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The cell’s existence only came to light by chance after two members committed suicide following a botched bank robbery. The murders forced an overhaul of Germany’s intelligence services.
Nearly seven decades after the fall of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, far-right groups remain marginalised in Germany, with most of their support tending to come from the impoverished former communist east.
But the so-called ‘Zwickau cell’ shows that the danger is not confined to any one area of the country. Left unchecked, experts say, neo-Nazis could again stage deadly attacks.
This year, keen to show they take the threat seriously, federal authorities have been weighing a possible ban on the only far-right party to hold seats in any German legislature.
The National Democratic Party (NPD), which sits in two state assemblies, is racist and anti-Semitic, intelligence services say. The party is careful not to break German laws forbidding Nazi symbols, denial of the Holocaust and public expressions of support for Hitler.
The Autonomous Nationalists have no such qualms. They have no appetite for political manoeuvering and readily unfurl banners quoting Hitler at their protest rallies.
“Many Nazis moved here because they thought this was a broken city,” Dortmund mayor Ullrich Sierau told Reuters, adding that extremists exploited the fact the city of half a million has one of the highest unemployment rates in the region.
Dortmund’s new police chief Norbert Wesseler said there were 131 crimes tied to far-right militants including violent assaults in the city in the first half of the year.