There is a version of Germany known around the world.
A liberal democracy, an economic powerhouse in Europe and a country that atones for the Holocaust with memorials and history lessons in every public school.
It's the Germany that elected Angela Merkel and admitted over a million refugees.
But in the shadows of this national image, far-right extremism lurks. Over the past few years, the country has suffered a series of deadly far-right terror attacks and uncovered what prosecutors say was an assassination plot intended to bring down the German government.
In 2017, a German soldier was discovered living an elaborate double life. 1st Lt. Franco A., whose surname is abbreviated in keeping with German privacy laws, faked a Syrian identity and posed as a refugee, only to be arrested 16 months later while retrieving a loaded gun in an airport bathroom. The mysterious case cracked the door open to a network of far-right extremists inside the German military and the police. They are preparing for the collapse of democracy — a coming apocalypse they call Day X.
In a New York Times audio series, Day X, we explore the recent resurgence of the far right in Germany. It's a story about a changing national identity — and the backlash against it — raising a question that democracies across the world are waking up to: What happens when the threat is coming from within?
While the series is focused on Germany's present, it's also a story inseparable from Germany's past. Below, we set out some key moments for the far right in modern Germany, and highlight some earlier events that may help to understand the threat is poses.
June 28, 1919: The Treaty of Versailles
Just over a century ago, after accepting its defeat in World War I through an armistice, the German government signed the Treaty of Versailles, in which the victorious Allies set the terms and price of peace.
The treaty declared Germany to blame for the war and ordered it to pay vast reparations, limit its armed forces and surrender territory. These bitter concessions became emblems of a powerful myth, particularly widespread among veterans: that Germany's military could have won the war, but instead had been betrayed and humiliated by the civilian leadership.
This toxic conspiracy theory, known as the "stab-in-the-back legend," became a keystone of Nazi propaganda, in which the civilian leaders were portrayed as the puppets of leftists and Jews. It animated groups that plotted coups and assassinated politicians in the decade before Hitler came to power. In Day X, Katrin Bennhold, The Times' Berlin bureau chief, interviews Franco A., a military officer on trial on charges of plotting terrorism. Like the members of the paramilitary groups in the 1920s, Franco A. believes in a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the German nation, and he is accused of plotting one or several assassinations meant to bring down the democratic government.
February 24, 1920: The Nazi Party is founded
After the war, many newly unemployed soldiers in Germany joined paramilitary groups that eventually supported the rise of Nazism — a history that helps explain why Germans are so alarmed by recent evidence of far-right sympathies among soldiers. The National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party, emerged late in 1919 and took its notorious name in early 1920, quickly developing a paramilitary wing itself. After years of building support on the fringe, the party found its ultranationalist message — and the speeches of its leader, Adolf Hitler — gaining new traction in the economic hardship of the Great Depression.
January 30, 1933: Adolf Hitler is appointed chancellor
Hitler's Nazi Party became the largest in the German parliament by July 1932, but it would be six months before conservative parties joined it in a coalition, betting that they could steer the resulting government.
Instead, within weeks, Hitler began transforming Germany into a nationalist, anti-Semitic dictatorship — censoring the press, installing his paramilitaries in state roles, suspending civil liberties and purging Jewish civil servants. In modern German politics, it's remembered as a warning against any political coalition that might grant extremists legitimacy — a taboo that has recently come under strain.
September 1939: World War II begins
In the years leading up to the war, Hitler expanded Germany's military and undertook a campaign of aggression that gloried in reversing the concessions of Versailles, initially to little resistance from powerful neighbours like Britain and France. Their breaking point came on the morning of September 1, 1939, when Hitler ordered a ground offensive to invade Poland — triggering the start of what would become World War II.
February 13-15, 1945: Dresden is destroyed
Germans are taught carefully about their country's crimes during World War II — above all, about the systematic murder of 6 million European Jews in the campaign of genocide that became known as the Holocaust.
But recent years have seen growing public discussion of Germans' own wartime suffering. One focus is the eastern city of Dresden, devastated by a British-American bombing raid in the war's waning months.
The Nazi propaganda ministry declared the bombing a "terror attack," circulating reports that up to 200,000 people had perished. The figure persisted for decades, though researchers now put the casualties closer to 25,000.
Germany's far right has long leveraged a sense of German victimhood to promote a revisionist view of the Nazi era. Every February, neo-Nazis march in Dresden to commemorate the bombing. Franco A., who says his own grandmother witnessed the Dresden bombing, weighs it against the Holocaust in voice memos he recorded.
May 7, 1945: Germany surrenders
After the bombing of Dresden, Allied troops marched toward Berlin, liberating concentration camps along the way. With defeat imminent, Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945. Soon after, on May 7, General Alfred Jodl announced the unconditional surrender of German forces.
