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Katrin Bennhold was a Times correspondent in London in 2017 when Franco A. was arrested. “I remember hearing about it from afar and thinking how crazy it seemed,” she said. Franco A. was a German military officer who was caught posing as a Syrian refugee and who is now accused of plotting political murder. (Germany’s privacy laws shield the full names of defendants.)
In 2018, Ms. Bennhold, who is German, arrived to a new post as Berlin bureau chief. There she found Franco A. was part of a bigger story: the infiltration of the military and police by far-right extremists planning for the end of liberal democracy in Germany. That is the subject of “Day X,” a new five-part audio series from The Times hosted by Ms. Bennhold; produced by Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter and Kaitlin Roberts; and edited by Larissa Anderson and Mike Benoist. The first episode is out on Thursday. In separate interviews, Ms. Bennhold and Ms. Toeniskoetter discussed the project. Here are those exchanges, edited.
Katrin, you have been covering the far right in Germany for several years. How did you arrive at this series?
KATRIN BENNHOLD This has been an important reporting theme in my time in Germany. The rise of a far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, which was able to make it into the German Parliament and is the biggest opposition party there, is a big deal. And then this case of Franco A. came back toward the end of 2018, when German news media reported that there was this whole network of soldiers and police officers and like-minded civilians who were planning for the day democracy dies: Day X. Some reports even called this network a shadow army. “Shadow army” is a term that has a lot of historical baggage for anyone in Germany. They were these paramilitary groups in the 1920s that assassinated politicians and plotted coups. That’s really what got me started.
How did German officials respond to your reporting?
BENNHOLD There has been a big evolution. When I first called the Defense Ministry after noting this term, shadow army, to ask them how many far-right extremists they had in the armed forces, they said ‘four.’ They seemed to be either blind or playing down the problem.
But last summer they disbanded a whole company of the special forces because of far-right extremism. Since 2018, the reaction from officials generally has gone from dismissing my queries to publicly sounding the alarm. But I still have a question in my mind as to how deep that change is.
Katrin’s written report, about Franco A. and a web of extremist networks, was published in December. But from the beginning, you knew there would also be an audio series. How did that happen?
CLARE TOENISKOETTER The back story is that Lynsea Garrison, another audio producer at The Times, and I were traveling in the spring of 2019 for a “Daily” project we were doing with Katrin on populism for the European Parliamentary elections. While we were making that series, we decided we wanted to get together for another project. Katrin was just starting to think about talking to Franco and putting together this whole story. We wanted to get in on the ground floor and make this a true audio project.
Franco A. is the special focus of one episode. He is somebody with racist, absolutist ideas. Why was it important to tell his story?
BENNHOLD To me, one of the most frightening and most important features of the new right, as they call themselves — the old right being neo-Nazis and even Nazis — is that the new right believes in the same ideology, but they look different and they talk differently. They often don’t use crude racist slurs.
We have this image of neo-Nazi skinheads in bomber jackets and tattoos. But a lot of these guys blend in much more — and what the German authorities are now realizing is that some of them are wearing police or military uniforms.
I feel we do need to show them out for what they are. The more we learn about how they act and disguise their ideology to make it more socially acceptable, the more we can unpack real grievances from fakes ones, the better equipped we are to understand our world today. I know it’s a really fine line, and I think The New York Times and all of us need to be careful not to give people like that a platform; it’s a thing that constantly has to be on our minds as we do these stories.
How do the Berlin bureau chief and a team of audio producers share the lead on an audio series about Germany?
TOENISKOETTER Because we are not the experts on Germany, the producers are able to represent the listener in these interviews. Before we went into an interview, Katrin would tell us everything she knew about the subject. During the interview, we sat there alongside her, asking follow-up questions.
How many different people play a role in shaping a series like this?
TOENISKOETTER It’s a huge team. Three producers and two editors, plus a researcher/fact checker, engineer, and additional reporters. Many, many other people come in and listen to drafts, to help understand German history and offer their ears throughout the process. Every day, we’re in Google Docs and Pro Tools, the software we use to edit audio, putting together episodes and redoing them and redoing them and redoing them.