Germany has woken up to a problem of far-right extremism in its elite special forces. But the threat of neo-Nazi infiltration of state institutions is much broader.
The plan sounded frighteningly concrete. The group would round up political enemies and those defending migrants and refugees, put them on trucks and drive them to a secret location.
Then they would kill them.
One member had already bought 30 body bags. More body bags were on an order list, investigators say, along with quicklime, used to decompose organic material.
On the surface, those discussing the plan seemed reputable. One was a lawyer and local politician, but with a special hatred of immigrants. Two were active army reservists. Two others were police officers, including Marko Gross, a police sniper and former parachutist who acted as their unofficial leader.
The group grew out of a nationwide chat network for soldiers and others with far-right sympathies set up by a member of Germany's elite special forces, the KSK. Over time, under Gross' supervision, they formed a parallel group of their own. Members included a doctor, an engineer, a decorator, a gym owner, even a local fisherman.
They called themselves Nordkreuz, or Northern Cross.
"Between us, we were a whole village," recalled Gross, one of several Nordkreuz members who described to me in various interviews this year how the group came together and began making plans.
They denied they had plotted to kill anyone. But investigators and prosecutors, as well an account one member gave to the police — transcripts of which were seen by The New York Times — indicate their planning took a more sinister turn.
Germany has belatedly begun dealing with far-right networks that officials now say are far more extensive than they ever understood. The reach of far-right extremists into its armed forces is particularly alarming in a country that has worked to cleanse itself of its Nazi past and the horrors of the Holocaust. In July the government disbanded an entire company infiltrated by extremists in the nation's special forces.
But the Nordkreuz case, which only recently came to trial after being uncovered more than three years ago, shows that the problem of far-right infiltration is neither new nor confined to the KSK, or even the military.
Far-right extremism penetrated multiple layers of German society in the years when the authorities underestimated the threat or were reluctant to countenance it fully, officials and lawmakers acknowledge. Now they are struggling to uproot it.
One central motivation of the extremists has seemed so far-fetched and fantastical that for a long time the authorities and investigators did not take it seriously, even as it gained broader currency in far-right circles.
Neo-Nazi groups and other extremists call it Day X — a mythical moment when Germany's social order collapses, requiring committed far-right extremists, in their telling, to save themselves and rescue the nation.
Today Day X preppers are drawing serious people with serious skills and ambition. Increasingly, the German authorities consider the scenario a pretext for domestic terrorism by far-right plotters or even for a takeover of the government.
"I fear we've only seen the tip of the iceberg," said Dirk Friedriszik, a lawmaker in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Nordkreuz was founded. "It isn't just the KSK. The real worry is: These cells are everywhere. In the army, in the police, in reservist units."
Nordkreuz was one of those groups elaborately preparing for Day X. The domestic intelligence service got a tip in late 2016, and prosecutors started investigating in the summer of 2017. But it took years before the network, or a small sliver of it, came before a court.
Even now, only one member of the group, Gross, has faced charges — for illegal weapons possession, not for any larger conspiracy.
Late last year, Gross was handed a 21-month suspended sentence. The verdict was so mild that this year state prosecutors appealed it, kicking the case into another protracted round of deliberations.
Of some 30 Nordkreuz members, only two others, a lawyer and another police officer, are currently under investigation by the federal prosecutor on suspicion of plotting terrorism.
The outcome is typical of authorities' handling of far-right cases, extremism experts say. The charges brought are often woefully narrow for the elaborate plots they are meant to deter and punish. Almost always they focus on individuals, not the networks themselves.
But the obstacles to prosecuting such cases more aggressively point to another problem making German authorities increasingly anxious: Infiltration of the very institutions, like the police, that are supposed to be doing the investigating.
In July the police chief of the western state of Hesse resigned after police computers had been repeatedly accessed for confidential information that was then used by neo-Nazis in death threats. It was in Hesse that a well-known neo-Nazi assassinated a regional politician last summer in a case that woke many Germans to the threat of far-right terrorism.
Some Nordkreuz members were serious enough that they had compiled a list of political enemies. Heiko Böhringer, a local politician in the area where the group was based, had received death threats.
"I used to think these preppers, they're harmless crazies who've watched too many horror movies," Böhringer said. "I changed my mind."
Friedriszik, the state lawmaker, tried for years to focus public attention on the building danger of the far right, but found himself a voice in the wilderness.
"This movement has its fingertips in lots of places," he said. "All this talk of Day X can seem like pure fantasy. But if you look closer, you can see how quickly it turns into serious planning — and plotting."
The shooting range in Güstrow, a rural town in a northeast corner of Germany, sits at the end of a long dirt path secured by a heavy gate. Barbed wire surrounds the area. A German flag flutters in the wind.
"This is where it all started," Axel Moll, a local decorator and Nordkreuz member with a hunting license and gun cabinet at home, told me when I was touring the area earlier this year.
Gross, the police officer, was a regular at the range. He had been a parachutist and long-distance reconnaissance officer in the German army before his battalion was absorbed by Germany's elite special forces, the KSK. He never joined the KSK but knows several men who did.
