towards the town hall. It is evening in Fürstenwalde on 24 July 2004. At the »Doppelgänger« they encounter a larger group of youth with right-wing tendencies, some of whom are skinheads. One of the Germans in the group points at William, a Kenyan. William asks the German if he means him. The German’s answer is curt and unfriendly: he can point his finger wherever he wants. In the background, a skinhead yells »nigger.« The skinheads continue their taunting, asking the three refugees if they even have passports, and what business they have being in Germany. Zakiullah, a 17 year old refugee from Afghanistan, responds that they don’t need passports. The skinhead from the background yells »white power« and punches William in the head. Zakiullah and his friend Farid are attacked as well. Several assailants jump on each of them, punching and kicking, ripping their clothes. Two girls also participate in the attack. Farid, who defends himself, gets his face cut with a broken beer bottle and begins to bleed heavily. Zakiullah gets punched in the nose, blood running all over his face. The three victims manage to break free and run away. The attackers follow them, but can’t catch up. Later, during the trial, a skinhead explains, »White power means we have the power.«

There is evidence that the attack was racially motivated. This kind of racist verbal abuse is all too common before an act of violence: the refugees encountered hatred; their right of residence in Germany was questioned; William was belittled with the swear word »nigger.« The assailants’ use of racist language denotes a racist mindset that vilifies minorities. Other possible motives, such as an everyday personal altercation or a material motivation, cannot be identified. The circumstances during the incident suggest a racist motive. Without it, the incident would appear to have been completely unwarranted.

This wasn’t the first time that Rocco P. (18) was attacked by right-wing radicals. Ostensibly a punk, he was attacked in Uckermark four times in one year. The last time it happened was in his hometown of Flieth-Stegelitz on 12 June 2004, when he wanted to go to the annual town festival with nine friends — some of whom were also punks. Upon the punks’ arrival, two right-wing extremists called them »scum,« screaming »We are going to cut off your skirt.« A dozen like-minded followers backed them. After that, the rightists attacked several of the punks. A 16 year old was pushed on the floor and beaten in the face. Another was thrown to the floor, where three right-wing radicals kicked him. Rocco intervened and fended off the attackers. The punks managed to flee, amidst flying stones and bottles. As they were getting away, another youth was kicked in the kidneys, and another was hit in the back.

Another act of violence that begins as verbal harassment. The assailants demean the »punks« with pejorative terms like »scum«. Knowing the victims personally is not a prerequisite for the incident. These punks were not attacked because they had a personal disagreement with the other youths; they were attacked because the aggressors regarded them as representatives of the punk group as a whole.

Both examples above demonstrate that normal criminal motives play only a secondary role in right-wing violence. Had the offenders not vilified certain social groups — be them foreigners, punks or leftists — these attacks would probably not have happened. This construction of factitious enemy archetypes, defined and perpetuated by the offender group, degrades certain groups of individuals, denying them equal rights. This sets off the offenders’ aggression, which demands power over the victim.

This is right-wing violence: violence, where specific right-wing discourses provide the necessary calculus for a crime.

The Vilification of Groups by the Right and its Contexts

There is an interrelationship between the enemy archetypes of the right-wing. Not only are the perpetrators who attack refugees, leftists, punks, gays, and the homeless often the same perpetrators, but the discourses of organized right extremism also make clear that an interrelationship exists between their enemy archetypes. Cast against the imagined community of a »Volksgemeinschaft,« segments of the population that deviate from this norm are challenged. Whether the differences between the ideal »us« and the aberrant »them« are actual or contrived, right-wing discourses call for the elimination of all deviations from the norm. This is achieved through marginalization, expulsion, or murder.

This makes discourses that challenge human equality the precondition to violent attacks. For this reason, the offenders’ violence cannot be separated from their right-wing ideology.