Leading figures in the Nazi regime were put on trial for crimes against humanity. The Nuremberg Trials, as this postwar judicial process was known, were a public reckoning for German war crimes followed around the world.
September 21 and October 7, 1949: West and East Germany are founded
After Germany was defeated, its territory was divided and occupied by American, British, French and Soviet forces. By 1949, the Western powers consolidated their three zones into the Federal Republic of Germany, known as West Germany, while the Soviets formed the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
The Western powers advanced an agenda of democratisation — but also allowed many former Nazis to keep their jobs in government and in business. A more complete reckoning with the horrors of the Holocaust wouldn't come for over a decade.
In East Germany, the Soviets were far more aggressive in hunting down former Nazis, even as the new country came under increasingly isolated communist rule.
March 25, 1957: The Treaty of Rome is signed
In the decades after World War II, western European countries sought to build systems of cooperation that would make another war across their continent impossible. The Treaty of Rome was the foundation stone of perhaps the most ambitious: The European Economic Community, a common market across six nations that would develop into today's 27-country European Union. West Germany was among the founders, reflecting a hope that limiting the power of single nations would serve as an antidote to violent nationalism.
August 13, 1961: The Berlin Wall rises
Germany's old capital, Berlin, sat within the new East Germany but was divided between East and West, making it a front line in the developing Cold War. As millions of East Germans fled through the city to the increasingly prosperous West, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev recommended the construction of a barrier dividing Berlin. The Berlin Wall came to symbolise the "Iron Curtain" dividing democratic Western Europe and communist Eastern Europe.
1968: A youth movement spreads across West Germany
In the decade after the construction of the wall, the divide between West and East grew starker.
As countercultural movements swept across the United States, West Germany had its own reckoning. University students rebelled against the silence of their parents' generation and forced the country to have a conversation about the country's Nazi past. Claudia Roth, a vice president of the German parliament and one of the alleged targets of Franco A., talks about her experience of this moment in Episode 2 of Day X.
East Germany never had a comparable societal reckoning. The eastern regime defined itself in the tradition of communists who had resisted fascism, giving rise to a state doctrine of remembrance that effectively exculpated it from wartime atrocities.
Behind the wall, however, the East was frozen in time, a largely homogeneous white country where nationalism quietly lived on.
November 9, 1989: The Berlin Wall falls
Through its history, at least 140 people died at the Berlin Wall, the vast majority of them trying to escape.
When the wall eventually fell in late 1989, the result of human error, spontaneity and individual courage, East Germans crossed into the west, leaving a state of informers and suspicions, public rigidity and private despair to emerge, disoriented, into another world.
It was a moment of national euphoria and liberation. But it also marked the beginning of a wave of racist attacks that swept across the country as a predominantly white East met a multicultural West.
Abenaa Adomako remembers that night. Joyous and curious like so many of her fellow West Germans, she had gone to the city centre to greet East Germans who were pouring across the border for a first taste of freedom.
"Welcome," she beamed at a disoriented-looking couple in the crowd, offering them sparkling wine. But they would not take it.
"They spat at me and called me names," recalled Adomako, whose family has been in Germany since the 1890s. "They were the foreigners in my country. But to them, as a Black woman, I was the foreigner."
October 3, 1990: Germany is reunified
A unification treaty was ratified in the German parliament in the fall of 1990, bringing West and East Germany under one democratic government.
But unification also brought far-right groups in the West and East together.
"Reunification was a huge boost for the far right," said Ingo Hasselbach, who was then a clandestine neo-Nazi in East Berlin. After the fall of the wall, Hasselbach, who has since disaffiliated, connected with western extremists and organised far-right workshops, fought street battles with leftists and celebrated Hitler's birthday. Together, they also dreamed of a far-right party in the parliament of a reunified Germany — a dream that would come true nearly three decades later.
November 24, 1990: The new Germany witnesses an anti-immigrant murder
Seven weeks after reunification, a group of young skinheads went in search of foreigners overnight in the eastern town of Eberswalde. They came upon an Angolan guest worker, Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, 28, beating him and others with baseball bats. According to Human Rights Watch, several police officers looked on during the violence.
Kiowa died 12 days after the attack, and his death, as well as the light sentences for his murderers, prompted a political debate in the newly reunified Germany over how the state would respond to right-wing violence. He is commemorated in the name of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racist organisation whose leader, Anetta Kahane, is among those Franco A. is accused of targeting. Kahane speaks about her experiences in Episode 2 of Day X.
Early 1990s: A series of anti-immigrant attacks shock the country
There were other far-right attacks in the years immediately after reunification. In August 1992, a crowd estimated at 1,000 youths from both eastern and western Germany and described as mostly neo-Nazis firebombed a 10-story refugee hostel in the northern town of Rostock.