Another regular was Frank Thiel, a champion in handgun competitions and sought-after tactical shooting instructor for police and military units across Germany.
In the fall of 2015, as hundreds of thousand of asylum-seekers from wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arrived in Germany, the men were appalled. In their eyes, Germany faced a potential invasion from terrorists, a possible breakdown of its welfare system, maybe even unrest.
And their own government was welcoming the migrants.
"We were worried," Gross, 49, recalled in one of several conversations with me this year.
In late 2015, while conducting a shooting workshop for the KSK in southern Germany, Thiel learned about an encrypted, countrywide chat network to share privileged information about the security situation in Germany, and how to prepare for a crisis.
It was run by a soldier named André Schmitt. But everyone knew him as Hannibal.
Who wanted in?
Soon some 30 people, many of them regulars at the shooting range in Güstrow, joined the northern chapter of Schmitt's network, avidly following his updates. It was not long before Gross decided to create a parallel group so they could communicate and meet up locally. Members lived in towns and villages in the region, shared far-right sympathies and considered themselves concerned citizens.
By January 2016, this network had become Nordkreuz.
There were two criteria for joining, Moll recalled: "The right skills and the right attitude."
Gross and another police officer in the group were members of what was then an emerging far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, now the third largest force in the national Parliament. At least two others in the group had visited the Thule Seminar, an organization whose leaders had a portrait of Hitler on their wall and preach white supremacy.
Nordkreuz held meetings every few weeks, on the floor above a gym owned by one member or in Moll's showroom, where the two of us also talked. Sometimes they had a barbecue. Other times, they invited guest speakers.
Once a retired military officer came and talked about crisis management, Moll recalled. Another time they invited a "Reichsbürger," or citizen of the Reich, a movement that does not recognise the postwar German state.
Over time, Nordkreuz members recalled, their group morphed into a close-knit brotherhood with a shared ambition that would come to dominate their lives: preparing for Day X.
They began hoarding enough supplies to survive for 100 days, including food, gasoline, toiletries, walkie-talkies, medicine and ammunition. Gross collected 600 euros from each member of the group to pay for it. In all, he amassed more than 55,000 rounds of ammunition.
The group identified a "safe house," where members would decamp with their families on Day X: a former communist vacation village deep in the woods.
The place was "ideal," Moll said. There was a stream providing fresh water, a small lake to wash themselves and clothes, a forest with wood to build and deer to hunt, even an old septic tank.
Didn't all this seem a little far-fetched to them? I asked.
Moll smiled at my "Western naiveté."
The region where they live is nestled between the former Iron Curtain and the Polish border. Members had grown up in the former East Germany.
"Under communism, everything was scarce,'' Moll explained. ''You had to get creative getting things through certain channels. You could not rely on things being in the supermarket. You could say we're used to prepping."
And, he said, they had already seen one system collapse. "You learn how to read between the lines. It's an advantage."
Through 2016, as hundreds of thousands more migrants arrived in Germany and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks took place in Europe, the planning got more serious.
Gross and other Nordkreuz members travelled in the fall to an arms fair in Nuremberg and met Schmitt, the special forces soldier running the nationwide chat network, in person.
Members of the group learned how to rappel down the tower of a disused fire station. Two pickup points were designated as Day X meeting spots. Two fully functioning operating theaters were built as makeshift field hospitals, in a basement and a mobile home.
"The scenario was that something bad would happen," Gross told me. "We asked ourselves, what did we want to prepare for? And we decided that if we were going to do this, we would go all the way."
Body bags and quicklime
The question investigators are now scrutinising is what did it mean to "go all the way."
Gross insisted to me that the group was only prepping for what they saw as the day that the social order would collapse, for Day X. He said they never planned any murders, or intended to cause any harm.
But at least one member of the group portrays a more ominous story.
"People were to be gathered and murdered," Horst Schelski told investigators in 2017, according to transcripts of his statement shared with The New York Times.
Schelski is a former air force officer whose account is disputed by the others. It pivots on a meeting he said took place at the end of 2016 at a highway truck stop in Sternberg, a small town about 40 minutes west of the shooting range the men frequented.
There, at a coffee stand that today resembles little more than a shed facing a bleak parking lot, Gross met with a handful of other men, in what had become a concentrated cell within Nordkreuz.
Among the others present were two men now under investigation on suspicion of plotting terrorism. Under German law, they cannot be fully named. One was Haik J., who like Gross was a police officer. Another was a lawyer and local politician, Jan Henrik H. Both declined to speak with me.
Jan Henrik H. was described by other members as particularly fervent and hateful. On his birthdays, he held a shooting contest on a field behind his house in Rostock, a nearby city on Germany's northern coast, Nordkreuz members recalled.
The winner got a trophy named for Mehmet Turgut, a Turkish street vendor killed in Rostock in 2004 by the National Socialist Underground, a far-right terrorist group.
Gross was the most recent winner.
Schelski told the police that Jan Henrik H. kept a thick binder in his garage with the names, addresses and photos of local politicians and activists whom he considered to be political enemies. Some had sought to help refugees by seeking real estate to turn into shelters.
Much in the file came from publicly available sources. But there were also handwritten notes with information obtained from a police computer.