»Group-Focused Enmity«

This interrelation between the enemy archetypes of the right-wing is described by social scientists like Wilhelm Heitmeyer as »group-focused enmity.« In his research concerning attitude archetypes in the German population, Heitmeyer discusses a syndrome comprising of:

  • Racism (there is a reason why whites are ahead in the world; ethnic German immigrants should have a better social position than foreigners because they have German ancestry)
  • Xenophobia (too many foreigners live in Germany; foreigners should be sent back, when there are job shortages)
  • Anti-Semitism (Jews have too much influence in Germany; the Jews’ behavior make them partially to blame for their persecution)
  • Fear of difference (fear of the »otherness« of homosexuals, the homeless, and the handicapped)
  • Islamophobia (the general rejection of Muslim individuals and Islamic practices)
  • Privileges based on established residence (long standing inhabitants should have more rights than the recently arrived)
  • Classic sexism (women should be submissive and concentrate on their »original role« as wife and mother)

This means that people who highly value one attitude archetype (e.g. racism) are inclined to highly value the other attitudes as well. Common to all archetypes is the assumption that inequality exists among various segments of the population.

The Police Assessment of Right-Wing Violence

Judging whether a crime is motivated by right-wing ideology is always a matter of interpretation. Peremptory motives are assigned to the incident based on obvious clues like unambiguous comments made by the offenders before, during, or after the incident. Other possible reasons for assigning motives are: the particular circumstances surrounding the incident suggest no other plausible motive; the attack appears unwarranted; the offender and the victim (or the specific selection of victims) do not know each other. This interpretation may be incorrect or uncertain.

This is one of the reasons why conflicts of interpretation frequently arise between the police and certain victim interest groups like Opferperspetive. This conflict is particularly evident when no obvious clues are available, and the offenders’ lives prior to the incident help fill in the gaps.

Right-Wing Extremism

The police radically reorganized its assessment system for right-wing violence in 2001. Before this date the term right-wing extremism was the central definition for extremism. However, according to the newly fashioned concept of extremism, right-wing extremism is now derived from the term extremism, which is understood to be a fight against the free democratic constitutional structure. The Federal Constitutional Court decision banning the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1956 was crucial for this definition. At that time the court defined seven paramount values in a democratic constitutional state:

  • Respect for human rights as outlined in the constitution, especially an individual’s right to life and right to develop his/her personality,
  • Sovereignty of the people,
  • Separation of powers,
  • Governmental accountability,
  • Legitimacy of state authority,
  • Independence of the courts,
  • Multi-party principle (a principle that guarantees the potential of several parties to concurrently head the state) and an equal opportunity for all political parties with the right to a constitutional education and the exercising of political opposition.

It is striking that six of the seven principles relate to the structure of the state. This shifts the concept of extremism to a primary focus on state security. The state seeks to fend off, actively fight, and overpower those parties and groups that reject the political system. It goes without saying that this kind of endeavor can only be implemented in an organized fashion.

In terms of right-wing violence, a large number of crimes against refugees, immigrants, alternative youth, and the homeless did not fit the criteria for extremism until 2001. According to such criteria, these crimes did not demonstrate any calculated will to overthrow the democratic system nor did they implicate the offenders as acting on behalf of an organization with such goals in mind. Human rights violations — as crimes stemming from »group-focused enmity« undoubtedly are — make defining right-wing extremism conspicuously difficult. For a while the police and »Verfassungsschutz« (the German equivalent to the FBI or MI5) benefited from euphemistic terms such as »violence motivated by xenophobia.« Only after dedicated journalists discovered the »forgotten« victims, who had been murdered by right-wing violence after 1990, was the »Bundeskriminalamt (BKA)« (Federal Criminal Police Office) forced to act.

»Politically Motivated Crime«

On 1 January 2001 the new assessment system of »politically motivated crime« was instituted. »Politically motivated crime« (PMK) was the central definition with three sub-categories: crime motivated by the politically right (PMK-rechts), crime motivated by the politically left (PMK-links) and politically motivated crimes by foreigners. An incident is deemed motivated by the politically right:

»When the circumstances surrounding the incident or the offender’s attitude leads to the conclusion that the offender acted against an individual because of their political views, nationality, ethnicity, race, skin color, religion, ideology, origin, sexual orientation, handicap, physical appearance, or social status.« (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz — Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution)

It is not difficult to recognize that the constitutional ban on discrimination serves as the basis for this list, and it has been extended to include sexual orientation, physical appearance, and social status. Article 3, Paragraph 3 of the constitution reads:

»No person shall be discriminated against or privileged because of sex, ancestry, language, homeland or origin, faith, religious or political views. No person shall be discriminated against because of a handicap.«

There are two different categories of crimes motivated by the politically right (PMK-rechts), namely, violent crimes and other crimes; the latter category includes crimes such as propaganda, damaging property, and inciting the people. The following offenses fall under the category »politically motivated violent crimes«:

