I’ve been reading some of the background to the scandal surrounding the National Socialist Underground.

If agents of German state security infiltrated a neo-nazi group, and placed informants in key positions in that group, and then members of that group went on to commit a series of murders, to what extent is the state then responsible for those murders? Most people following the story seem to have already formed strong opinions either way, but I don’t think there’s a clear answer to this, it sits in a moral grey area.

It needs to be said, Germany has got a state security service. While the old Stasi was formally abolished there are still covert intelligence agents which work for the state, and the case of the NSU highlights that fact.

Who did the NSU informants report to? How long was the chain of command? Who knew about the operation and how much did they know? How were they kept accountable? Were public funds paid of informants used to finance the NSU terror campaign? These questions probe the relationship between the state and it’s own intelligence services.

I think it’s a blind spot in European politics that we think the task of government is based on the formal rules of liberal democracy. Meanwhile we’ve got no trouble about applying a much more realist analysis to states where power struggles occasionally drop into public view. Looking at some countries you see a variety of different factions jostling for influence: crime syndicates, rich oligarchs, foreign powers, trade unions, news barons, intelligence agencies, industry lobbies, the military high command, as well as personal loyalties divided by family, clan, tribe, region, religion, party, and so on before we come to ideology. I think that similar power struggles do occur in western liberal democracies, even if we can’t see them. It’s not a surprise that the interests of the German intelligence agencies and the interests of the German government are not necessarily aligned.

As if to underline how deep the mistrust went, the security agencies were spying on soldiers in the Bundeswehr. Well, any army is by definition militarist, and there’s an established link between German militarism and… neo-Nazis. In that context it makes sense to put soldiers under surveillance, and in most armies if a soldier displayed strong political opinions that would attract attention. The problem with the German army is, when they’re all wearing the Iron Cross how can you tell who is the simple patriot and who is the neo-Nazi?