Listen to ‘Day X’

kaitlin roberts

Tell me where we are?

katrin bennhold

So we’re in the center of Frankfurt, just across the street from the court house where Franco A. is going to be tried today.

archived recording

Franco A. He’s accused of stockpiling weapons and planning significant acts of violence. Attacks against prominent politicians while posing as a Syrian refugee. The case of Franco A. is one that has gripped and perplexed the nation for the best part of four years, and he went on trial today on suspicion of planning to carry out several terror attacks. There he is.

[german speech]
archived recording

If convicted, he could face up to 10 years in prison.

katrin bennhold

We’re trying to get into the courtroom. We might be asked to turn off in a second.

[interposing voices]
katrin bennhold

See you on the other side.

– The trial of Franco A. started in May, 2021. He’s the only person from a nationwide far-right network standing trial for plotting terrorism. Only a limited number of reporters are allowed in, and no one can record the proceedings. But long before Franco A ever walked into the courtroom, he talked to me.

From The New York Times, I’m Katrin Bennhold. This is Day X. Over the course of a year, I interviewed Franco several times along with producers Lynsea Garrison, Claire Toeniskoetter and Kaitlin Roberts. We agreed to meet at his apartment in Offenbach, a city just outside of Frankfurt, where he was awaiting trial. And each time, we’d set up on either side of his dining room table. Franco claimed he wanted to give us what he called the full picture. And yet, in our interviews, he was often evasive and dodged questions about his case. As we’ve reported out the story, we’ve wrestled with whether to air our interviews with Franco at all.

But Franco is the first active duty soldier in Germany to stand trial for plotting terrorism since World War II, at least as far as anyone I’ve talked to remembers. And given the danger of far-right infiltration, not just in Germany, but around the world, we wanted to show what the threat of the far-right can look like today.

Franco’s 32 years old. He wears a ponytail and a vest. He’s well-spoken, and is fluent in English and French. He’s got a gigantic bookshelf in his living room, with the Bible, the Quran, and a copy of the German constitution. He kind of looks like an art student, and he claims he doesn’t have any far-right views. But the evidence I’ve obtained over the past year paints a very different picture.

In voice memos that police found on his phone, Franco praises Hitler, he argues that immigration has ruined Germany’s ethnic purity, and he advocates for destroying the state. He stole ammunition and explosives from the military, and he stashed them in his basement. And, of course, there’s that loaded gun he hid in the bathroom at the Vienna Airport, which was one of the first things that I asked him about. Something happened?

franco a.

Yes, something happened, exactly. What do you know what happened?

katrin bennhold

You’ve said that you found a gun.

franco a.

Yeah.

katrin bennhold

What happened?

franco a.

Yes.

katrin bennhold

Or is that not true?

franco a.

Do you think it’s credible? Do you think it’s true?

katrin bennhold

Why don’t you tell the story first, and then let’s talk about whether it’s credible.

franco a.

Still it’s —

katrin bennhold

This is your version.

franco a.

Yeah.

katrin bennhold

Yeah.

franco a.

Yeah. So we go there. We have been drink. Well, no, no, no. I’m mixing up things now. We met together at these nice cafes down in Vienna.

katrin bennhold

Franco claimed he found the gun one night when he was out drinking with friends in Vienna.

franco a.

— to relieve myself.

katrin bennhold

He said he peeled off from the group to pee in some bushes on the side of the street.

franco a.

— weapon lying on the floor.

katrin bennhold

And there it was. On the ground.

franco a.

I took it, and it was a pistol. I took it.

katrin bennhold

So he said he put it in his coat pocket, and then he said he forgot about it. He told me he only remembered it in the security line at the airport the next day, and then hid it in a panic. He said he only went back to retrieve it so he could turn it in to the police. And by his own admission —

franco a.

The thing is, it doesn’t seem to be credible at all.

katrin bennhold

— it’s not a credible story.

franco a.

I’m aware of that.

katrin bennhold

Prosecutors believe he’d bought the gun several months earlier in Paris. It’s a vintage French handgun. It was the pistol of choice of German officers during the Nazi occupation of France. It was unregistered and couldn’t be traced. They also say he was in illegal possession of several other weapons, including a G3 combat rifle, which still hasn’t been found. Where are the guns?

franco a.

I don’t know where whatever guns are.

katrin bennhold

And when I asked Franco about these guns —

franco a.

I can’t — listen, I cannot answer your question now.

katrin bennhold

— he was cagey.

franco a.

But if ever there is something like guns, then it’s in the context of being ready for protecting first your relatives, and then all the others who are in need.

katrin bennhold

He claimed that if he ever did have weapons, it was only to be able to protect his family in a crisis situation. Like, did you hide them somewhere?

franco a.

