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Germany Has a Neo-Nazi Terrorism Epidemic
How many political murders do far-right extremists have to commit before the German government does something about it?
When the German politician Walter Lübcke was found shot in the head outside of his home near Kassel on June 2, commentators were quick to assert that a right-wing extremist was the most likely culprit. Even the police seemed half-hearted in their calls for restraint in judging the motive of the crime, and the brief suspicion that the culprit had been someone close to the victim was quickly laid to rest. The unanimity of the official response, in one sense, was admirably forthright. But it was also its own national admission of negligence.
Lübcke, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, served as Kassel district president from 2009 until his death and had long been a figure of regional importance. Tributes from local papers emphasize that he was widely liked and had good relationships with his constituents. In 2015, however, he became a favorite target of right-wingers throughout Germany when, in the midst of the refugee crisis, he told an assembly gathered in the West German city of Lohfelden about the planned construction of a refugee camp, and he brushed away dissent by saying that Germany is a country based on Christian values, including charity, and “anyone who doesn’t share these values, anyone who doesn’t agree, is welcome to leave the country at any time. Every German has that freedom.”
Lübcke received more than 350 emails immediately following the event, including numerous death threats. He was placed under police protection, but right-wing extremists ensured that outrage about Lübcke’s statement remained fresh. A few days after the event, the German Turkish author Akif Pirincci, speaking at a far-right rally, said that Lübcke had only suggested that ethnic Germans leave the country because the concentration camps had long been closed, implying that Lübcke’s preferred solution would have been the mass execution of his political opponents. Pirincci’s speech ensured Lübcke’s infamy in far-right circles. Erika Steinbach, a politician formerly with the right wing of the CDU, shared the video of Lübcke’s statement at the assembly to her 120,000 followers on social media three times, most recently in February of this year, while right-wing websites such as PI-News ran pieces about Lübcke on a regular basis.
So it surprised no one when news broke that Stephan Ernst, the suspect in Lübcke’s murder, had a history of racist violence and ties to far-right groups. The killing has provoked widespread condemnations of the ascendancy of right-wing terrorism in Germany; even traditionally conservative leaders such as Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer are now saying that they need to play catch-up in the fight against the far-right and have promised to devote increased resources to policing right-wing terrorists. But critics say that the German state has a long history of ignoring reactionary terrorism.
Tanjev Schultz, a professor of journalism at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and the author of a prizewinning book about right-wing terrorism in Germany, says that in Germany’s public imagination terrorism tends to be associated with the left. Memories of the Red Army Faction and the series of political assassinations it undertook are still in the foreground of many Germans’ minds. Meanwhile, neofascistic terrorist attacks like the bombing of a Munich beer garden in 1980 have been largely forgotten.
This blindness to right-wing terrorism is one of the reasons, Schultz told me, that it took authorities so long to recognize that the 10 murders carried out by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) beginning in 2000 were the work of a terrorist organization. Indeed, as Jacob Kushner has documented in Foreign Policy, authorities largely tried to restrict the investigation into the group’s three core members, Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt, and Beate Zschäpe, despite the fact that there was strong evidence that they had substantial support from other right-wing extremists, as well as some indication that some of that support may have come from within the government.
Seehofer’s promise to devote increased resources to combating right-wing terrorism has thus encountered widespread skepticism that the commitment will be upheld. That impression has been reinforced by separate investigations that have recently revealed right-wing networks within German police forces: In December 2018, an investigation into Frankfurt’s police force revealed a group chat that regularly employed Nazi iconography. On June 26, police searched the apartment of a member of the group chat, who has been accused of sending racist faxes to one of the lawyers who represented a victim of the NSU—one of them threatened to butcher the lawyer’s young daughter. They were signed “NSU 2.0.”
Then, on June 28, news broke that an organization called Nordkreuz had used police records to compile a “death list” of almost 25,000 liberal and left-leaning politicians—it had also stockpiled weapons, body bags, and quicklime. Hope that federal authorities would intervene where local authorities had failed to act are also dim given that the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s answer to the NSA, has often been accused of complicity in right-wing activity. This is seen most drastically, as Kushner documents in his Foreign Policy story, in the office’s failure to make proper use of informants during the investigation in the NSU. More recently, the former head of the organization, Hans-Georg Maaßen, drew criticism for his baseless claims that videos of right-wing violence during an August 2018 riot in Chemnitz were doctored.
Though Lübcke’s death is a milestone, similar attacks have proliferated in recent years. In 2015 and 2017, respectively, the mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, and Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of the West German town of Altena, suffered politically oriented knife attacks. Reker was severely wounded, as were several of her companions. Hollstein escaped with minor injuries after employees of the Turkish restaurant where he was eating disarmed the perpetrator. Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung recently told the DPA press agency that there were about three politically motivated crimes against politicians in Germany on a daily basis, with local politicians being especially vulnerable.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the German state has long had difficulties preventing right-wing violence and apprehending its perpetrators because there’s substantial sympathy for neofascistic causes within the German government. But the situation is also more complicated—the diffuse structures of right-wing organizations make it legitimately difficult to differentiate between lone wolves and members of criminal conspiracies, and the ubiquity of online expression of rage makes it hard to differentiate serious threats from idle fantasies. Though some activists are calling for a widespread crackdown on all forms of right-wing activity, others fear that broad approaches could serve to further radicalize right-wingers. When we spoke, Schultz, the journalism professor, suggested that a series of reeducation programs might be a positive step but feared that they would end up reaching the wrong people.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government will have to do something more radical than a simple increase in police resources if it wishes to effectively combat the rise of the far-right—not least because the issue threatens to tear her political party, the CDU, apart. The right wing of the CDU had already been frustrated by its leader’s tolerant stance during the refugee crisis, and now more liberal members of the party are busy accusing their more conservative counterparts of complicity in Lübcke’s death. Germany’s other major centrist party, the Social Democratic Party, has already been decimated by increasing frustration with its willingness to concede to the demands of the CDU within Germany’s governing coalition. If the CDU wishes to escape its fate, it will have to do more than simply root out extremist networks—it will need to find a way of redirecting the forces of right-wing anger.