Ghosts from the Past: Neo-Nazi Terrorism Resurfaces in Germany
Lorenzo Monfregola 2 September 2019

In the night between the 1st and 2nd of June this year, German CDU politician Walter Lübcke was murdered in front of his house, shot in the head at short range. Lübcke had been the president of the prefecture of the city of Kassel. Two weeks later, police tactical units (SEK) arrested Stephan Ernst, a 45-year-old man linked to the neo-Nazi scene, under suspicion of the murder. On the 25th of June, Ernst confessed to the killing of Lübcke, saying he acted alone.

But what motive would Ernst have for killing Lübcke? Arguably, because the CDU politician was an active advocate of Angela Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik for immigrants. For more than three years, Lübcke had been under attack by far-right anti-immigration campaigns. The CDU politician initially became a target due mainly to a short fragment of a speech he gave on the 14th of October 2015 in Lohfelden, a small town near Kassel, where the local administration was planning to set up a camp for refugees. In discussion with local citizens, Lübcke said: “It’s worthwhile living in our country. One has to advocate for certain values, and those who don’t support these values or disagree can leave at any time. That’s the freedom of every German.”

A video recording of Lübcke making this assertion, along with the complaints of some citizens listening, went viral on YouTube and other social media platforms via far-right groups and channels. Since then, Lübcke’s phrase has often been cited in accusations that German politicians do not care about the citizenry and have a plan for the “great replacement” of autochthonous Germans with newcomers.

On the 2nd of July, Stephan Ernst surprised prosecutors when he retracted his confession to having killed Lübcke. It remains uncertain if this reversal will impact the investigations, seeing as a few days before Ernst’s reversal, police found the gun used in the murder, buried exactly where Ernst had previously confessed to hiding it, along with other weapons.

 Language and violence

 The assassination of Walter Lübcke has had two separate but interconnected consequences for the German public debate. First has been the tense discussion on how increasingly aggressive political communication nurtures extremist violence. The second concerns the resurfacing of neo-Nazi groups and networks in Germany.

On the first matter, one of the most significant statements came from German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier: “Where the language gets ugly, crime isn’t far away”. This statement could open a much more complex debate on what limits can rightly be placed on free speech. In this sense, President Steinmeier’s declaration seems to be inspired by the very German concept of streitbare Demokratie (“militant democracy”) which gives extensive powers to the institutions designated to protect German liberal democratic order at any cost.

As media reported after his initial confession, Stephan Ernst himself told the police that he saw Lübcke’s speech live in Lohfelden and that he then actively participated in the online hate campaigns against the Christian-Democratic politician.

Since 1989, Ernst has been arrested various times, including for extremist and racially motivated crimes. Regional intelligence and federal police had him classified as “dangerous” and as an “extreme-right” subject until 2009, after which point he was evidently no longer deemed a public risk. This was a clear misjudgement. It seems that Ernst never actually ceased contact with various neo-Nazi groups and networks. More significant still, in recent years Ernst may have become more active as an extreme-right militant online, not only by participating in the campaigns against Lübcke but also by allegedly posting various hate material (under a pseudonym). This combination of street and online extremism could be more than emblematic of how extreme-right violence is increasingly strengthened by online militancy.

 Of course, not everyone who has criticized Lübcke’s statements (whether stridently or in rational terms) should now be held accountable for his killing. But it seems clear that the first German politician felled by a neo-Nazi act of terror since 1945 was assassinated, at least in part, because of an online hate campaign that targeted him. The act of terror was likely committed by someone who felt that the crime would not be thoroughly condemned, or might even be supported by a particular sector of society. This dynamic, in fact, is also well known when it comes to Jihadi Islamist terrorism, which seeks degrees of approval in the Islamic political arena, especially targeting the extremist gray zones of internet activity.

On a political level, the German parties have accused the identitarian Alternative for Germany (AfD) party as being responsible for having legitimized attacks against adversaries, especially on the topic of immigration. The AfD, however, rejects the accusation of having legitimized violence, saying that Lübcke’s murder is now being used in a witch hunt against their party. The scenario has become even more delicate after the recent election results in the German states of Sachsen and Brandeburg, in which the far-right performed incredibly well. For months, some right-wing sectors of the CDU have wondered if it makes sense to open themselves to some kind of local collaboration with the AfD. On the topic, though, Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer, the CDU President who aspires to succeed Merkel as the next Chancellor, already stated that in light of the murder of Walter Lübcke, nobody in the CDU should “ever entertain the idea that, as Christian Democrats, it is possible to work with a party like the AfD.”

