Takeaways from Hamburg: The Quiet Persistence of Germany’s Radical Left

As host of this year’s G20 summit, Hamburg swelled with world leaders and their entourages. It was an opportunity to show off Germany’s second-largest city to the global public.

The G20, however, attracted more than heads of state. Thousands of protestors converged on the city to voice opposition to capitalism and globalization. The scale of the protests hardly came as a surprise—Hamburg has for decades been a bastion of Germany’s far left—but when several demonstrations devolved into violent displays of criminality, some leaders openly questioned whether German policy has grown complacent toward anarchists.

The pictures that came out of Hamburg’s Schanzenviertel district painted a dire picture: flaming cars and debris littered the streets of the usually scenic city. A tally of some 300 injured law enforcement officers only added to the outrage. Shock at the violence took a political edge when Hamburg’s Christian Democratic leadership called for Mayor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, to resign. Newspapers from across Germany have run articles questioning the SPD’s resolve in combating leftist extremism.

The pressure of an election year no doubt sharpened conservatives’ tongues against the SPD (despite Angela Merkel’s public support of Scholz), but beneath the opportunistic campaigning, there may be some bit of truth. In a climate where law enforcement has increasingly dedicated resources to countering Islamic terrorism and right-wing nationalists, are anarchists slipping through the cracks?

Germany is no stranger to left-wing violence. Galvanized by student movements in the 1960s, militant leftists made political violence a regular, if not small scale, element of the German social scene. The year 1977 entered history books as the “German Autumn,” a harrowing year marked with murders and kidnappings perpetrated by the Red Army Faction. But since the early 2000s, these groups have taken a lower profile and easily slip from public consciousness.

The comparative sizes of radical communities in Germany speak to the left’s apparent decline. According to the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, in 2015, the country’s approximately 7,700 “violently inclined” leftists were outnumbered by 11,800 rightists. Indeed, these numbers correspond with 2016 statistics on politically-motivated criminality published by the Federal Ministry of the Interior: rightists were responsible for over 13,000 more offenses than their left-wing counterparts.

A separate statistic from the same report, however, challenges this simple correspondence between larger populations of political extremists and higher levels of criminality. When considering violent crime alone, extremists from the left and right were responsible for a nearly equal number of offenses. The inconvenient implication of this data is that a considerably smaller number of leftwing extremists commit the same amount of violence as the considerably more numerous extreme right.

Though Islamic and right-wing extremism have recently dominated the headlines, Germany is facing a very real and growing radical left. It is time that the nation’s leadership more visibly and intentionally combats this overlooked threat.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.