As they drank coffee at the truck stop, Jan Henrik H. turned the conversation to "the people in the file," who he said were "harmful" to the state and needed to be "done away with," Schelski later told the police.
Jan Henrik H. wanted advice on how best to transport their captives once they had been rounded up. He asked Schelski, a major in the state reservist unit, how they could get them past any checkpoints that might be created in a time of unrest. Would uniforms help? Army trucks?
After that meeting, Schelski told the police, he distanced himself from the group.
By then, the intelligence service was already watching. Some eight months after the truck stop meeting, the authorities conducted the first in a series of raids on the homes of several Nordkreuz members.
Over two years, the raids and intelligence work uncovered weapons, ammunition, enemy lists, and a handwritten order list for Day X that included the body bags and quicklime.
I asked Gross about the body bags. He told me they were "multipurpose vessels," usable as cheap waterproof sleeping bag covers or for transporting large items.
The disclosure that the group had identified political enemies has rattled Böhringer, the local politician. In 2015, two police officers came to sketch his house after he started receiving death threats.
"We want to know where you can get in, where you sleep, so that we can protect you," they told him.
He said he wasn't too concerned. But in June 2018, Böhringer was called to the police station. The homes of two Nordkreuz members had recently been raided, one of them a police officer based in his hometown: Haik J., who had been at the truck stop meeting.
"They showed me a handmade sketch of my home," Böhringer said. "'Do you recognise this?' they had asked."
"It was the exact same sketch that those officers had made in my home," he said.
"I had to swallow pretty hard," he recalled. "The very people who said they wanted to protect me then passed this on to people who wanted to harm me."
"They didn't just want to survive Day X, they wanted to kill their enemies," he said. "It was concrete, what they were planning."
Meeting with Marko
The first time I knocked on Gross' door, in the village of Banzkow, about an hour's drive from the shooting range, we ended up talking outside for two hours.
The second time, it started raining and he invited me into his red brick farmhouse on "Liberation Street," named for Germany's liberation from the Nazis at the end of World War II.
In the hallway his old military badge and uniform were on display. A large map of Germany in 1937 dominated the wall. Images of guns were ubiquitous. On refrigerator magnets. On mugs. On a calendar.
It was the same home that the police had raided years earlier, in August 2017, and found more than two dozen weapons and 23,800 rounds of ammunition, some of it stolen from police and military stockpiles.
Another police raid in June 2019 uncovered another 31,500 rounds of ammunition and an Uzi submachine gun. This time they arrested him.
In court, it took prosecutors almost 45 minutes to read the list of cartridges, guns, explosives and knives they had found. He was only charged with illegal weapons possession. In the ongoing terrorism investigation he is a witness, not a suspect.
"It's pretty astounding," said Lorenz Caffier, the state's interior minister, who used to shake Gross' hand at the annual special forces workshop in Güstrow. "Someone who hoards that much ammunition at home, is close to far-right tendencies and also makes extremist comments in chats is no harmless prepper."
"Marko G. has a key role," he said.
Prosecutors have traced the illegal ammunition in Gross home to a dozen police and military depots across the country, indicating possible collaborators. Several of the units shot in Güstrow.
"We don't know how it got from there to him," said Claudia Lange, a prosecutor.
Three other police officers are being investigated on suspicion of helping Gross. Asked during the trial, Gross said he did not remember how he got the ammunition. When I met him, he stuck to that line.
But otherwise he was not shy about sharing his views.
Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs "in the dock," he said. The multicultural cities in western Germany are "the caliphate." The best way to escape creeping migration was to move to the East German countryside, "where people are still called Schmidt, Schneider and Müller."
A copy of Compact, a prominent far-right magazine, with President Donald Trump's face on the cover, lay on a shelf. A selection of the president's speeches had been translated into German in the issue. "I like Trump," Gross said.
As far back as 2009, some fellow police officers had voiced concerns about Gross' far-right views, noting that he had brought books about the Nazis to work. But no one intervened, and he was even groomed for promotion.
"There is no danger from the far right," he insisted. "I don't know a single neo-Nazi."
Soldiers and police officers are "frustrated," he told me the third time we met, ticking off complaints about migrants, crime and the mainstream media. He likens the coverage of coronavirus to the censored state broadcaster during communism. Instead, he says, he has a YouTube subscription to RT, the Russian state-controlled channel and other alternative media.
In that parallel universe of disinformation, he learns that the government is secretly flying in refugees after midnight. That coronavirus is a ploy to deprive citizens of their rights. That Merkel works for what he calls the "deep state."
"The deep state is global," Gross said. "It's big capital, the big banks, Bill Gates."
He still expects Day X, sooner or later. Riots linked to an economic meltdown. Or a blackout, because the German government is shuttering coal plants.
Nordkreuz members never told me, nor the authorities, the location of the disused vacation village that was their safe house for Day X.
The safe house is still active, said Gross, who at the height of Nordkreuz's planning had boasted to a fellow member that his network contained 2,000 like-minded people in Germany and beyond.
"The network is still there," he said.
Written by: Katrin Bennhold
Photographs by: Gordon Welters
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES