“A neo-Nazi attack against a synagogue in the town of Halle, Eastern Germany, has shaken the Germany psyche. Two views have emerged about this. One is that the country is witnessing the return of rightwing terrorism with roots in Nazi violence of the 1920s and 1930s. The other is that the act of a lonely lunatic is being instrumentalised by all political actors to shift the national discussion in their favour.”
A Rightwing Anti-Semitic Murder Has Sent Shockwaves through German Society.
Are the Nazis Back?
A neo-Nazi attack against a synagogue in the town of Halle, Eastern Germany, has shaken the Germany psyche. Two views have emerged about this. One is that the country is witnessing the return of rightwing terrorism with roots in Nazi violence of the 1920s and 1930s. The other is that the act of a lonely lunatic is being instrumentalised by all political actors to shift the national discussion in their favour.
Both are true.
On 9 October, the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, a young man in military fatigues attempted to massacre Jews at the synagogue of Halle at prayer time, in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt. Fortunately, he failed to enter the building. He tried to shoot open one locked door, exploded a homemade bomb and tried three other entrances. But all were strengthened security doors and firmly locked.
Inside, 51 horrified worshippers watched all this on a security video screen and called the police, who arrived on the scene eight minutes later. By that time the attacker, one Stephan Balliet, had killed a (German) woman passing by, who had chided him for making noise. He moved on to a kebab shop, muttering “oh well, then the Kanaks” (in Germen a pejorative term for all people of colour). There, he killed a (German) customer. Then he fled in his car to the town of Landsberg and shot and wounded two more people before, finally, police were able to arrest him after a shootout in which Balliet was wounded in the neck.
Interrogated, he said that he wanted to kill people he described as “anti-white”, and “preferably Jews”. In the end, he killed and wounded only Germans. He had made his weapons himself, with the aid of a 3D printer and blueprints from the so-called dark web, highly encrypted Internet pages that are not visible for normal internet users. It takes a deliberate effort to log on to these pages. His gun did not function properly (one passer-by survived because it failed to fire), and he was clumsy at handling it, shooting into his own car tire by mistake.
Still, the country that perpetrated the Holocaust now had its first, although failed, would-be mass murderer of Jews since Hitler. Had he gotten into the building, there is little doubt that there would have been a bloodbath.
THE FALLOUT: “NEVER HAVE JEWS BEEN SO USEFUL”
Within hours of the attack, Germany’s public discourse exploded into a frenzy of finger-pointing, breast-beating and political profiteering. “We are all to blame” – and obviously, government was to blame; the crime had been “foreseeable” and “only a matter of time”, complained the media, who had failed to foresee anything at all.
At least one leftwing NGO immediately tried to turn the murders into money. The Amadeu Antonio foundation sent out a statement complaining that its funds had been reduced by the government, and that instead of cutting funds, “work against rightwing extremism needs to be deliberately supported” – meaning, the foundation should get more money. Social Democrats, the Greens, the post-Communist party Die Linke, progressive NGOs and seemingly everyone on social media flooded the country with dire warnings that Nazism was at the doorstep and needed to be neutralised with the most radical means, at once.
Conservative columnist Jan Fleischhauer pointed out how the despicable murders were being instrumentalised by the left to silence anything resembling conservative views. He reminded his readers that every time a Syrian runs amok with a knife in his hands, one does not have to wait long before the far right accuses Islam itself of the deed. “Now, this form of spiritual Inhaftnahme (a word meaning “detention”, here used in the sense of “generalised accusation”) is being used for the other side.” Jews, he wrote with more than a little sarcasm, “rarely had more friends” than now in Germany – and rarely had they been “more useful”, in the sense that the attack of Halle could be and was being instrumentalised by politicians and activists.1
But political profiteering was not limited to the left. The attack had sent such shockwaves through the guilt-ridden society of the inheritors of the Holocaust that nearly everyone, including Christian Democrats, felt the need to point at someone else to be blamed. If the Nazis were back, better not to be seen as their enabler. But were the Nazis indeed back?
Yes they were, said Bavaria’s Minister of the Interior, Reinhard Hermann (CSU). He pointed an accusing finger at the anti-immigrant, national conservative party Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). Particularly Bjorn Hocke, the leader of its radical right wing, was a “political arsonist”, he claimed, and indirectly to blame for the deaths.
That was a “useful” thing to say. Elections were due in the neighbouring state of Thuringen on 27 October, the AfD stood to surge and Hocke was the main candidate. Surely here was a chance to pin the crime on him, and curb the party’s popularity. The Christian Democratic candidate Mike Mohring (CDU) in Thuringen went on to call Hocke a Nazi.
It did not work. The AfD under Hocke more than doubled its results of 2014, with 23.4%. The CDU suffered a crushing defeat, with 21.8% – from 33.5% in 2014. Then, it had been the strongest party in Thuringen. Now, it slipped to third place after the post-Communist Die Linke and the AfD. So, either AfD-voters thought that their party had little to do with anti-Semitic terrorism, or – at least those who voted for it – they did not much care if it did.
Even some AfD politicians tried to use the crisis for political gain – in their case, by fanning the flames. Stephan Brandner, MP and chairman of the Bundestag’s justice commission, tweeted criticism of politicians “hanging around in synagogues” when in actual fact Balliet’s victims had been “Bio-German” and one had even been a fan of German folk music. He then went on to call the award of the Bundesverdienstkreuz (Federal Cross of Merit) to the popular singer Udo Lindenberg Judaslohn (Judas’ reward). Lindenberg had labelled the AfD racist and called Bjorn Hocke “Horror-Hocke”. By the looks of it, Brandner calculated that he could gain popularity with voters by posting anti-Semitic nonsense – a worrying sign.
ARE THE NAZIS BACK?
It must be said that there is something about Hocke which makes one wonder whether the spirit of Nazism is not indeed coming back to life. Something strange and cold and cruel about the way he looks and talks. He has vowed not only to stop migration but, if he ever gets to rule, to embark on “a large project of remigration” aiming to send “back” all kulturfremde (culturally alien) people in Germany to wherever they came from – or their parents or grandparents came from. How? “Mit wohltemperierter Grausamkeit”, with well-tempered cruelty. This may run counter to the moral sensibilities of those political leaders engaged in the effort and will lead to “moral tensions”, he writes in his book Nie zweimal in denselben Fluss (published 2018). It is clear he is talking about a future where he and/or his party will rule Germany. Sending “back” millions of migrants will only be possible by force, he seems to suggest, but “existence-threatening crises demand extraordinary measures”. The crisis, he argues, is the slow death of the (biologically) German people via migration.
He even seems to suggest harsh steps against parts of the ethnic German society, if they oppose the “cruel” measures that will, if the occasion arises, test the “moral sensitivities” of a hypothetical future AfD leadership called on to cleanse Germany of “culturally alien” elements. This sort of rhetoric does send shivers down one’s spine.
It is worth noting that there is a fundamental difference between the views of, say, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who opposes massive immigration from Muslim countries just like the AfD does, and the likes of Mr Hocke. Mr Orban has made it clear on many occasions that although Hungary opposes illegal migration and indeed any kind of mass immigration from “culturally incompatible” countries, that does not mean Europe should send every migrant packing. Countries like Germany, Orban argues, where a huge number of migrants already live and have been living for more than three generations, or England and France with their colonial past and their many citizens from former colonies, have no choice but to try to integrate them. He has even noted that the jury is still out as to whether the experiment of accepting so many migrants may end up being beneficial for the countries concerned. But he argues Hungary does not want to try it out. Too risky.
A similar stance – a refusal of mass immigration from Muslim countries – can thus lead to much more toxic reactions in Germany than in Central Europe. It is one thing not to want to embark on the path of mass immigration, and another thing altogether to want to turn around on that path decades after embarking on it and try to get rid of millions of people already in the country.
IS ANTI-SEMITIC VIOLENCE RIGHTWING?
But a synagogue? The murderer of Halle wanted to kill Jews – Muslims, too, but preferably Jews. How does that fit in with anything? In recent years, national conservatives in the Western world, who worry about an “Islamisation” of Europe, have come to regard Israel and thus Jews as an ally, not an enemy.
The mass killings perpetrated by Anders Breivik in Norway (2011), by Brenton Tarrant in Christchurch (March 2019) and by Patrick Crusius in El Paso, USA (August 2019) clearly inspired Balliet, but in those cases the killers explained that their motivation was to stop immigration. Tarrant killed Muslims at prayer in two mosques, and Breivik, bizarrely, killed children in a youth camp organised by the Social Democrat party because he regarded that party as being guilty of allowing migrants into the country. Crusius wanted to kill Hispanics, because he resented mass immigration from Mexico into the US.
There is no mass immigration of Jews into Germany. However, anti-Semitism, including violent acts, has been on the rise there in recent years. A large part of it has been attributed to Muslim immigration, and deservedly so. But studies have also shown that classical, “German” anti-Semitism, the very attitude that led to the Holocaust, is also on the rise. Meanwhile, rightwing violence is also increasing. Those acts of physical violence against people perceived to be alien for the most part do not target Jews – but some of them do. Is rightwing violence, then, intrinsically anti-Semitic? And does it make any sense to differentiate between acts of violence against Muslims by rightwing Germans, and acts of violence against Jews by Germans or Muslims? After all, any kind of racist violence is despicable.
