BERLIN -- Last Wednesday in the German town of Hanau, a quiet place of 100,000 near Frankfurt, a gunman reportedly motivated by xenophobic views opened fire in and outside of two hookah bars, killing nine people, all of whom were of foreign descent.
The next day in cities across Germany, including Berlin and Frankfurt, people held vigils for the victims. Thousands flocked to the city's main square to mourn them in Hanau, with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the center-left Social Democrats and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer in attendance.
The killer, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, was found dead in his home along with his mother after the shooting spree, but the repercussions of the attack have sent shockwaves throughout the country. While the Hanau killer publicized his belief in conspiracy theories, according to authorities, they stated a racist worldview motivated him. The act has once again shined the spotlight on right-wing terror in a country still struggling to come to terms with its Nazi past.
The German government under the grand coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats has long faced criticism by politicians and pundits that it was not taking the threat of right-wing violence seriously enough, but top German politicians this past week have spoken out forcefully, countering this idea.
"Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now," Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht told reporters last Friday.
Interior Minister Seehofer promised increased security at mosques on Fridays, the holy day when the threat of violence is higher, as well as at airports and special events that draw large crowds.
And Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her statement to the public last Thursday, called racism and hate "a poison that is to blame for far too many crimes from the misdeeds of the N.S.U. [National Socialist Underground] to the death of Walter Luebke and the deaths in Halle."
The National Socialist Underground began in 2000 as a neo-Nazi cell of three people involved in the right-wing extremist scene in the Eastern German city of Jena. The trio was responsible for the deaths of 10 people, nine of whom were from immigrant backgrounds, as well as two bombings and attempted robberies between 2000 and 2007. During the duration of the cell's criminal activity, however, investigators targeted the Turkish gambling mafia and did not look to a possible right-wing extremism motive. Victims' relatives faced allegations that their family members had been involved in criminal activity.
It wasn't until 2011, four-and-a-half years after their final murder in 2007, that police found evidence of the existence of the NSU. After two of the group's members were found dead in their homes in an apparent suicide after a failed robbery, an apartment shared by the group's three members in the town of Zwickau was set on fire, presumably by the group's third remaining member in an attempt to destroy evidence of their activities. In the burned building, police found documents linking the NSU to the racially motivated murders.
In the past nine months alone, three right-wing-extremist-motivated murders have taken place in the country, according to authorities, including the brutal shooting of pro-refugee politician Walter Luebke outside his home in June 2019 and the anti-Semitic attacks on the Halle synagogue in October 2019, which left two dead.
The most recent report by Germany's domestic security agency stated that some 12,700 far-right extremists throughout Germany are "oriented toward violence." The Friday before the Hanau murders, German authorities raided and arrested a group of 12 people around the country who they said had met online and were plotting attacks on mosques around the country.
"Right-wing terrorism needs to be tackled as strongly as left-wing terrorism and Islamic terrorism was treated last year. Until now, the government hasn't been doing this," said research associate Asena Baykal of the Berlin-based think tank Global Public Policy Institute. "One of the reasons why this issue became so problematic is that politicians from the CSU [center-right Christian Democrats] didn't want to make this a priority for a very long time," she said. The idea of the German government protecting mosques on Fridays as proposed by Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is laudable, she says, but that it is a quick fix for what she calls "an ingrained societal problem."
In the wake of the Hanau attack, some politicians have looked to the largest opposition party in Germany, the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which runs on an anti-Islam, Euro-skeptic platform. They say the party is partly responsible for normalizing extreme right-wing speech and fueling racially motivated crimes such as these.
The AfD is "open to right-wing extremism," the president of Germany's parliament, Wolfgang Schäuble, told the newspaper Handelsblatt on Saturday. "The problem is that the AfD does not draw a line," he said, referring to their language.
"The AfD is the political arm of hate," tweeted prominent Green Party politician Cem Ozdemir.
Apparently benefiting from fears of foreigners, the party has been picking up protest votes by those who feel left behind by the centrist parties that have long dominated German politics, including Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. The AfD has done particularly well on the regional level in the eastern states of Saxony and Thuringia and is currently Germany's third-largest party on a national level.
Eastern Germany is particularly susceptible. Economically speaking, the former East Germany still lags behind the western half of the country. Many former East German states were hard hit by the economic downturn after reunification and wages and pensions are still lower.
According to Germany's domestic intelligence service's annual report released last June, the arrival of nearly 2 million asylum seekers since 2015 has emboldened far-right extremists motivated by racism, anti-Semitism and anti-democratic values. Violent anti-Semitic crimes in 2018 were up 71% from the previous year, stated the report.
For the record, the AfD has condemned the Hanau attack. Party spokesperson Joerg Meuthen tweeted on Thursday, "This is neither right nor left-wing terror, it is the delusional act of a madman. Any form of political instrumentalization of this terrible act is a cynical mistake."
Nevertheless, a poll published on Sunday by the Kantar Institute and the newspaper Bild am Sonntag, showed that 60% of respondents believed that the AfD is partly responsible for instances of right-wing extremist violence such as the Hanau attacks.
For Baykal, the AfD most certainly has some responsibility. "The AfD are saying certain things and making racist comments normal in the political debate so that people who tend to have more right extremist views on certain things feel validated by their political elite," she says.
While speaking to Parliament in 2018, prominent AfD politician Alice Weidel referenced Muslim refugees as "headscarf girls, welfare-supported knifemen and other good-for-nothings" and said they were undermining Germany's economy. The most notorious AfD leader, Bjoern Hoecke, head of the Thuringia branch, called the Holocaust memorial in Berlin a "monument of shame" when speaking at a rally in Dresden back in 2017.
Yet some find the problem not only in parties and groups such as the AfD. For Baykal, it is not only the role of the AfD that should be considered but also how traditional political parties like the CDU and SPD have looked to gain back their voters. "The more established German parties reacted to the AfD by adapting to their rhetoric about foreigners and migrants and refugees," she says, "instead of countering with a different narrative, with a more positive narrative about the successful story of more than 50 years of integration in Germany."