I have no weapons. I have no ammunition. I have nothing. OK.

katrin bennhold

Yeah.

franco a.

Yeah.

katrin bennhold

He has since admitted in court that he in fact did have these guns. He said he got rid of them, but he refused to tell the judges where the guns are now. Prosecutors believe that Franco wanted to use them to kill. And they have evidence that they say points to several possible targets.

franco a.

There was this thing with Claudia Roth, where they started accusing me of having planned a terror plot against politicians.

katrin bennhold

They have handwritten notes about Claudia Roth, a member of the Green Party, and one of the vice presidents of the German parliament.

franco a.

It was like a pocket calendar where I wrote about — where I really mentioned the name Claudia. I couldn’t even remember it.

katrin bennhold

What did you write about her? When I asked Franco about these notes —

franco a.

Well, it was something like — I had learned about her —

katrin bennhold

He repeated some disinformation about her that’s popular in far-right circles.

franco a.

— she had Identified with a saying that goes, Germany never again. Or Germany die, you dirty piece off of excrements. And for a politician who was serving German interests, I couldn’t understand that. And at that point, when I read that, I got angry about this, and I wrote down her name, and —

katrin bennhold

Claudia has said, never again, as in, never again Auschwitz. But she didn’t say, Germany die.

franco a.

So and then they took this some kind of like — an intention of doing whatever harmful action against her, which is not the case at all.

katrin bennhold

I recently learned that in this pocket calendar where Franco wrote down Claudia’s name, he also wrote, “People like you suck our people dry. You have to pay.” And, “Locate where she is.” I also asked Franco about the Jewish activist Anetta Kahane, and the fact that in the summer of 2016, Franco visited the parking garage of her office. One reason why Anetta Kahane comes up a lot is that you were actually in her parking garage, taking pictures.

franco a.

The thing is that about this point, because it’s a very sensitive point, actually I would love to talk about this freely. But because there is nothing, there’s absolutely just nothing.

katrin bennhold

But could you say why you went? Just why?

franco a.

If ever I went. I never said that I went.

katrin bennhold

But I think people know that you were there, because you took pictures and your phone was taken, and so —

franco a.

Yeah, there are pictures on my phone, but then this doesn’t prove that I was there in some way. That’s the situation. Yeah. So —

katrin bennhold

So you’re disputing that you were there?

franco a.

I just don’t talk about it. Yeah.

If I talk about this, I can just talk about it in hypothetical terms, yeah? Then this person would have gone there, and this day probably the person wouldn’t have been there. Otherwise, he would have talked to her. Maybe there were some workers who were there.

katrin bennhold

Franco said that hypothetically he just wanted to talk to Anetta. And then he launched into another kind of defense.

franco a.

Even if this was true, which is not, definitely not, then it would be if ever. At worst it would, be the preparation of an assassination. Where is the state endangering? This person’s not even a politician. How can this be terrorism? This must then be just a murder or a prepared murder.

katrin bennhold

He claimed that planning to kill or even killing Anetta shouldn’t constitute an act of terrorism.

franco a.

You can prepare as many and as much and as long murders as you want. They cannot give you a trial for this.

katrin bennhold

But the law is very clear on this point. Killing or planning to kill Anetta would constitute an act of terrorism if it’s inspired by a larger political aim. And prosecutors say Franco had that aim. What did you want to talk to her about? What did you want to ask her?

franco a.

We cannot talk about this. I can only talk in conjunctive if ever.

katrin bennhold

What might you have asked her if you had gone there?

franco a.

For instance, what does she mean when she says that this is bankruptcy of the eastern regions of Germany, that there are not enough Black minorities?

katrin bennhold

Franco referred to an interview in 2015 where Anetta agreed with the idea that eastern states should take in more of the refugees that were coming into Germany at the time. She said eastern regions were struggling because the population was shrinking, and they would benefit from immigration.

franco a.

What’s wrong with a country or with a part of a country where there are white people living?

katrin bennhold

The idea of a diversifying Germany came up often in our interviews.

franco a.

I welcome in my country anybody who has a different culture.

katrin bennhold

And while Franco claimed he didn’t believe in racial hierarchy, he also said things like —

franco a.

We have migration for 1,000 years, everyone will look the same and everything will be the same.

katrin bennhold

— mixing races and cultures will eventually erase them.

franco a.

