After plastic explosives and Nazi memorabilia were found at an elite soldier's home, Germany worries about a problem of far-right infiltration at the heart of its democracy.
As Germany emerged from its coronavirus lockdown in May, police commandos pulled up outside a rural property owned by a sergeant major in the special forces, the country's most highly trained and secretive military unit.
They brought a digger.
The sergeant major's nickname was Little Sheep. He was suspected of being a neo-Nazi. Buried in the garden, police found 2 kilograms of PETN plastic explosives, a detonator, a fuse, an AK-47, a silencer, two knives, a crossbow and thousands of rounds of ammunition — much of it believed to have been stolen from the German military.
They also found an SS songbook, 14 editions of a magazine for former members of the Waffen SS and a host of other Nazi memorabilia.
"He had a plan," said Eva Högl, Germany's parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces. "And he is not the only one."
Germany has a problem. For years, politicians and security chiefs rejected the notion of any far-right infiltration of the security services, speaking only of "individual cases." The idea of networks was dismissed. The superiors of those exposed as extremists were protected. Guns and ammunition disappeared from military stockpiles with no real investigation.
The government is now waking up. Cases of far-right extremists in the military and police, some hoarding weapons and explosives, have multiplied alarmingly. The nation's top intelligence officials and senior military commanders are moving to confront an issue that has become too dangerous to ignore.
The problem has deepened with the emergence of the Alternative for Germany party, or AfD, which legitimised a far-right ideology that used the arrival of more than 1 million migrants in 2015 — and more recently the coronavirus pandemic — to engender a sense of impending crisis.
Most concerning to authorities is that the extremists appear to be concentrated in the military unit that is supposed to be the most elite and dedicated to the German state, the special forces, known by their German acronym, the KSK.
This week, Germany's defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, took the drastic step of disbanding a fighting company in the KSK considered infested with extremists. Little Sheep, the sergeant major whose weapons stash was uncovered in May, was a member.
Some 48,000 rounds of ammunition and 62 kilograms of explosives have disappeared from the KSK altogether, she said.
Germany's military counterintelligence agency is now investigating more than 600 soldiers for far-right extremism, out of 184,000 in the military. Some 20 of them are in the KSK, a proportion that is five times higher than in other units.
But German authorities are concerned that the problem may be far larger and that other security institutions have been infiltrated as well. Over the past 13 months, far-right terrorists have assassinated a politician, attacked a synagogue and shot dead nine immigrants and German descendants of immigrants.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of Germany's domestic intelligence agency, has identified far-right extremism and terrorism as the "biggest danger to German democracy today."
In interviews conducted over the course of the year with military and intelligence officials as well as avowed far-right members themselves, they described nationwide networks of current and former soldiers and police officers with ties to the far-right.
In many cases, soldiers have used the networks to prepare for when they predict Germany's democratic order will collapse. They call it Day X. Officials worry it is really a pretext for inciting terrorist acts, or worse, a putsch.
"For far-right extremists, the preparation of Day X and its precipitation blend into one another," said Martina Renner, a lawmaker on the homeland security committee of the German parliament.
The ties, officials said, sometimes reach deep into old neo-Nazi networks and the more polished intellectual scene of the so-called New Right. Extremists are hoarding weapons, maintaining safe houses and in some cases keeping lists of political enemies.
This week yet another case emerged, of a reservist, now suspended, who kept a list with cellphone numbers and addresses of 17 prominent politicians, who have been alerted. The case led to at least nine other raids across the country Friday.
Some German news media have referred to a "shadow army," drawing parallels to the 1920s, when nationalist cells within the military hoarded arms, plotted coups and conspired to overthrow democracy.
Most officials still reject this analogy. But the striking lack of understanding of the numbers involved, even at the highest levels of the government, has contributed to a deep unease.
"Once they really started looking, they found a lot of cases," said Konstantin von Notz, deputy president of the intelligence oversight committee in the German parliament. "When you have hundreds of individual cases, it begins to look like we have a structural problem. It is extremely worrying."
