BERLIN — A police force in Germany on Wednesday suspended 29 officers suspected of sharing images of Adolf Hitler and violent neo-Nazi propaganda in at least five online chat groups, adding to concerns about far-right infiltration in Germany’s police and military.
Herbert Reul, interior minister of the western state of North-Rhine Westphalia, where the chats were discovered, called them a “disgrace.” At a news conference Wednesday, he described the images that were shared among officers as “far-right extremist propaganda” and the “ugliest, most despicable, neo-Nazi immigrant-baiting.”
The 126 images shared included swastikas, a fabricated picture of a refugee in a gas chamber and the shooting of a Black man, officials said.
The number of cases of far-right extremists in Germany’s police and military, some of whom hoard weapons and keep lists of enemies, have multiplied in recent years. On Monday, authorities raided the home of a 40-year-old soldier in connection with an investigation of a suspected far-right terrorism plot.
For years, German politicians and security chiefs rejected the notion of far-right infiltration of the security services, speaking only of “individual cases.” The idea of networks was routinely dismissed, and the superiors of those exposed as extremists protected.
But this summer, the government disbanded an entire company of German special forces because it was deemed to be infested with far-right extremists. And the problem has become so serious that authorities appear to be struggling to get a grip on it.
Early Wednesday, investigators raided the homes and workstations of 14 of the 29 suspended officers in at least five towns and cities. Their senior officer was among the members of the chat groups.
Reul, the interior minister, said he had long hoped that such episodes were isolated exceptions.
“Today, I can no longer speak of individual cases,” he said.
Several police departments in Germany have found themselves in the spotlight over far-right extremism.
In the state of Hesse, investigators have traced to police computers information used in a string of death threats sent over the past two years to left-wing politicians and prominent Germans with immigrant roots. The interior minister in Hesse later publicly raised concerns about a far-right “network” in his police service. And in Munich, authorities identified another chat group of officers sharing anti-Semitic posts.
Police discovered the chats in North-Rhine Westphalia when the private cellphone of one 32-year-old officer was confiscated as part of a separate investigation into whether he had passed confidential information about an organized crime gang to a journalist.
The first group was created as early as 2012, and the biggest dates from 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived in Germany, Reul said. The most recent post on the cellphone was sent Aug. 27.
Of the 29 members in the chat groups, 25 worked in precincts overseen by the same district police headquarters in the western city of Essen. Eleven are believed to have actively shared the images, while 18 others received them and raised no alarms.
Politicians and police officials reacted to the news with consternation and dismay.
“Fighting against far-right extremism is in the DNA of the police,” said Michael Maatz, deputy chief of the state chapter of police union GdP. “The fact that there are still officers that share radical, far-right and xenophobic content in chat groups is unbearable.”
Christos Katzidis, a homeland security expert in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, said he was “deeply shaken.”
“To have those who are supposed to protect and defend our values kicking them with their feet instead is scandalous,” he said.
Sebastian Hartmann, state chief of the Social Democratic Party, which governs with Merkel’s party in Berlin, demanded “a relentless solving of the case and zero tolerance of the enemies of our democratic society.”
Reul, the state interior minister, said he planned to set up a special inquiry for the police authority in Essen. He also said he wanted to appoint a special envoy for “far-right extremist tendencies” in the state police to come up with ways to detect extremism and radicalization early.
Reul insisted that most of the state’s 50,000 officers were “utterly decent people and democrats.” But after investigators confiscated more phones and computers in raids Wednesday, he warned that they were likely to uncover further offenses.
“We have to count on adding more cases,” Reul said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.