German police investigate officers sharing Nazi images

Officers in North Rhine-Westphalia face charges of incitement to hatred

The police officers are suspected of swapping images of Adolf Hitler and refugees in gas chambers. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire

The police officers are suspected of swapping images of Adolf Hitler and refugees in gas chambers. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA Wire


German police have launched an investigation into 29 of their colleagues suspected of swapping images on WhatsApp of Adolf Hitler and refugees in gas chambers.

The officers were detained on Wednesday in a swoop involving 200 special investigators across the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). The police officers under investigation now face charges ranging from incitement to spreading racial hatred.

“This is the most sickening, obnoxious, neo-Nazi, racist, refugee-hostile incitement and a disgrace for the NRW police,” said Herbert Reul, interior minister of Germany’s most populous state. “At first, I didn’t want to believe that something like this could exist, hoping it was just one-off cases, but we have to expect that further such cases will turn up.”

His remarks reflect a deep-seated resistance among German politicians to believe police could have a problem with far-right extremists in their ranks.

That resistance appears to be crumbling following the exposure of the WhatsApp group, centred around officers stationed in regional cities.

According to investigators, chat protocols monitored by them included countless neo-Nazi images in WhatsApp groups including swastikas, portraits of Adolf Hitler and a composite image of a refugee in a death camp gas chamber. All but four of the officers under investigation were based in the western city of Essen.

“I’m deeply shocked about this inexcusable wrongdoing,” said Frank Richter, Essen’s police chief.

The chat groups came to light when investigators gained access to the mobile phone of a police officer suspected of sharing internal information with the media.

In a separate case last July, prosecutors arrested a former police officer and his wife, who now face charges of sending threatening emails to politicians, lawyers and others. At least 99 anonymous messages, ranging from racist insults to death threats, were signed NSU 2.0. The name is a nod to the National Socialist Underground (NSU), an underground neo-Nazi group behind a series of racist murders in the early 2000s.

Police officers in Frankfurt are accused of accessing confidential address databases of recipients shortly before the threatening messages were sent. Those revelations of extremist leaks prompted the resignation of the state police chief.

Regional forces

Germany’s police union (GdP) reacted with shock to the latest claims that there were neo-Nazis in its ranks.

“Fighting right-wing extremism is part of police DNA,” said Michael Maatz, GdP head in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Whether right-wing extremism is a significant part of German police and armed forces DNA remains unclear. No studies examining the phenomenon exist; last July, a planned study into racial profiling by police was cancelled by the federal government in Berlin.

Weeks earlier, Germany’s defence minister ordered a full investigation into extremism in the country’s armed forces and the dissolution of an elite commando group with neo-Nazi members.

Anecdotal evidence suggests regional police forces reflect conservative political views in the local population. Left-wing groups who demonstrate against weekly gatherings of the anti-immigrant Pegida group in Dresden claim there is a high level of sympathy for the group among police in the Saxon state capital.