This is not diversity. This is a loss in diversity. It’s obvious.

katrin bennhold

It’s in these moments that Franco revealed himself as part of a larger phenomenon among the far-right. They call themselves the new right. Instead of skinheads and swastika tattoos, they often look more like Franco, with his ponytail and vest. Instead of screaming out racial slurs at rallies, they speak with an intellectual veneer, calling themselves ethno pluralists. They use terms like the great replacement and remigration, and they talk about culture more often than race. It’s all part of what intelligence officials say is a deliberate rebranding, an attempt to make racism acceptable to the mainstream. But when you break it down, it’s essentially the same ideology that was promoted by the Nazis.

Franco’s ideology is a central part of the case against him and that’s where the voice memos that the police found on his phone come in. They’re kind of like an audio diary, recorded when Frank thought no one would ever hear them. I actually obtained the transcripts of them. They’re mostly from 2015 and 2016, when over a million refugees were coming into Germany. I asked him about them. There is one on March 7, 2015. You were talking about how Americans were pushing race mixing, they’re controlled by Jews. And finally, Hitler is above all things, above everything, you say. Hitler was a creator of honest work. Everything that makes Hitler bad is a lie. How do you explain this?

franco a.

So you must know that it was in a joking mode.

katrin bennhold

In these memos, Franco describes a global Jewish conspiracy to weaken white European nations. This is you saying America controlled by the Jews wants to bring everything under a world order.

franco a.

No, it’s not true.

katrin bennhold

Well, you do say that here.

franco a.

OK, we come to that, we come to that.

katrin bennhold

And that world leaders like Chancellor Angela Merkel are in on the plot. And you call this a war.

franco a.

Well, a war between what we saw. Between this globalizing. Well, no, we go too far.

katrin bennhold

And, as in any other war, he suggests violence is justified. You do talk about violence is an option. It has to be an option.

franco a.

Yeah, because, of course.

katrin bennhold

Because where these criminals are today, they are only there because they’ve murdered time and time again. So let’s not hesitate. Not to murder, but to kill. In other words, let’s not hesitate to kill. So you are saying we are in a situation, a war, a confrontation. In one of the memos, he calls out to the French, the British, the Americans, the Italians, the Swedes, the Poles, the Russians to stand against the enemy. You say that we have to do this. We have the God given right and the constitutional right to do this. You end with, all together now, the time has come.” He says, “All together now, the time has come.”

franco a.

Don’t talk about my views, please. The thoughts that I once had, that I might have in the future, that I have now, are not even necessarily point of views. It’s just all work in progress, and everything evolves.

katrin bennhold

In the end, Franco explained these voice memos by saying they were supposed to be private, and he was just working through ideas. They’re not views, he claimed. Just thoughts.

It’s for the judges hearing Franco’s case to decide whether these thoughts were going to lead to something violent. But I’m left wondering, where did these thoughts begin, and how did someone with this mindset rise through the ranks in the military in Germany of all places?

Why didn’t anyone stop him?

[soft piano music]
kaitlin roberts

So this is where you grew up.

katrin bennhold

Has the driver been to Offenbach before? Does he know the city?

[speaking german]
katrin bennhold

Small city, a lot of foreigners, he says.

[speaking german]
katrin bennhold

In all of Germany there are a lot of foreigners, he says, but particularly here.

katrin bennhold

In the course of reporting this story, I spent a lot of time in Franco’s hometown, Offenbach. It’s an old working-class city just outside of Frankfurt.

speaker

Where you can see it’s quite diverse. We are a bit of everything.

katrin bennhold

And it’s one of the most diverse cities in Germany.

speaker

You can see the whole life in our city.

katrin bennhold

Immigrants and their children have long been the majority here.

[interposing voices]
katrin bennhold

When Franco grew up here in the ‘90s he went to school with a lot of kids who had an immigrant background. Franco’s own father came from Italy. Years later, Franco would describe the program that brought his dad to Germany as a deliberate plot to mix races. He said he himself was a product of this perverse racial hatred. But people he went to school with didn’t see any of that coming. I called several of his old classmates and teachers.

speaker

We would never have the idea of him being right wing, at all.

katrin bennhold

And most of them were shocked when Franco appeared in the news back in 2017.

peter

I was a teacher in the Schiller School since 1988.

katrin bennhold

One of his teachers remembers him particularly well. His name is Peter. He taught Franco for three years in middle school.

[speaking german]

Peter was part of a generation of teachers would come of age after the 1968 student movement. When young people asked their parents, how was Auschwitz possible?

He would often bring Auschwitz survivors into his class to tell their stories. It’s one of the ways Germany has tried to prevent Nazi ideology from ever taking hold again. By teaching that history with brutal honesty and in forensic detail.

