When German comedian Idil Baydar heard that investigators suspect police may have been involved in sending her neo-Nazi death threats, she was aghast.
She was especially distressed to learn that a police link had been known for at least nine months and she had not been told. Instead, she had been informed that the investigation into the hate-filled text messages she received throughout 2019 was closed.
“I don’t know who to trust or believe anymore,” said the 45-year-old actress. “I am completely in shock.”
Baydar is one of more than two dozen German public figures threatened over the past two years in missives signed with references to Nazi or neo-Nazi groups. In 2018, it emerged that a police computer was used to access information on lawyer Seda Başay-Yıldız shortly before she received threats containing personal details. Now, revelations that police computers in Frankfurt and Wiesbaden were also used to pull data on Baydar and left-wing politician Janine Wissler have triggered uncomfortable questions for Germany about racism and far-right networks in its institutions.
While suspicions of a police role in the threats have not been confirmed, the scandal forced the police chief in the state of Hesse to resign this month. It follows reports of extremism within Germany’s special forces, which led the defense minister to disband one combat unit and announce a restructuring. And it has added further urgency to the debate already underway on racial profiling, systemic racism and other concerns prompted by the global Black Lives Matter movement.
Meanwhile, left-wing and minority politicians, journalists and lawyers have continued to receive new threats.
State Interior Minister Peter Beuth faced pressure from lawmakers as the scandal grew last week.
“These threats attack every single one of us and are unbearable,” he said in a statement.
He said at least 27 public figures have been threatened in 69 messages, most of them emails from the same address. The bulk of the messages were signed “NSU 2.0” — an abbreviation for the neo-Nazi National Socialist Underground that murdered at least 10 people in Germany between 2000 and 2007. The threats Baydar received came as texts and were signed “SS Ostubaf,” a senior Nazi rank.
“It is outrageous that these threats could possibly be linked to data requests within the police systems,” Beuth said, though he has stressed the police link is circumstantial rather than “causal.”
What investigators know is that personal information had been accessed from police computers in a “very timely manner,” said Frankfurt prosecutor Noah Krüger. And some of the recipients of the threats were targeted “very specifically,” he said.
Baydar, whose comic roles needle at life as a minority in Berlin, is no stranger to threats. But the eight texts she got throughout 2019 stood out for containing personal details, including the name of her mother, whom the sender also threatened to kill.
“On the Internet, you can come across so many threats, but when it has my private data, it’s a different game,” she said.
he only learned two weeks ago, after a Frankfurter Rundschau journalist called, that authorities had known since October that an illicit data request from a Wiesbaden police precinct coincided with a March 2019 threat against her. The Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper also reported that data had been requested from police computers ahead of threats against Wissler.
“I feel neglected, like my life has no priority,” Baydar said.
She added that regardless of whether police officers were involved in the threats, “we have to have a discussion about racist structures in the police. This is a discussion which is happening globally.”
Many German officials push back strongly against suggestions that there might be racism or right-wing networks within the country’s police forces. Last month, federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer described the notion of “latent racism” in police ranks as “incomprehensible.”
He has also squashed a planned study into racial profiling, suggesting instead that researchers look at violence against police officers — even as the NSU 2.0 threats dominated the headlines and questions over far-right networks in the police mounted.
“It’s very hard in Germany to talk about racism in the state,” said Baydar’s lawyer, Mehmet Daimagüler. “Now we think we are above it.”
Daimagüler, who also represents families of three NSU murder victims, said it has become harder for Germans to explain away any racism as an imported problem, limited to immigrant communities.
Last month, two suspected neo-Nazis went on trial for the execution-style murder of Walter Lübcke, a politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
“People are starting to understand that racism is not only a problem for minorities, but a threat to society at large,” Daimagüler said. But taboos remain. “Talking about police officers being racist is a complete collision with Germany’s modern self-definition,” he said.
Experts and lawmakers have also raised questions about the ability of police to investigate of suspicious activity within their own ranks.
“In Germany, there is no independent authority to investigate misconduct or criminal offenses by police officers,” said Rafael Behr, a professor at the Police Academy in Hamburg. “State prosecutors don’t have their own executive personnel; they use police officers to investigate when other officers are suspects in a criminal case.”
In Hesse, at least 61 officers have been investigated for far-right links, according to an interior ministry response to questions from the left-wing Die Linke party. As of June, about half had been cleared, while 30 were still under investigation, according to the document. None had been charged.
As far as the inquiry into neo-Nazi threats, an initial investigation into the illicit data request on lawyer Başay-Yıldız — who had represented the family of an NSU murder victim — unearthed WhatsApp chat groups where officers had shared neo-Nazi content. Five officers were suspended and another left the force.
But no charges have been brought related to the chat groups, the data requests or the threats, according to prosecutors.
The officers whose logins were used to request the data on the comedian, politician and lawyer have been questioned, but prosecutors say there is no way to know if those same people pulled the information.
“It seems to be customary in a number of police stations that the first person in the morning logs on and keeps the computer turned on, and all the other police people on that shift use it,” Krüger said.
He said Baydar’s case was closed in March based on a determination that there was “no conclusive evidence linking it to an individual perpetrator at the time.”
Still, it emerged in the parliament session last week that not all officers on shift when the victims’ details were accessed had been questioned.
In cases like this one, the police know that they are always being watched closely,” Behr said. “But when you see how witnesses in Hesse have been questioned very late or not at all, it fuels the debate whether these colleagues have not been investigated as thorough as other suspects.”
Hermann Schaus, a lawmaker from the left-wing Die Linke party, described the level of independence of the investigation as “highly problematic.”
“Hesse is a small state,” he said. “They went to the same police academy. They can’t be objective.”
Of the threats made in recent days, he said: “It’s probable that the sender or the senders of these new threats just wants to terrorize and frighten people and doesn’t want to act on it. But I am actually scared for the people. I am scared for my colleague.”