Then, on November 23, a woman and two girls, all of Turkish nationality, died after firebombs were thrown into their home in Mölln, another town in northern Germany. Minutes after the bombs were thrown, anonymous callers telephoned local police and fire departments, taking responsibility for the fires and crying, "Heil Hitler!" Two far-right extremists were later convicted.
And on May 29, 1993, five members of a Turkish family, two young women and three girls, burned to death in their house in Solingen, in a fire set by neo-Nazis.
2000-11: A neo-Nazi terror cell murders immigrants, while the police look for Turkish gangsters
For over a decade, a series of murders in Germany went unsolved. Of the 10 victims, nine were immigrants. Newspapers referred to the killings as "döner murders," which the families of the victims found demeaning and even racist. The police ignored suggestions that the murders might have been hate crimes and narrowly focused their investigations on Turkish organised crime.
The case went nowhere. Until, one day in 2011, a botched escape after a bank robbery revealed that a neo-Nazi terror group, the National Socialist Underground, was responsible for the killings.
Chancellor Angela Merkel said the case revealed "structures that we never imagined." And after the German intelligence service shredded documents salient to the case, some questioned whether the agency may have been infiltrated by double agents loyal to the far right. Later, in 2018, a lawyer for one of the victims' families, Seda Basay-Yildiz, received a death threat linked to a police computer. Basay-Yildiz speaks in Episode 3 of Day X.
November 2003: A special forces commander is dismissed
General Reinhard Günzel, the commander of the KSK, Germany's most elite and highly trained military unit, was dismissed after he wrote a letter in support of an anti-Semitic speech by a conservative lawmaker.
General 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 since been a popular speaker at far-right events.
November 22, 2005: Angela Merkel is elected as German chancellor
Angela Merkel, leader of the centre-right party, the Christian Democrats, took office in a left-right coalition in Germany in late 2005, becoming both the first female chancellor and reunified Germany's first leader to have grown up in the East. She moved her party firmly to the centre, becoming recognised worldwide as a face of democratic tolerance and pragmatism.
February 6, 2013: A new party takes shape on the right
It was frustration with Merkel's centrism — and especially her decision to commit German taxpayer money to a bailout of Greece — that a group of elite conservatives cited when they began a party of their own, one that initially made scepticism of European integration the centre of its message: the Alternative for Germany, widely known by its German initials, AfD.
2015-16: Over 1 million migrants arrive in Germany
The Syrian War, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and widespread poverty fuelled a wide-reaching migrant crisis in 2015. More than 1.3 million people applied for asylum in the European Union that year, after dangerous and sometimes deadly journeys.
Faced with a test of compassion, Merkel's response was dramatic. She welcomed more than 1 million asylum-seekers into Germany.
In response, the AfD shifted its policies and messaging to focus on domestic security and immigration. Its popularity grew, especially in eastern cities, as its tone became increasingly nationalistic, populistic and — its critics said — racist.
October 17, 2015: A pro-refugee politician is stabbed
Henriette Reker, a candidate to be mayor of Cologne, was handing out flowers to voters at a bustling market when a man who wanted to punish her for her pro-refugee stance took a rose with one hand and rammed a kitchen knife into her throat with the other. The attack put her in an intensive care unit; she awoke from a coma to find herself elected.
April 27, 2017: A German military officer is arrested — and nationwide far-right networks begin coming to light
In 2017, a mysterious gun was found in an airport bathroom. The gun ultimately led to the arrest of a German military officer, Franco A. He is accused of posing as a refugee in what investigators say was an assassination plot intended to take down the German government. Franco A. denies this, and has said he was trying to expose flaws in the asylum system.
His case set off a sprawling investigation that led German authorities into a labyrinth of extremist networks at all levels of the nation's security services — a threat that, they acknowledged in 2020, was far more extensive than they had ever imagined.
One group, run by a former soldier and police sniper in northern Germany, hoarded weapons, kept enemy lists and ordered body bags. Another, run by a special-forces soldier code-named Hannibal, put the spotlight on the KSK, Germany's most elite force.
September 24, 2017: The far right is elected into Germany's parliament
The first federal elections since the arrival of over 1 million migrants returned Merkel to office. But voter anger over immigration and inequality showed in a drop in support for the two main parties, and a shocking surge for the AfD, which received nearly 13 per cent of the vote on an anti-migration platform. It was the first time since the Nazi era that a far-right party had gained enough support to enter the German parliament.
August 2018: Anti-immigrant riots attract both neo-Nazis and far-right voters
Days of neo-Nazi protests broke out in Chemnitz, in eastern Germany, after word spread that an Iraqi and a Syrian asylum-seeker were suspected in a knife attack that had killed a German man. While neo-Nazis had a long tradition of demonstrations in Chemnitz, these riots were different.
The crowds were at times 8,000-strong. Led by several hundred identifiable neo-Nazis, they also appeared to be joined by thousands of ordinary citizens.
