Analysis: It's high time Germany faced its far-right problem
People attend a vigil for the victims of a shooting in Hanau, near Frankfurt, Germany, February 20, 2020 [Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters]
In the evening hours of February 19, nine people were shot and killed in two separate shisha lounges in Hanau, a city close to Frankfurt in the state of Hesse. Several more were injured. The victims are not of ethnic German background. Following investigations that revealed the alleged perpetrator’s racist world view, authorities announced they would treat the crime as a far-right terror attack.
The attack was the latest sign of the worrying rise of far-right extremism in Germany. The political establishment’s limp response to the killings, meanwhile, once again demonstrated Germany’s inability to accept and deal with the growing threat that is facing its citizens and residents.
The suspect, Tobias R, a 43-year-old German, was found dead in his apartment, where police also discovered the body of his 72-year-old mother. According to German media reports, the suspect published videos and texts online in which he promoted conspiracy theories, misogyny, and racism. He allegedly claimed that a small, secret elite is ruling the world, praised German supremacy and called for the extermination of several population groups.
Tobias R’s actions shocked and saddened many in Germany. Citizens as well as local, state, and federal politicians publicly condemned the attack and expressed their grief and solidarity with the victims.
Hanau’s Mayor Claus Kaminsky (of the Social Democratic Party, or SPD) called it a “terrible evening” that “will certainly keep us concerned for a long time and will remain in sad memory”. Hesse’s Minister of the Interior Peter Beuth (of the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU) condemned the act as “an attack on our open society”. The federal government showed concern as Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech: “Racism is poison.”
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier also condemned the attack and expressed his deep grief. “The vast majority of people in Germany condemn this act and all forms of racism, hatred, and violence. We will not cease to stand up for peaceful coexistence in our country,” he said.
Yet, peaceful coexistence is increasingly fragile in Germany. In fact, the tragedy of Hanau is only the latest in a wave of far-right plots and attacks we witnessed in the country.
In 2011, the coincidental discovery of a terrorist network named the National Socialist Underground caused public outrage. The members of the group had committed deadly shootings across Germany and managed to avoid detection for several years.
In 2017, police apprehended a German army lieutenant for planning attacks against politicians. It was soon revealed that he had also registered as a Syrian refugee under a false name and planned to carry out attacks in order to stir more hatred against refugees.
In 2018, eight members of the neo-Nazi terrorist Freital Group, from Freital, a town near Dresden, a bastion of the far-right, were found guilty of terrorism-related crimes, including attacks on refugee shelters.
Police arrested several men in October 2018 who committed racist crimes and are now facing trial for the formation of a right-wing terrorist organisation called Revolution Chemnitz.
In June 2019, Walter Luebcke, a CDU politician from Hesse known for his support for Merkel’s refugee policy, was killed by a neo-Nazi.
In October 2019, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a right-wing hardliner live-streamed his attempted attack at a synagogue in the East German city of Halle. Following his failure to break into the synagogue, he shot a bystander and killed a man in a kebab shop.
The city of Dresden declared a “Nazi emergency” in November 2019. The city council backed a resolution outlining the rise of “anti-democratic, anti-pluralist, discriminatory and far-right positions which include violence.”
Just last week, police arrested twelve members of a far-right terror cell, who are believed to have had concrete plans for attacking mosques in 10 German states with the aim of starting a race war.
In Germany, visible and violent instances of right-wing extremism are often treated as isolated incidents. In the aftermath of attacks like the one we witnessed on Wednesday, most politicians and media personalities express their shock and surprise. But for many minorities in Germany and those perceived to have a “migration background”, the terrorist attack in Hanau did not necessarily come as a surprise.
Racism runs deep through Germany, but it rarely makes front-page news or triggers responses by politicians, unless an extremist goes on a shooting spree. Minorities experience racism in their everyday lives. They live with a constant fear of being subjected to racist violence.
The situation got significantly worse after the far-right political party AfD’s (Alternative for Germany) rise to prominence in 2017. In the 2017 federal election the AfD became the third-largest party in Germany after winning 94 seats in the Bundestag (the German Federal Parliament). As it established itself as a major political force in Germany, the anti-immigrant populist party made racist incitement and hate speech more socially acceptable. Through its openly racist and dehumanising rhetoric, it introduced far-right dynamics into the political mainstream, amplifying the voice of the dissatisfied white German and extending the limits of hate speech.
Over time, Muslims, Arabs, Turks and others of Middle Eastern and African backgrounds became targets of overt racial discrimination and abuse. Despite Germany’s persistent efforts to enlighten its society about the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews also started to experience more racist harassment and hate.
While the AfD undoubtedly played a primary role in creating the toxic environment that paved the way to Wednesday’s attack, it cannot be held responsible for the rise of far-right extremism in Germany on its own.
In response to the Hanau attack, the president of the Central Committee of Jews, Josef Schuster, blamed the authorities, claiming that the danger stemming from right-wing extremism has been “downplayed and neglected” in Germany. The police and judiciary have turned a blind eye to right-wing extremism for too long, Schuster said.
Indeed, the presence and expansion of organised far-right groupings have often been met with appeasement and denial by established politicians. Particularly in eastern parts of the country, where the far-right has constantly been strong – long before the formation of the AfD – ruling parties downplayed and sometimes outright denied the dangers stemming from the far-right. At times, they themselves have engaged in right-wing populism, in attempts to attract voters. In fact, in some parts of the country, the borders between centre-right and far-right are fluid.
Two weeks ago, in the parliament of the East German state of Thuringia, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) candidate, Thomas Kemmerich, was elected prime minister with the votes of liberals, the CDU, and the AfD, marking the first time since 1945 that a German state had a far-right-backed prime minister. The AfD supported Kemmerich in order to prevent the formation of a government by left-leaning parties. Kemmerich happily accepted the AfD’s backing.
Kemmerich’s rise to power with the support of the far-right caused outrage in Berlin. Following strong criticism, Kemmerich announced his resignation. While this open collaboration between the centre-right and the far-right was seen by many in the political elite as the breaking of a taboo, an unfortunate one-off incident, it was actually the natural result of a broader problem.
The continued success of the AfD has complicated the forming of coalitions in Germany. With the two major parties constantly losing voters, in many places traditional coalitions became unachievable, paving the way for the far-right party to become the “king-maker”.
Many politicians who expressed their shock at the senseless violence we witnessed in Hanau, failed to counter the AfD’s attempts to make racist, hateful and discriminatory point of views more acceptable. Instead of declaring the AfD’s rhetoric unacceptable, they moved their own stance further towards the right, in fear of losing votes.
In expressions of grief and solidarity, thousands of Germans held vigils in and beyond Hanau following Wednesday’s deadly attack. Politicians also continue to express their outrage. They are eager to show the world that right-wing extremism has no place in German society. There is no reason to suspect their sincerity.
But condemning shootings will do little to help those who have long been living in the country knowing that they are potential victims. Thoughts and prayers cannot save lives, but actions can. For Germany to prevent future tragedies, its leaders need to accept that right-wing extremism is part of German society and admit their failures in confronting it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.