Peter said Franco was a good student, and what stood out to him was Franco’s willingness to question everything. So how did someone from such a diverse city and tolerant city like Offenbach, and a school like the Schiller School, how did someone like that become radicalized?

As far as how Franco came to hold far right views, Peter says he doesn’t understand. But he wonders if maybe it started with his grandfather who he said was close to Franco.

Franco’s grandfather died in 2005. But I was able to find out a few things about him. He was a member of the Nazi party. I found his membership card at the National Archives. He joined in 1939. I also visited his grave, and carved into the stone where Norse runes that were popular among the SS, the Nazi party’s elite forces. When I spoke to Franco’s mom, she told me that her father and Franco had been close. They all lived in the same apartment building, and Franco’s own father left when he was young. I asked her about the copy of Mein Kampf police found when they were investigating Franco, and she said it originally belonged to her father.

Franco denies that his grandfather was a big part of his life, but he acknowledges that they had spent time together, and that his grandfather would tell him stories about his adventures in the war. In one voice memo from 2015, Franco recounts standing by his grandfather’s grave and thanking him for his guidance. I don’t know for sure what influence his grandfather had on Franco, but the shadow of German history is long, and the way it’s embedded in so many German families, it can lay dormant for a generation, and then come alive again.

Whatever set Franco on his far right course, it was early. He was only 17 when in the privacy of his diary, he began contemplating different ways to change the course of German history. He wrote, one would be to become a soldier, and gain an influential position in the military so that I can head the German armed forces, a path that I can very well imagine, and that I also think I would be able to do successfully. That would be followed by a military coup.

All historically significant leaders made their way to the top with the help of the military — for example, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Adolf Hitler, and to a certain extent, Alexander the Great.

Franco showed me this diary entry. He said these were just the musings of an immature teenager. But a couple of years after he wrote that, in 2008, Franco joined the German military. It’s a military unlike any other in the world. After the war, the Allies banned Germany from having a military altogether. But 10 years later, as the Cold War was heating up, it was resurrected and instilled with new core principles. Traditions and symbols from the Nazi era, like swastikas and runes, were taboo.

Soldiers were required to swear an oath on the new Democratic Constitution, and they were taught not to blindly follow orders, but to follow a moral compass defined by the Constitution. This became known as inner guidance. They weren’t just soldiers. They were citizens in uniform.

Franco excelled in the military.

He was quickly selected as one of only a handful of German officer cadets to attend the prestigious Saint Cyr Military Academy. It’s like the West Point of France. Franco spent five years abroad, and as part of his military training, he also attended some of Europe’s best universities. He started studying things like nationalism and world politics, and he told me he wasn’t satisfied with conventional explanations for things like 9/11, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So he decided to go and search for answers himself. Sometimes online.

At the end of 2013, he submitted a master’s thesis, titled “Political Change and Strategy of Subversion,” in which he publicly laid out his far right worldview for the first time. I have a copy of it. In his thesis, Franco writes about powerful elites who were secretly acting to weaken society in order to maximize their control. He points to big sweeps of migration as one of the ways they do that.

He writes that the downfall of great civilizations has always been the dilution of racial purity.

That migration was a form of genocide, and that Europe and the West were next in line if they didn’t defend themselves. The French commander of the military academy was appalled. He immediately flagged it to Franco’s German superiors. He told them that if this was a French participant, we would remove him. The German military commissioned an historian to review the thesis. After three days, he concluded that the thesis was not an academic qualification paper, but a radical nationalist racist appeal. Franco was summoned for questioning by a military attorney, who told him that his thesis was not compatible with the German Constitution. Franco defended himself by saying that as the second best student in his class, he felt pressure to create something great. And in the end, the military attorney came to the conclusion that Franco had become a victim of his own intellectual abilities.

No one informed the office that’s in charge of monitoring extremism and the German military.

Franco was allowed to submit a new thesis, and by the time he returned to Germany, it was as if nothing had happened. His superior in Dresden described him as a model German soldier, a citizen in uniform.

A few months later in 2015 —

Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that Germany would take in hundreds of thousands of refugees who had come to Europe from Syria and Afghanistan.

It’s around this time that Franco would join a chat network run by a special forces soldier with the nickname Hannibal.

And in this network, he found other soldiers and police officers with far right views. They were preparing for civil unrest, for the breakdown of social order, for something they called Day X. Franco was preparing too. He showed us his prepper cellar.

franco a.

We have electric generator.

katrin bennhold

The same place he had stashed stolen ammunition and explosives.

franco a.

And this is where actually this book, Mein Kampf, was.

katrin bennhold

And his grandfather’s copy of Mein Kampf.

franco a.

