Berlin (CNSNews.com) – In the aftermath of the street violence that marred the G20 summit in Hamburg, debate has flared here over the left-wing extremist issue in Germany, with calls to shut down leftist cultural centers and establish a E.U.-wide database of left-wing extremists.
Among the tens of thousands of mostly peaceful demonstrators, extreme left-wing protesters looted shops, set cars and barricades on fire and clashed with police officers, resulting in an estimated 500 police officers and 200 protesters being injured.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the rioters were not G20 opponents but “despicable violent extremists, just like neo-Nazis and Islamic terrorists.”
“The brutality with which extremely violent anarchists have proceeded in Hamburg since Thursday is unfathomable and scandalous,” he told reporters, adding that “even more violent outbreaks of violence” may occur in the future.
Police arrested 186 people, and 51 currently face charges for breaching the peace, causing grievous bodily harm, damaging property and resisting police. They include Germans as well as citizens of France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Russia, Switzerland and Austria.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union blamed a culture of silent tolerance of left-wing extremism.
After a meeting of the CDU presidency in Berlin, party general secretary Peter Tauber said it was “high time that all parties are positioned against the left-wing extremism.”
But Dietmar Bartsch, a leading candidate of The Left party in upcoming general elections, said the rioters “had nothing to do with being left-wing whatsoever.”
“The Left party stands for justice and solidarity,” he told the ARD public broadcaster.
Martin Schulz, leader of the center-left Social Democrat party (SPD), said there was no political legitimacy for the rioters’ actions. Reuters quoted him as saying their actions “had the characteristics of terrorism.”
Hamburg is known for its large left-wing scene. Police estimate that almost 1,100 left-wing extremists live in the city of 1.7 million people, and that more than half of them are potentially violent.
The G20 violence has led to fears that leaving the left-wing groups unchecked could lead to further problems.
“If a democratically fortified country like Germany is no longer able to invite international guests and organize conferences like these, then there is more danger than just a single conference,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said during a visit to the city after the summit.
The concerns have stirred debate about long standing “autonomous centers” across Germany – places like the Rote Flora in Hamburg or the Rigaer Straße in Berlin, formerly abandoned buildings taken over by squatters who turn them into “cultural” centers and left-wing political meeting points.
They have been largely tolerated by cities’ municipalities, due to the mostly benign cultural and community activities held there. But the Rote Flora in particular now faces criticism for organizing the “Welcome to Hell” demonstration that kicked off the violence during the G20.
CDU lawmaker Stephan Mayer was quoted as calling for the forcible eviction of the inhabitants of the Rote Flora, while Federal Interior Ministry permanent secretary Günter Krings said Hamburg must “dry out the swamps” in those parts of the city where “lawlessness and contempt for the state prevail.”
Alice Weidel, lead candidate for the far right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, went further, describing the centers as “terror cells.”
“Extreme-left anti-fascist groups, who are involved in the organization of criminal actions like in Hamburg, must be banned,” she said.
The events have also led to calls for a database to track left-wing extremists. SPD lawmaker Eva Högl called for a European-wide extremist database. Currently, only Islamist radicals and right-wing extremists are tracked at the federal level.
Högl’s view, expressed to the Rheinische Post newspaper, was supported by Justice Minister Heiko Maas, also a SPD member, who agreed with the idea of a left-wing extremist database.
He told the Bild newspaper that the violence at the G20 summit made it clear that “we do not have a sufficient database of the extremist scene in Europe.”
Countries should exchange data about those convicted of violent acts, Maas said, as many of the rioters in Hamburg had travelled there from other European countries.
Daniel Koehler from the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies said there were similarities between extremists – regardless of political end of the spectrum.
“They talk a lot about justice. They talk a lot about freedom,” he told NPR. “They want to change the society into a positive direction. They believe that they’re doing something good for humanity.”
However, he said, their actions can turn violent in a desperate, though misguided, step to achieve that goal, particularly when they don’t feel “part of a society.”
In its latest report on the defense of the country's constitution, the Interior Ministry estimated that in 2016, the number of violent left-wing extremists in the country increased by ten percent – to 28,500, of whom 8,500 were considered violent.
Europol’s most recent E.U. terrorism report noted a “sharp increase” in left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks from 2015 to 2016, although it also determined that the “operational capabilities of the groups remained low.”