A history of violence

While debates ensue in German politics about the legitimization of extremism under the identitarian–populist narrative, it is essential to remember that the resurfacing of neo-Nazi terrorism is structured on a history of right-wing violence that extends back decades. Neo-Nazi and extreme-right terror has been expressed in Germany in many forms, from the attempted murder of student movement leader Rudi Dutschke in 1968 to the killing of rabbi Shlomo Lewin and his partner Frida Poeschke in 1980. The bomb attack at the 1980 Oktoberfest in Munich (which caused 12 deaths and left 213 wounded) and the terror actions of the so-called NSU — the Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund — are also cases in point. These examples make up just a part of a long series of violent acts — killings, arson attacks on immigrants’ houses, strikes against refugee camps, beatings, stabbings and other acts of violence — that the far-right has perpetrated.

In June 2018, the German Ministry of the Interior estimated that there have been 76 “politically motivated” criminal acts by neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists since 1990, costing the lives of 83 people. But this figure may only be partial, and not only because it does not include the 45 years before German reunification. Various associations and independent researchers that monitor the extreme-right have compiled lists that indicate the number of victims of extreme-right violence and terrorism since 1990 might be as much as twice the official figure. The huge discrepancy in the victim count largely depends on the categorization of each case as a murder predominantly motivated by far-right violence or not. Of course, one problem here is the overlap of common criminality and violence with the racist and extreme-right culture in general. However, one thing is clear: Germany has a past and a present of extreme-right violence and neo-Nazi terrorism.

What prosecutors, police, researchers and activists are trying to understand now is if and how there could be a connection between the killing of Walter Lübcke and different neo-Nazi groups and networks, including any link to the former NSU. The NSU, indeed, is the ghost that appears in the background every time Germany has to deal with neo-Nazi terrorism or extreme-right violence. The legal process against the NSU identified the core trio of the group, made up of two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, and one woman, Beate Zschäpe. Zschäpe, together with four accomplices, faced trial, while Mundlos and Böhnhardt killed themselves when cornered by police after a bank robbery in 2011 (the episode that finally led to the discovery of the group).

What remains incredible about the NSU — which operated using the typical neo-Nazi formula of a small autonomous cell, but is supposed to have had up to 100 or more supporters and helpers — is how it could act for years without authorities ever realizing something was going on. Starting with a self-financing robbery in 1998, the group was responsible for 15 thefts, 3 bomb attacks and, most notably, the racist murders of 9 small business owners with immigration backgrounds as well as the murder of a young German police officer. For years, the police were not able to put the pieces together, insisting instead on interrogating the communities and private circles of the victims, believing that the killings were related to the Turkish mafia, to drug businesses or family faidas.

On top of this, when the truth about the NSU finally came out, a controversy exploded around the role of Germany’s domestic intelligence in the entire history of the case. Various reports and investigations found that the environment in which the NSU trio operated had been filled with confidential intelligence informants but that somehow national and regional authorities were never able to identify the NSU as a terror group. Following the revelation that many errors had been made in the NSU case, the chief of the BfV-Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution) resigned in 2012. Questions on the reconstruction of NSU terror activity continue to arise.

It is fair to say that the NSU was not only the most bloodthirsty neo-Nazi cell in German post-war history but also remains the symbol of what happens when Germany underestimates extreme-right violence.

A delicate (geo)political scenario

Last May, the German Ministry of the Interior published an estimate of 24,000 far-right extremists in the country, with 12,700 of them believed to be ready to commit violence. After the assassination of Walter Lübcke, the BKA (the Federal Criminal Police) announced their intention to intensify the suppression of neo-Nazi activities, centralizing activity at the federal level, which will include investigating hate postings on the internet. In the meantime, politicians, as well as members of the media, have asked the authorities to take action against the various extreme-right groups and networks being discovered within the structures of the German police and military.

Looking at the big picture, this re-emergence of neo-Nazi terror and extreme-right violence is taking place in a country filled with uncertainty about its political future. The centrist balance of the long Merkel era is fading, and there likely will not be a new wave of Merkelism after she leaves office, as mediating and conciliating different political agendas that may be more and more opposed and conflictual will pose a tremendous challenge for her successor. The first post-Merkel government, for example, will face the challenge of managing the now consolidated polarization on topics like immigration, identity and multiculturalism. These themes have caused political friction to become embedded at the heart of the institutions of the so-called Berliner Republik.

On a geopolitical level, extreme-right ghosts are haunting German democracy just as the country faces the definitive end of the post-war Atlantic order, with the US drastically changing its relationship to Europe. German liberal-democracy has been based on that order, including the entire process of reunification itself. Indeed, no country in Europe may be more affected by the current geopolitical shifts than Germany — another reason why confronting German neo-Nazi terrorism and extreme-right violence might be more complicated than ever.


Photo: John Macdougall / AFP

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