GÜSTROW, Germany — The plan sounded frighteningly concrete. The group would round up political enemies and those defending migrants and refugees, put them on trucks and drive them to a secret location.
Then they would kill them.
One member had already bought 30 body bags. More body bags were on an order list, investigators say, along with quicklime, used to decompose organic material.
On the surface, those discussing the plan seemed reputable. One was a lawyer and local politician, but with a special hatred of immigrants. Two were active army reservists. Two others were police officers, including Marko Gross, a police sniper and former parachutist who acted as their unofficial leader.
The group grew out of a nationwide chat network for soldiers and others with far-right sympathies set up by a member of Germany’s elite special forces, the KSK. Over time, under Gross’ supervision, they formed a parallel group of their own. Members included a doctor, an engineer, a decorator, a gym owner, even a local fisherman.
They called themselves Nordkreuz, or Northern Cross.
“Between us, we were a whole village,” recalled Gross, one of several Nordkreuz members who described to me in various interviews this year how the group came together and began making plans.
They denied they had plotted to kill anyone. But investigators and prosecutors, as well an account one member gave to the police indicate their planning took a more sinister turn.
Germany has belatedly begun dealing with far-right networks that officials now say are far more extensive than they ever understood. The reach of far-right extremists into its armed forces is particularly alarming in a country that has worked to cleanse itself of its Nazi past.
But the Nordkreuz case, which only recently came to trial after being uncovered more than three years ago, shows that the problem of far-right infiltration is neither new nor confined to the KSK, or even the military. Far-right extremism penetrated multiple layers of German society in the years when authorities underestimated the threat or were reluctant to countenance it fully, officials and lawmakers acknowledge. Now they are struggling to uproot it.
One central motivation of the extremists has seemed so far-fetched and fantastical that for a long time authorities and investigators did not take it seriously, even as it gained broader currency in far-right circles. Neo-Nazi groups and other extremists call it Day X — a mythical moment when Germany’s social order collapses, requiring committed far-right extremists, in their telling, to save themselves and rescue the nation.
Today Day X preppers are drawing serious people with serious skills and ambition. Increasingly, German authorities consider the scenario a pretext for domestic terrorism by far-right plotters or even for a takeover of the government.
“I fear we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg,” said Dirk Friedriszik, a lawmaker in the northeastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where Nordkreuz was founded. “It isn’t just the KSK. The real worry is: These cells are everywhere. In the army, in the police, in reservist units.”
Nordkreuz was one of those groups elaborately preparing for Day X. The domestic intelligence service got a tip in late 2016, and prosecutors started investigating in the summer of 2017. But it took years before the network, or a small sliver of it, came before a court.
Even now, only one member of the group, Gross, has faced charges — for illegal weapons possession, not for any larger conspiracy.
Late last year, Gross was handed a 21-month suspended sentence. The verdict was so mild that this year state prosecutors appealed it, kicking the case into another protracted round of deliberations.
Some Nordkreuz members were serious enough that they had compiled a list of political enemies. Heiko Böhringer, a local politician in the area where the group was based, had received death threats.
“I used to think these preppers, they’re harmless crazies who’ve watched too many horror movies,” Böhringer said. “I changed my mind.”
The shooting range in Güstrow, a rural town in a northeast corner of Germany, sits at the end of a long dirt path secured by a heavy gate. Barbed wire surrounds the area. A German flag flutters in the wind.
Gross, the police officer, was a regular at the range. He had been a parachutist and long-distance reconnaissance officer in the German army before his battalion was absorbed by Germany’s elite special forces, the KSK.
Another regular was Frank Thiel, a champion in handgun competitions and sought-after tactical shooting instructor for police and military units across Germany.
In late 2015, while conducting a shooting workshop for the KSK in southern Germany, Thiel learned about an encrypted, countrywide chat network to share privileged information about the security situation in Germany, and how to prepare for a crisis.
It was run by a soldier named André Schmitt. But everyone knew him as Hannibal.
Soon some 30 people, many of them regulars at the shooting range in Güstrow, joined the northern chapter of Schmitt’s network, avidly following his updates. It was not long before Gross decided to create a parallel group so they could communicate and meet up locally.
By January 2016, this network had become Nordkreuz. Over time, members recalled, their group morphed into a close-knit brotherhood with a shared ambition that would come to dominate their lives: preparing for Day X.
They began hoarding enough supplies to survive for 100 days, including food, gasoline, toiletries, walkie-talkies, medicine and ammunition. Gross collected 600 euros from each member of the group to pay for it. In all, he amassed more than 55,000 rounds of ammunition.
The group identified a “safe house,” where members would decamp with their families on Day X: a former communist vacation village deep in the woods.
“The scenario was that something bad would happen,” Gross told me. “We asked ourselves, what did we want to prepare for? And we decided that if we were going to do this, we would go all the way.”
Body Bags and Quicklime
The question investigators are now scrutinizing is what did it mean to “go all the way.”
Gross insisted to me that the group was only prepping for what they saw as the day that the social order would collapse, for Day X. He said they never planned any murders, or intended to cause any harm. But at least one member of the group portrays a more ominous story.
“People were to be gathered and murdered,” Horst Schelski told investigators in 2017, according to transcripts of his statement shared with The New York Times.
Schelski is a former air force officer whose account is disputed by the others. It pivots on a meeting he said took place at the end of 2016 at a highway truck stop in Sternberg. There, Gross met with a handful of other men, in what had become a concentrated cell within Nordkreuz.
Among the others present were two men now under investigation on suspicion of plotting terrorism. Under German law, they cannot be fully named. One was Haik J., who like Gross was a police officer. Another was a lawyer and local politician from Rostock, Jan Henrik H.
Schelski told the police that Jan Henrik H. kept a thick binder in his garage with the names, addresses and photos of local politicians and activists whom he considered to be political enemies. Much in the file came from publicly available sources. But there were also handwritten notes with information obtained from a police computer.
As they drank coffee at the truck stop, Jan Henrik H. turned the conversation to “the people in the file,” who he said were “harmful” to the state and needed to be “done away with,” Schelski later told the police.
After that meeting, Schelski told the police, he distanced himself from the group.
By then, the intelligence service was already watching. Some eight months after the truck stop meeting, authorities conducted the first in a series of raids on the homes of several Nordkreuz members.
Over two years, the raids and intelligence work uncovered weapons, ammunition, enemy lists, and a handwritten order list for Day X that included the body bags and quicklime.
I asked Gross about the body bags. He told me they were “multipurpose vessels,” usable as cheap waterproof sleeping bag covers or for transporting large items.
Prosecutors have traced illegal ammunition in Gross’ home to a dozen police and military depots across the country, indicating possible collaborators. Several of the units shot in Güstrow.
Three other police officers are being investigated on suspicion of helping Gross, who was only charged with illegal weapons possession. Asked during his trial, Gross said he did not remember how he got the ammunition. When I met him, he stuck to that line.
But otherwise he was not shy about sharing his views.
Chancellor Angela Merkel belongs “in the dock,” he said. The multicultural cities in western Germany are “the caliphate.” The best way to escape creeping migration was to move to the East German countryside, “where people are still called Schmidt, Schneider and Müller.”
Nordkreuz members never told me, nor the authorities, the location of the disused vacation village that was their safe house for Day X.
The safe house is still active, said Gross, who at the height of Nordkreuz’s planning had boasted to a fellow member that his network contained 2,000 like-minded people in Germany and beyond.
“The network is still there,” he said.