172 RACIST MURDERS
The image most people have of Germany is one of peace, security and prosperity, not one of a country where people get murdered because they look or sound foreign. But two German newspapers, Die Zeit and Tagesspiegel, have documented 169 murders in Germany between 1990 and 2017 – that is, since the reunification of Western and Eastern Germany – that these papers classify as “racist” or “rightwing”.2 That does not yet include the murders of Halle. Neither does it yet include the murder of CDU politician Walter Lubcke on 2 June 2019. He was shot in the head by one Stephan Ernst, a man with a known history of violent attacks against foreigners. Lubcke was well-known for being supportive of refugees.
So if the figures are true, that means at least 172 people have been killed by racist, German extremists within the last 29 years. Statistically, this makes for a racist murder every other month.
Only 83 of these killings have been officially recognised as “rightwing” ( = politically motivated) or “racist”. In 30 cases, the documentation itself triggered a reassessment of past cases by the police, and subsequently led to a reclassification as “racist/rightwing”. In three cases, the victims were Jews.
The most famous, or rather infamous of these killings was a murder spree of a group that labelled itself “National Socialist Underground” (NSU). Between 2000 and 2007, they killed eight Turkish migrants, one Greek and one policewoman, committed 43 murder attempts and three bomb attacks. Only in 2011 did the police chance upon the group’s existence. Until then, police and media alike had never stopped to think that all these murders might have a racist background. Most surmised that these migrants had their own, murderous ways of settling their disputes, and were killing one another.
The NSU case – where the perpetrators openly embraced a Nazi identity but killed migrants rather than Jews – demonstrates that indeed, something is going on in Germany that combines some reflection of Nazi ideology, hatred against migrants and hatred against Jews.
Meanwhile, intelligence services in Germany are worried that vigilante groups, called Burgerwehren (“citizen’s defence”) may morph into something more violent. In a parliamentary answer to a request by the Linke party, the government said such vigilante groups now exist in nearly every Germany state (Bundesland) and that they pose a growing security risk.3
RIGHTWING VS. MUSLIM ANTI-SEMITISM
All of this has now deservedly, finally come to the forefront of the national discussion. One weird side effect is, however, that the equally important debate about growing Muslim anti-Semitism, and indeed about leftwing anti-Semitism in Germany has been more or less sidelined. In the atmosphere of the moment, it has become a tone-deaf thing to mention German and Muslim anti-Semitism side by side. To do that exposes one to furious attack by leftwing politicians, activists and journalists. German anti-Semitism, they argue, must be taken much more seriously.
None other than Mathias Dopfner, the CEO of Germany’s largest media group Axel Springer, got to feel the heat. In a sweeping tour d’horizon, he listed all the dysfunctional aberrations of public debate and political communication in Germany, all the things one can say but should not and those one should say but cannot, or, at any rate, does not. He committed the grave “mistake” of including official doublespeak in migration policy, the lack of identity checks, the lack of honest talk when it came to terror attacks and other transgressions by Muslim migrants and the problem of a toothless “rule of law” in general. His op-ed was published in Axel Springer’s flagship newspaper Die Welt as well as on the website of the corporation itself.4
Dopfner was immediately torn to pieces. Leftwing critics argued Die Welt had now become the mouthpiece of the AfD. He was contradicted in his own paper, amongst others by the editor of the Sunday edition Welt am Sonntag, Johannes Boie, by award-winning German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel, and on social media by a number of Die Welt’s own staff. The problem, they argued, was rightwing terrorism. To mention it together with Muslim anti-Semitism and, oh horror, indirectly blame the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel was a no-no.
Similarly, it will not do at all anymore to mention leftwing anti-Semitism in any meaningful way. Tabloid Bild (Axel Springer, again) had written that prominent politician Claudia Roth of the Greens was supporting anti-Semites when she met Iran’s Speaker of Parliament Ari Laridschani, well-known for threatening Israel with annihilation. “A Shame for the Bundestag”, titled Bild, arguing that the fight against anti-Semitism after Halle must not be restricted to attacks against rightwing groups. The paper went on to say: fortunately Roth probably would not meet neo-Nazis and then emptily aded that she had criticised their views during the encounter.5
That elicited furious attacks even by prominent Christian Democrats. CDU retired grandee Ruprecht Polenz, a moderate well-known for his open-minded stance regarding Turkey and, on another page, the Greens, came a-tweeting in Roth’s defence.
It did not help Bild’s cause that Claudia Roth subsequently received death threats, apparently from rightwing extremists. It seems something dark is indeed brewing in Germany.
As a consequence of Halle, new security measures will be introduced: permanent guards for all synagogues, stricter laws against the dissemination of violent or extremist views on the internet and social media. Already, police have said that the personnel for these new tasks must be taken from other duties – manpower is in short supply.
These measures will mainly help politicians. They can now show how much they care and how thoroughly they have reacted. But none of these new rules could have prevented what happened in Halle, the deed of a lone, disturbed man who had not much broadcast his views or intentions on the internet. And they cannot do much about what is happening to German political culture.