  • Homocide
  • Assault and battery
  • Arson
  • Use of explosives
  • Rioting
  • Hazardous interference in rail, air, ship, or street traffic
  • Deprivation of personal freedom
  • Robbery
  • Extortion
  • Resisting law enforcement
  • Sexual assault

The novelty of the PMK assessment system lies not only in the inclusion of incidents motivated by extremism, but also in the inclusion of crimes that do not inherently threaten the system. For these crimes the concept of »hate crimes« was created. This encompasses crimes motivated by xenophobia and anti-Semitism, as well as those that target physical appearance or the victims’ social status, especially crimes against the homeless and handicap.

Hate Crime

The German concept of hate crime is based on the United States’ concept of »hate crime« or »bias crime.« In 1990 the US Congress defined this concept as such:

»A hate crime, also known as a bias crime, is a criminal offense committed against a person, property, or society which is motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity/national origin.« (Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI)

The word »bias« is important here, because some assaults involve the offender’s misperception that the victim is a foreigner, Jewish, etc. Since the Congress passed the Hate Crime Statistic Act, almost all states in the USA have passed hate crime laws that guarantee threatened minorities special protection. An important improvement to the PMK assessment system is that all incidents henceforth can be recorded as politically or non-politically motivated under the same category. In the 2001 »State Security Report of the 1st Period« (Erster Periodischen Sicherheitsbericht der Bundesregierung), it reads:

»Allowances should be made for the fact that even by an apparently non-politically motivated crime (relationship conflict, conflicts about finances, or other issues), a right-wing extremist offense should be assumed if the homicide or the escalation of violence can be partially attributed to legitimation of violence by the right-wing, enemy archetypes, or hatred motivated by racism or by social-Darwinism.« (Bundesministerium des Innern, Bundesministerium der Justiz, 2001, pg. 275 f.)

In the text above, it is important to note the escalating effect of an incident in terms of right-wing motivation. If such a motivation is identifiable, then an apparently »non-politically« motivated incident is considered motivated by right-wing ideology.

Discrepancies between the Police and Opferperspektive

The police system for assessing politically motivated crime corresponds to the same fundamental criteria used by Opferperspektive to determine whether or not the attack can be attributed to group-focused enemy archetypes. However, Opferperspektive’s definition differs from the police’s in that it includes serious threats and coercion as violence. This takes into accounts the considerable impact that such incidents sometimes have on the victim. In addition, it is difficult to understand why arson counts as violence, but property damage does not on any account. In individual cases this leads to the erroneous conclusion that when fast food stands (which are frequently owned by non-Germans and therefore a target) are burned because of racial motives, it counts as violence, yet when they are vandalized by the same perpetrators with the same motives, it does not. Consequentially, Opferperspektive counts property damage as violence when it indirectly targets certain groups of people like immigrants who own fast food joints or politically active individuals. Opferperspektive does not include assaults during demonstrations, for example rioting and resisting law enforcement, which are directed at law enforcement’s actions. Politically motivated insults do not fall under the narrow definition of »material« violence, which requires bodily damage to be attempted or incurred.

The Extent of the Deviations

Considering the close-to-identical assessment criteria used by the police and Opferperspektive, one would expect an overall congruous classification of right-extremist violence. Even so, the deviations are significant. In 2004 for example, the State Criminal Police Office (LKA) registered 107 crimes motivated by the politically right (PMK-rechts), whereas 134 attacks were registered with Opferperspektive for the same time period. Were we to disregard those crimes omitted by the police as acts of violence — such as threats, coercion, and property damage — Opferperspektive still registered 15 more cases. Even greater deviations arise when a comparison is made between Opferperspektive’s chronology of right-wing violence and the LKA’s list. Opferperspektive did not know about 40 of the cases that the police listed as PMK-rechts. Furthermore, the police counts 55 of the attacks listed in Opferperspektive’s chronology as not motivated by the politically right. This also includes cases that even the Federal Prosecutor’s Office categorizes as being motivated by right-wing extremist ideology.