And these are these cowboy matches.

katrin bennhold

We saw stockpiles of food and medicines.

franco a.

Machetes I might have them here.

katrin bennhold

And a machete he’d strategically hidden.

franco a.

Ammo for the air gun.

katrin bennhold

You can’t kill people with that.

franco a.

” Well, maybe — no, actually not.

katrin bennhold

The particular branch of Hannibal’s network that Franco belonged to, the Southern branch, had actually written out a plan for Day X. It says the plan would be activated 12 hours after the national cell phone network was down, or four hours after the people who run the network had declared a state of emergency. It gives precise geocoordinates for a place to gather, and the idea was to take people from there to a safe house. What the plan called a group hideout.

franco a.

Then you can use it as a radio.

katrin bennhold

It also lists a radio frequency to communicate on, and to distinguish between friends and enemies. Group members were given a code and told to wear a special patch.

The police later found one of these patches at Franco’s house.

But prosecutors argue that Franco wasn’t just preparing for a crisis. He wanted to trigger one.

In December 2015, as Germany’s immigration office was totally overwhelmed with the influx of refugees —

franco a.

I put on racks.

katrin bennhold

— Franco disguised himself.

franco a.

I made my beard a bit black. I blackened my beard with shoe polish.

katrin bennhold

He put shoe polish in his beard.

franco a.

And I did a bit of darkening cream in my —

katrin bennhold

And his mother’s makeup on his face and hands.

franco a.

Gave me a form to fill in.

katrin bennhold

In broken English, he told a police officer in his hometown, that he had fled the war in Syria and lost his papers along the way. He was photographed and fingerprinted.

Soon after, he qualified for benefits and housing, and eventually was granted the status to live and work in Germany. He had created an entirely new identity for himself.

And as he was living this double life, splitting his time between the military base and the housing he’d been given as a refugee, none of Franco’s military superiors reported any suspicious behavior.

Instead, he was being considered for a promotion to platoon leader.

Prosecutors believe Franco was planning an attack that was meant to be blamed on his fake refugee identity and create a national backlash against immigrants. Franco told me the whole fake refugee stunt was an undercover investigation of chancellor Merkel’s migration policy. He said he’d planned to publish a report.

He never did. But it’s actually become his main line of defense in court. What his lawyers have argued is that Chancellor Merkel’s immigration policy endangered national security.

franco a.

And against the will and the good of the German people.

katrin bennhold

Franco gave me this argument too.

franco a.

Am I serving the right ones or not?

katrin bennhold

He said that as a soldier who swore an oath to protect the Constitution —

franco a.

You need to put into question the way —

katrin bennhold

— he was doing what he was trained to do.

franco a.

This is what we are supposed to do as officers, this is why we are officers.

katrin bennhold

And following his inner guidance.

franco a.

In order to keep the standards high.

katrin bennhold

Franco argued that he was protecting the state.

katrin bennhold

You know, I think one of the sentences that stand out the most —

katrin bennhold

But in his voice memos, he advocates for destroying it.

katrin bennhold

The state, and this is everybody who contributes to destroy this construct of a state does something good. I mean, that’s a call to arms.

Laws are null and void. I mean, how is that defending the Constitution?

katrin bennhold

When I asked him about this, he had no answer.

This is what infiltration looks like. People in uniform who say they’re defending their country, and at the same time, they see themselves at war with the very values they’re supposed to protect.

Whatever the outcome of Franco’s trial, it represents something much bigger than the terrorism case against him. Because, while his case is exceptional, some of his views aren’t.

katrin bennhold

Oh, there we are. I think that’s it.

katrin bennhold

In the months leading up to Franco’s trial, I finally got some answers about how serious the threat of far right infiltration really is.

katrin bennhold

They’re already waiting for us, look at that. They’re going to shut us off immediately.

[speaking german]
katrin bennhold

“Day X” is made by Lynsea Garrison, Clare Toeniskoetter, Kaitlin Roberts, Larissa Anderson, Michael Benoist, and me, Katrin Bennhold. Additional reporting by Chris Schutze. Engineered by Dan Powell. Original music by Hauschka and Dan Powell. Research and fact checking by Caitlin Love. Special thanks to Liz O. Baylen, Lisa Tobin, Mark Georges, Anita Badejo, Rachelle Bonja, Soraya Shockley, Lauren Jackson, Nora Keller, Des Ibekwe, Julia Simon, Tanjev Schultz, Jörg Echternkamp, Miro Dittrich, Michael Slackman, Jim Yardley, Kirk Kraeutler, Sam Dolnick, Matt Purdy and Cliff Levy.