Von Notz pointed out that Brendan Tarrant, who massacred 51 Muslim worshippers last year at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, had travelled Europe a year earlier and included an ominous line in his manifesto.
Investigators, von Notz said, "should take these words seriously."
But investigating the problem is itself fraught: Even the military counterintelligence agency, charged with monitoring extremism inside the armed forces, may be infiltrated.
A high-ranking investigator in the extremism unit was suspended in June after sharing confidential material from the May raid with a contact in the KSK, who in turn passed it on to at least eight other soldiers, tipping them off that the agency might turn its attention to them next.
"If the very people who are meant to protect our democracy are plotting against it, we have a big problem," said Stephan Kramer, president of the domestic intelligence agency in the state of Thuringia. "How do you find them?
"These are battle-hardened men who know how to evade surveillance because they are trained in conducting surveillance themselves," he added. "What we are dealing with is an enemy within."
Inside the 'shoot house'
The air inside the "shoot house" smelled acrid, so many live rounds had been fired.
I was standing in the shooting range on the outskirts of the sleepy German town of Calw, in the Black Forest region, having been invited early this year for a rare visit inside the KSK's base, the most heavily guarded in the country.
A camouflaged soldier with a G36 assault rifle crouched along a broken door frame. Two shadows popped up. The soldier fired four times — head, torso, head, torso — then went on to systematically eliminate two dozen other "enemies." He did not miss once.
The KSK are Germany's answer to the Navy SEALs. But these days their commander, Gen. Markus Kreitmayr, an affable Bavarian who has done tours in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, is a man divided between his loyalty to them and recognising that he has a serious problem on his hands.
The general was late for our interview. He had just spent four hours questioning a member of his unit about a party where half a dozen KSK soldiers were reported to have flashed Adolf Hitler salutes.
"I can't explain why there are allegedly so many cases of 'far-right extremism' in the military," he said. The KSK is "clearly more affected than others; that appears to be a fact."
It was never easy to be a soldier in postwar Germany. Given its Nazi history and the destruction it foisted on Europe in World War II, the country maintains a conflicted relationship to its military.
For decades, Germany tried to forge a force that represented a democratic society and its values. But in 2011 it abolished conscription and moved to a volunteer force. As a result, the military increasingly reflects not the broad society but a narrower slice of it.
Kreitmayr said that "a big percentage" of his soldiers are eastern Germans, a region where the AfD does disproportionately well. Roughly half the men on the list of KSK members suspected of being far-right extremists are also from the east, he added.
The general has called the current crisis in the unit "the most difficult phase in its history."
In our interview, he said that he could not rule out a significant degree of infiltration from the far-right. "I don't know if there is a shadow army in Germany," he said.
"But I am worried," he added, "and not just as the commander of the KSK but as a citizen — that in the end something like that does exist and that maybe our people are part of it."
Officials talk of a perceptible shift "in values" among new recruits. In conversations, the soldiers themselves, who could not be identified under the unit's guidelines, said that if there was a tipping point in the unit, it came with the migrant crisis of 2015.
As hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from Syria and Afghanistan were making their way to Germany, the mood on the base was anxious, they recalled.
"We are soldiers who are charged with defending this country, and then they just opened the borders — no control," one officer recalled. "We were at the limit."
It was in this atmosphere that a 30-year-old KSK soldier from Halle, in eastern Germany, set up a Telegram chat network for soldiers, police officers and others united in their belief that the migrants would destroy the country.
His name was André Schmitt. But he goes by the nickname Hannibal.
In a house in rural western Germany, behind a curtain of iron chains and past the crossbow in the hall, a dungeonlike room bathed in purple light opens into a bar area. An oversize image of a naked woman dominates the back wall.
It was there that I met Schmitt early this year. He gave permission for his name to be used but did not want the location disclosed or any photographs.
