Germany Admits to Far-Right Problem 02/22 09:54
BERLIN (AP) -- As Germany's president expressed his sympathy and shock
during a candlelight vigil for nine people killed by an immigrant-hating
gunman, a woman called out from the crowd, demanding action, not words.
But the country's leaders are struggling to figure out how to counter a
recent rise in right-wing hate, 75 years after the Nazis were driven from power.
The shooting rampage Wednesday that began at a hookah bar in the Frankfurt
suburb of Hanau was Germany's third deadly far-right attack in a matter of
months and came at a time when the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has become
the country's first political party in decades to establish itself as a
significant force on the extreme right.
In the wake of the latest spasm of violence, Chancellor Angela Merkel
denounced the "poison" of racism and hatred in Germany, and other politicians
similarly condemned the shootings.
The rampage followed October's anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Halle
and the slaying in June of a regional politician who supported Merkel's
welcoming policy toward migrants. But Germany's top security official, Interior
Minister Horst Seehofer, said the trend goes back further, noting a 2016 attack
on a Munich mall against migrants and a years-long cross-country killing spree
against foreigners by a group calling itself the National Socialist Underground.
"Since the NSU and the rampage in Munich through today, an extreme-right
trail of blood has run through our country," he said.
Extremism is no new phenomenon in modern-day Germany, where the Red Army
Faction and other radical-left groups waged a campaign of kidnappings and
killings from the 1970s through the '90s, and where some of the key Sept. 11
plotters lived and schemed before heading to the U.S. to attend flight school
ahead of the 2001 attacks.
Germany has strict laws prohibiting any glorification of the Nazis, with
bans on symbols like the swastika and gestures like the stiff-armed salute, and
denial of the Holocaust is illegal.
But security officials have frequently been accused of being "blind in the
right eye," for intentionally or inadvertently overlooking some far-right
That was said to be the case with the NSU, which was able to kill 10 people,
primarily immigrants, between 2000 and 2007 in attacks written off by
investigators as organized crime. It was only after two NSU members died in
2011 in a botched robbery that the group's activities were uncovered.
Mehmet Gurcan Daimaguler, an attorney who represented victims' families at
the trial of an NSU member, said German authorities need to give more than "lip
service" to fighting racism.
"We haven't really begun yet a real fight against neo-Nazis, and one of the
reasons, for me, clearly is the victims," he said. "The victims of Nazis are
not members of the German middle class, but Muslims, migrants, LGBT people,
immigrants. As long as the victim pool, so to say, was limited to minorities,
it was not considered a real threat for society."
Seehofer said that has changed, noting increased resources are being devoted
to fighting far-right crime, including the addition of hundreds of new federal
investigators and domestic intelligence agents. In addition, stricter laws have
been passed, and the Cabinet approved a bill just this week, before the Hanau
attacks, to crack down on hate speech and online extremism.
Under the bill, which is awaiting passage in parliament, internet companies
would have to report a wide range of hate speech to police, and retweeting such
material to a wide audience, or explicitly condoning it publicly, could be
subject to prosecution.
"We are not blind in any eye," Seehofer said.
Still, with national elections coming next year, politicians are grappling
with strategies to confront AfD and blunt its appeal to disgruntled voters.
The AfD does not espouse violence, but many are accusing the party of
producing a climate where right-wing extremism can flourish. The 7-year-old
party now has members in all 16 state parliaments and is the largest opposition
party nationally, though with less than 13 percent of the vote in the last
"One cannot see this crime in isolation," said Norbert Roettgen, one of
several members of Merkel's party hoping to succeed her as chancellor when her
term ends next year. "We need to fight the poison that is being dragged into
our society by the AfD and others."
Alexander Gauland, an AfD leader, accused Roettgen and others of trying to
exploit the Hanau violence for political advantage. "Everything that we know is
that it was a totally crazy person," Gauland said.
The gunman, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, posted rambling writings and videos
online ahead of the attacks, advocating genocide and espousing theories about
Gauland, who once got in trouble for downplaying the Nazi era as a speck of
"bird poop" in German history, said Rathjen had probably never heard any of his
speeches, and he rejected any connection between the bloodshed and his party's
anti-migrant platform, as did several other AfD leaders.
But Seehofer said the power of words cannot be discounted.
"I can't deny that a statement that Nazism is a speck of bird poop in
history provides this fertile soil," Seehofer said. "There are also many other
remarks that, in my view, mess up heads, and something bad comes from messed-up
heads far too often."
Holger Muench, head of the BKA, Germany's equivalent to the FBI, said the
threat from mentally disturbed people has grown in recent years, as they latch
on to ideas often found online and turn violent.
"The fact that there are mentally ill people in society, that is unchanged
for the most part," he said. "But the fact that there are mentally ill people
with a world view that makes them a risk to serious acts of violence, that is
No evidence has emerged to link Rathjen to the AfD. But people in Hanau were
quick to suggest at least an indirect connection.
Dieter Hog watched as the police descended upon Rathjen's house after the
shootings and said he didn't know his neighbor or what might have motivated
him. "But it might be the seed of Mr. Hoecke," he said, referring to Bjoern
Hoecke, an AfD leader who called Berlin's memorial to the victims of the Nazi
Holocaust a "monument of shame."
And Hatice Nazerzadeh, the woman who yelled at German President Frank-Walter
Steinmeier during the candlelight vigil, said that with the party's ascent,
attacks are becoming common. Parts of AfD are already under close scrutiny by
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, but she said more should be done.
"The core problem is the AfD," said Nazerzadeh, whose cousin was shot in the
head by Rathjen and killed. "As long as the AfD is legal, racism is legal."