"This mix of far-right extremists and AfD voters was new," said Hajo Funke, a political scientist at the Free University of Berlin and a veteran expert on the far right.
The country was shocked by images of the angry mob marching through the streets, chasing after bystanders they thought looked foreign. Police officers, vastly outnumbered, were too afraid to intervene.
September 18, 2018: A spy chief is removed from office
Hans-Georg Maassen, Germany's chief of domestic intelligence, was removed from his post after he questioned the authenticity of a video showing an immigrant being chased by far-right protesters in Chemnitz, directly contradicting Merkel. Their public rift renewed questions about whether Germany's security apparatus had minimised the threat of the far right — especially as Maassen was appointed to overhaul the service after the National Socialist Underground murders came to light.
June 2, 2019: A politician is assassinated
Walter Lübcke, a regional politician representing Merkel's party, became a target for far-right death threats because of his uncompromising defense of her refugee policy.
Then, after years of abuse from extremists, Lübcke was fatally shot in the head on his terrace, in what was Germany's first far-right political assassination since the Nazi era. His murderer had a violent neo-Nazi past and police record; he was convicted of the murder in January and sentenced to life in prison.
October 9, 2019: A synagogue is attacked
On Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a heavily armed nationalist and white supremacist tried to storm a synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, while streaming it live online from a head camera. Foiled by a locked door, he killed two people outside and wounded two others; 51 people were inside.
The attacker, who was 28, received a life sentence for murder and attempted murder the following year.
February 19, 2020: Another far-right gunman strikes, this time in the West
A far-right extremist opened fire at two hookah bars in Hanau, east of Frankfurt, in the winter of 2020, killing nine mostly young people in Germany's deadliest far-right attack in recent memory. He later returned home, where he shot and killed his mother and himself.
The attack shocked Germany and drove home a fear that no part of the country is immune to the potential for far-right violence.
July 2020: Germany's defence minister disbands a company of the special forces
Germany's defence minister announced that she would partially disband the KSK, Germany's elite special forces unit, saying it had been infiltrated by far-right extremism.
The defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, said far-right extremism had become so pervasive in one of four fighting companies inside the special forces that it would be dissolved, and the rest would be overhauled.
"The KSK cannot continue in its current form," Kramp-Karrenbauer told a news conference, describing "toxic leadership" inside the unit, which, she added, had "developed and promoted extremist tendencies."
The announcement came seven weeks after investigators discovered a trove of Nazi memorabilia and an extensive arsenal of stolen ammunition and explosives on the property of a sergeant major who had served in the KSK since 2001.
August 29, 2020: Far-right protesters attempt to storm the German parliament
Hundreds of far-right activists waving the black, white and red flag of the pre-1918 German Empire broke through a police barrier and tried to force their way into the German parliament building during a protest against Germany's pandemic response.
It took only a few tense minutes before the police, soon aided by reinforcements, managed to push them back. But the events were an alarming escalation of pandemic protests that have grown steadily bigger and — on the fringes at least — angrier. The AfD has tried to exploit the pandemic in the same way it used the refugee crisis in 2015.
September 16, 2020: 29 police officers are suspended on suspicion of sharing violent neo-Nazi propaganda
A police force in Germany suspended 29 officers suspected of sharing images of Hitler and violent neo-Nazi propaganda in at least five online chat groups, adding to concerns about far-right infiltration. The 126 images shared included swastikas, a fabricated picture of a refugee in a gas chamber and the shooting of a Black man, officials said.
After an investigation, additional officers in the unit were suspended, bringing the total to 44. Currently, 24 of those officers are still suspended.
Several other cases have since emerged. Authorities recently disbanded an elite police unit in Frankfurt and suspended 18 of its members after they were also found to have been involved in a chat group that exchanged racist messages and glorified the Nazis.
March 2021: The German intelligence service declares the AfD a threat
For the first time in its postwar history, Germany placed its main opposition party, the AfD, under surveillance. While the country's domestic intelligence agency hoped to tap phones and other communications and monitor the movements of AfD members, the party legally challenged this decision. A court forced the intelligence agency to suspend surveillance activities in the interim.
Still, the decision was among the most sweeping efforts yet to deal with the rise of far-right and neo-Nazi political movements within Western democracies.
May 20, 2021: Franco A. goes on trial
In May, federal prosecutors laid out their case against Franco A. in the opening of one of postwar Germany's most spectacular terrorism trials. They said he had been motivated by a "hardened far-right extremist mindset" to plot political murder in the hope of provoking a backlash against refugees meant to bring down the Federal Republic of Germany. Franco A. denies the terrorism charges against him.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Katrin Bennhold, Melissa Eddy and Christopher F. Schuetze
Photographs by: Emile Ducke
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES