BERLIN – A police force in Germany on Wednesday suspended 29 officers suspected of sharing images of Hitler and neo-Nazi violent propaganda in at least five online chat groups, adding concerns over far-right infiltration into the German police and military.
Herbert Reul, the interior minister of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the chats were discovered, called them a “disgrace”. In a press conference on Wednesday, he described the images shared among officials as “far-right extremist propaganda” and “the ugliest, most despicable, bait for neo-Nazi immigrants.”
The 126 images shared included swastikas, a fabricated image of a refugee in a gas chamber, and the shooting of a black man, officials said.
The number of cases of far-right extremists in the German police and military, some of them stockpiling weapons and keeping lists of enemies, has multiplied in recent years. On Monday, authorities raided the home of a 40-year-old soldier in connection with an investigation into a suspected far-right terror plot.
For years, German politicians and security chiefs have rejected the idea of far-right infiltration into the security services, speaking only of “individual cases”. The idea of networks was systematically rejected and the superiors of those exposed as extremists protected.
But this summer, the government disbanded an entire company of German special forces because it was believed to be haunted by far-right extremists. And the problem has become so serious that the authorities seem to struggle to grasp it.
Early Wednesday, investigators raided the homes and workplaces of 14 of the 29 suspended officers in at least five towns and cities. Their senior officer was among the chat group members.
Mr. Reul, the interior minister, said he had long hoped such incidents would be isolated exceptions. “Today I can no longer talk about individual cases,” he said.
Several police departments in Germany have found themselves in the spotlight on far-right extremism.
In the state of Hesse, investigators have tracked police computers to information used in a series of death threats sent over the past two years to left-wing and prominent German politicians with immigrant roots. The Hessian interior minister later publicly expressed concerns about a far-right “network” in his police service. And in Munich, authorities identified another chat group of agents sharing anti-Semitic posts.
Police discovered chats in North Rhine-Westphalia when a 32-year-old officer’s private cell phone was confiscated as part of a separate investigation to ascertain whether he passed confidential information about an organized crime gang to a journalist.
The first group was created as early as 2012 and the largest dates back to 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in Germany, Reul said. The most recent post on mobile was sent on August 27th.
Of the 29 chat group members, 25 worked in districts controlled by the same district police headquarters in the western city of Essen. Eleven are believed to have actively shared the images, while another 18 received them and raised no alarms.
Politicians and police officials reacted to the news with dismay and dismay.
“The fight against far-right extremism is in the DNA of the police,” said Michael Maatz, deputy head of the state branch of the police union GdP. “The fact that there are still officials sharing radical, far-right and xenophobic content in chat groups is unbearable.”
Christos Katzidis, a national security expert in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Conservative Party, said he was “deeply shocked”.
“It is scandalous that those who are supposed to protect and defend our values are kicking them with their feet,” he said.
Sebastian Hartmann, the head of state of the Social Democratic Party, which governs with Mrs Merkel’s party in Berlin, has called for “a relentless resolution of the case and zero tolerance towards the enemies of our democratic society”.
Mr. Reul, the state interior minister, said he planned to launch a special investigation for the Essen police authority. He also said he wanted to appoint a special envoy for “far-right extremist tendencies” in the state police to find ways to detect extremism and radicalization early.
Mr. Reul insisted that most of the 50,000 state officials were “absolutely decent people and democrats”. But after investigators confiscated multiple phones and computers during the raids on Wednesday, he warned they would likely uncover more crimes.
“We have to count on adding more cases,” Reul said.