Justice and Motives for Right-Wing Crimes

No clear explanation can be given as to why these deviations exist. Each right-wing attack that the police do not include on their list would need to be investigated in detail. However, even the courts are not always the appropriate authorities. The court system is limited to the role of determining whether sufficient evidence has been submitted that finds the defendants guilty of the offenses under which they are charged. Explaining the motive, which would be relevant in determining the penalty, only plays a marginal role, if at all, due to the trial’s tight timeline. One exception is homicide, where it is necessary to clarify whether the murder was characterized by »aggravating circumstances.« (»Xenophobic motives« are now also considered to be an »aggravating circumstance.«) As a general rule, the constellation of prosecution, punishment, and defense is unfavorable for discovering the truth behind the crime motive. Even when the defendants do not dispute or distort (which happens frequently) the crimes they are accused of, they are generally careful not to admit to a political motive, which could result in a tougher sentence.

Mistakes during the Initial Police Assessment

Sometimes police make mistakes during the initial assessment. An example: on 20 June 2005 the Fürstenwalde police report, »The police were called to a fight in the Fürstenwalde city park around midnight on Sunday. According to initial information, the fight involved a conflict between two groups of teenagers, each composed of several people.« No mention was made that the offenders were right-wing youth and the victims punks; no mention was made that insults such as »Scum, we’re going to kill you« and »You red pigs« were used; and no mention was made that the attack was one-sided, with the rightists attacking the punks. Instead, the attack was depoliticized as a »fight between two groups of teenagers,« where both sides appeared to be equally responsible. This is a completely typical example of what alternative youth often experience. Even if the Fürstenwalde police later corrected the erroneous initial assessment during the course of the investigation, it cannot be assumed that this correction generally happens when the initial assessment is wrong.

Another case corrected after an incorrect initial assessment was a very serious racially motivated crime that occurred on 3 August 2002 in Ludwigsfelde. A 37 year old Mozambican was attacked by a 22 year old right extremist and tormented by several other youth for several hours — events which resulted in life threatening injuries. The main offender repeatedly called him a »black pig« and a »nigger swine.« The investigating officer initially categorized the incident as a nonpolitical robbery, because the injured man’s watch and wallet disappeared during the harassment. During the trial the officer admitted he could not imagine any other motive than robbery; it would have conflicted with his experience as a police officer. This case alludes to problems of perceiving and understanding racially motivated crimes that vanish behind the semblance of a normal crime.

In other states like Thuringia, a region with a high amount of right-wing violence, the police’s perception has become such an issue that in June and July of 2005 not a single crime motivated by right-wing politics was registered.

Other Explanations

The LKA (State Criminal Police Office) holds Opferperspektive responsible for the fact that some attacks registered with Opferperspektive are not reported to the police. In 2004 this did not hold true for one single case. On the other hand, it is true that Opferperspektive receives no information about how the investigations are proceeding if the organization cannot establish contact with the victim. In these circumstances, Opferperspektive would need to correct its chronology, but even that would not explain the extent of the deviations.

Unexplained Cases

It is difficult, nonetheless, to mutually agree upon how to interpret the motive for some attacks. One example of a grey area in interpretation: on 13 September 2002, 44-year-old asylum seeker Robert E. from Cameroon was assaulted by three young men at a bus stop in Schlaatz, a district in Potsdam. A man approached Robert E., asking for cigarettes, then »dollars,« and then he tried to grab the victim’s front pocket. Robert E. managed to push the perpetrator away and run. He was followed and beaten with a rubber club, but he still got away. The victim was convinced that the attempted robbery was just an excuse to attack an African for racial reasons. For him, the incident had the typical repercussions following any racially-motivated assault: long-lasting feelings of insecurity and fear. Despite the fact that several indications of the offenders’ social environment suggested a right-wing mentality, like the t-shirt worn by one of the offenders with a Celtic cross on it, the trial did not lead to any definitive clarifications. In the end, it was still inconclusive whether a material motive was the determining factor for the assault and whether the offenders would have robbed any »easy« victim. One fact suggesting a material motive is that the offenders, shortly before assaulting Robert E., tried to take cigarettes from another man at a gas station. Yet subjectively, from the victim’s perspective, the incident remains a racially motivated incident.

Number of Unreported Cases

The discrepancies between the police and Opferperspektive’s registration of right-wing violence lead to one conclusion: both representations inadequately reflect the true extent of right-wing violence. The police registered forty right-wing attacks in 2004 that were unknown to Opferperspektive. This is due to the fact that a significant number of right-wing crimes go unpublished by the police, whereas almost every garden shed that is broken into is reported. This policy of silence can only be overcome in places where cooperation partners notify Opferperspektive or where the injured parties themselves call attention to the attacks. Once Opfeperspektive establishes contact with a victim, more and more attacks tend to come to light. Some of these attacks Opfersperspektive learns of are not reported and would have remained unreported had the organization not established contact with the victim by chance.

It would be difficult to provide estimates on the number of unreported cases of right-wing violence. Studies that deal with this question have not been published as of yet. The statement that »around three fourths of all right-wing radical assaults against foreigners in the new States go unreported,« published in »Anstiftung« (or »Incitement,« a project that took place in Dresden in 2000), rests on rough estimates by experts and does not replace the analysis of unreported cases. It can be assumed that crimes like threats or coercion, occurring on an almost daily basis for some victims, often go unreported, whereas the consequences for the victim of serious acts of violence don’t allow the crime to be so easily hidden.

Political Backing

Even now the police and the legal system do not sufficiently solve crimes with a right-wing motive. As a result, right-wing violence still gets confused with normal crimes. Various institutions have been calling for change for years. The »European Commission against Racism and Intolerance« (ECRI), a committee within the Council of Europe, has been urging Germany to create laws for harsher sentences for all crimes with a racist or xenophobic motive since the beginning of this decade. This way a mechanism would be created that obligates the police and the courts to resolve the motive for the crime. The State Ministry of the Interior for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which was still impressed by »Rise of the Decent« (a public appeal that former Chancellor Schröder made to stand up for democratic values and tolerance in Germany), introduced an initiative in the Bundesrat (Federal Council) in November 2000 to change paragraph 46 in the criminal code. Offenders with a xenophobic crime motive would be explicitly sentenced more harshly. As expected, this application was deferred to an advisory committee, where it has since remained.

Other European countries are further along than Germany in this respect. In Great Britain a series of scandals stemming from racially motivated assaults by police officers strengthened the position of those victimized by racism considerably in terms of dealing with police investigations. The central focus is the victim’s subjectivity. The police define a »racist incident« as »any incident that the victim or another person perceives as racist« (Stephen Lawrence Enquiry 1999). How the incident is perceived affects the further development of the investigation. If the victim indicates that they perceive the incident to be racist, the police are obligated to include this in their initial evaluation and to investigate the situation accordingly. On the European level, the »European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia« (EUMC) commends this practice as exemplary and requests that all EU states follow the example. As of yet, this has not provoked any resonance in Germany. Hence, it is clear that there is no lack of suggestions, but rather a lack of political will.

Summary: a Definition of Right-Wing Violence

A definition of right-wing violence should not be static, but rather understood and further elaborated on a case-by-case basis. It has become clear from issues raised up to this point that the police’s assessment criteria have not kept pace with the reality of the situation. The definitions that form the basis of Opferperspektive’s assessment of right-wing violence have used practical police experience as a reference point, but Opferperspektive was able to distance itself from the police definition and learn from it. At this point in time, Opferperspektive’s provisional definition of right-wing violence is:

  • An incident is criminal when the offender intends and causes physical damage to individuals, or when material damage or arson targets certain groups of people. Coercion and threats that result in serious consequences for the victim also qualify as right-wing violence; insults alone do not.
  • The victim, a third party, or the police believe the offender was motivated by right-wing ideology.
  • Circumstances during the incident (for example, certain statements made by the offender, his/her attitude or connection to the right-wing scene) provide further indications that the offender was motivated by right-wing ideology.
  • For crimes motivated by right-wing ideology, certain types of enemy archetypes come into play: racism, hatred towards leftists and punks, anti-Semitism, social Darwinism towards the homeless and handicapped, hatred towards gays and lesbians.
  • The victim’s interpretation of the offender’s actions is relevant, not the actual physical characteristics of the victim or their legal status. For example, a racially motivated crime can be directed towards a person who mistakenly believes him/herself to be an immigrant.
  • If other »nonpolitical« motives are identifiable besides a right-wing motive, the incident is still considered motivated by this ideology, provided that the right-wing motive contributed to the escalation of the incident.

Works cited:

Heitmeyer, Wilhelm and Georg Soeffner, eds. Gewalt. Entwicklungen, Strukturen, Analyseprobleme. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2003.

Heitmeyer, Wilhelm, ed. Deutsche Zustände. v3. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2005.

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