Schmitt left active service last September after stolen training grenades were found at a building belonging to his parents. But, he said, he still has his network: "special forces, intelligence, business executives, Freemasons," he said. They meet here regularly. The house, he said, is owned by a wealthy supporter.
"The forces are like a big family," Schmitt said. "Everyone knows each other."
When he set up his Telegram chats in 2015, he did so geographically — north, south, east, west — just like the German military. In parallel, he ran a group called Uniter, an organization for security-related professionals that provides social benefits but also paramilitary training.
Several former members of his chats are now under investigation by prosecutors for plotting terrorism. Some were ordering body bags. One faces trial.
Schmitt's situation is more complex. He acknowledged serving as an informer on the KSK for the military counterintelligence agency in mid-2017, when he met regularly with a liaison officer. Today the military is paying for him to get a business degree.
He himself was never named a suspect. German officials denied that they protected him. But this week the domestic intelligence agency announced that it was placing his current network, Uniter, under surveillance.
Authorities first stumbled onto his chats in 2017 while investigating a soldier in the network who was suspected of organising a terror plot.
Investigators are now looking into whether the chats and Uniter were the early skeleton of a nationwide far-right network that has infiltrated state institutions. As yet, they cannot say. The New York Times obtained police statements by Schmitt and others in his network related to the 2017 case.
Initially, Schmitt and other members said, the chats were about sharing information, much of it about the supposed threats posed by migrants, which Schmitt admitted to police he had inflated to "motivate" people.
"It was about internal unrest because of sleeper cells and worldwide extremist groups, gang formations, terrorist threats," Schmitt told police.
The chats were popular among KSK soldiers. Schmitt said he counted 69 of his comrades in the network in 2015.
A fellow KSK soldier, identified by investigators as Robert P. but known as Petrus, who ran two of the chats, told police two years later that it might have been more than twice that: "I have to say, presumably half the unit was in there."
Soon the chats morphed from a platform for sharing information to one dedicated to preparing for Day X. Sipping mineral water, Schmitt described this as "war gaming." He portrayed a Europe under threat from gangs, Islamists and antifa. He called them "enemy troops on our ground."
His network helped members get ready to respond to what he portrayed as an inevitable conflict, sometimes acting on their own.
"Day X is personal," he said. "For one guy, it's this day; for another guy, it's another day. It's the day you activate your plans."
Chat members met in person, worked out what provisions and weapons to stockpile and where to keep safe houses. Dozens were identified. One was the military base in Calw itself. They practised how to recognize each other, using military code, at "pickup points" where members could gather on Day X.
The sense of urgency grew.
On March 21, 2016, a chat member, identified only as Matze, wrote about a pickup point near Nuremberg. There were, he wrote, "sufficient weapons and ammo present to battle one's way on."
Later that year, Schmitt sent a message to others in the chat network. In the previous 18 months, he wrote, they had gathered "2,000 like-minded people" in Germany and abroad.
When I met him, Schmitt called it "a global like-minded brotherhood."
He denies ever planning to bring about Day X, but he is still convinced that it will come, maybe sooner rather than later with the pandemic.
"We know, thanks to our sources in the banks and in the intelligence services, that at the latest, by the end of September, the big economic crash will come," he said in a follow-up phone call this week.
"There will be insolvencies and mass unemployment," he prophesied. "People will take to the street."
Pig heads and Hitler salutes
One night in 2017, Little Sheep, the sergeant major whose weapons stash was uncovered in May, was among about 70 KSK soldiers of 2nd Company who had gathered at a military shooting range.
Investigators have identified him only as Philipp Sch. He and the others had organised a special leaving party for a lieutenant colonel, a man celebrated as a war hero for shooting his way out of an ambush in Afghanistan while carrying one of his men.
The colonel, an imposing man covered in Cyrillic tattoos who enjoys cage-fighting in his spare time, had to complete an obstacle course. It involved hacking apart tree trunks and throwing severed pig heads.
As a prize, his men had flown in a woman. But the colonel ended up dead drunk. The woman, rather than being his trophy, went to police.
Standing by the fire with a handful of soldiers, she had witnessed them singing neo-Nazi lyrics and raising their right arm. One man stood out for his enthusiasm, she recalled in a televised report by public broadcaster ARD. She called him the "Nazi grandpa."
Although just 45, "the Nazi grandpa" was Little Sheep, who had joined the KSK in 2001.
In the three years since the party, the military counterintelligence service kept an eye on the sergeant major. But that did not stop the KSK from promoting him to the highest possible noncommissioned officer rank.
The handling of the case fit a pattern, soldiers and officials said.
In June, a KSK soldier addressed a 12-page letter to the defense minister, pleading for an investigation into what he described as a "toxic culture of acceptance" and "culture of fear" inside the unit. Tips about extremist comrades were "collectively ignored or even tolerated." One of his instructors had likened the KSK to the Waffen SS, the soldier wrote.
The instructor, a lieutenant colonel, was himself on the radar for far-right leanings since 2007, when he wrote a threatening email to another soldier. "You are being watched, no, not by impotent instrumentalised agencies, but by officers of a new generation, who will act when the times demand it," it read. "Long live the holy Germany."
The KSK commander at the time did not suspend the lieutenant. He merely disciplined him. I asked Kreitmayr, who took over command in 2018, about the case.
"Look, today, in the year 2020, with all the knowledge that we have, we look at the email from 2007 and say, 'It's obvious,'" he said. "But at that time we only thought, 'Man, what's wrong with him? He should pull himself together.'"
The hallway of history
The back door of the main building on the base in Calw leads into a long corridor known as the "hallway of history," a collection of memorabilia gathered over the KSK's nearly 25 years that includes a stuffed German shepherd, Kato, who parachuted from 9,100 metres with a commando team.
Conspicuously missing is any mention of a disgraced former KSK commander, Gen. Reinhard Günzel, who was dismissed after he wrote a 2003 letter in support of an anti-Semitic speech by a conservative lawmaker.
Günzel subsequently published a book called Secret Warriors. In it, he placed the KSK in the tradition of a notorious special forces unit under the Nazis that committed numerous war crimes, including massacres of Jews. He has been a popular speaker at far-right events.
"What you basically have is one of the founding commanders of the KSK becoming a prominent ideologue of the New Right," said Christian Weissgerber, a former soldier who has written a book about his own experience of being a neo-Nazi in the military.
The New Right, which encompasses youth activists, intellectuals and the AfD, worries Kreitmayr. The lawmaker whose anti-Semitic comments led to Günzel's firing all those years ago now sits in the German parliament for the AfD.
"You have leading representatives of political parties like the AfD who say things that not only make you sick but that are clearly far-right, radical ideology," Kreitmayr said.
Soldiers were not immune to this cultural shift in the country, he said. Just recently a fellow general had become a mayoral candidate for the AfD. Several former soldiers represent the party in parliament.
Down the hill from the shoot house is the Green Saloon, a cross between a boardroom and a bar. It is dominated by a vast oil painting depicting KSK soldiers and their German shepherd successfully attacking a Taliban hideout.
It is a scene familiar to several soldiers who had gathered the day I was there. But the soldiers I spoke with questioned the strategy behind a war that has run for two decades with few concrete results, except an increase in migration at home.
"My girls asked me, 'Why do you have to go to Afghanistan when there are children from the Kunduz in our class?'" recounted one officer. "I did not have an answer."
When he took a delegation of KSK soldiers to meet with political parties in parliament, he asked them the same question. "They did not have an answer, either," he said.
Only one lawmaker made a clear statement, he said. He was from the AfD. "He said we should have left a long time ago," the officer recalled.
Written by: Katrin Bennhold
Photographs by: Adam Dean Laetitia Vancon, Mauricio Lima and Emile Ducke
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES