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What the mass shooting in Germany tells us about its far-right extremism problem

There’s a growing crime problem, and a rise in violence may be on the horizon.

Police and emergency service are seen behind a police cordon near a bar in the center of Hanau, near Frankfurt, on February 20, 2020.
AFP/Getty Images

Germany just had one of its most devastating mass shootings in years — and it looks like the alleged culprit held far-right, anti-immigrant views, underscoring the growing threat of the rising far-right extremist movement in the country and beyond.

At around 10 pm local time on Wednesday in Hanau, a city roughly 16 miles east of Frankfurt, a gunman killed nine people at two shisha bars. The suspect, said to be 43 years old, then went home after the assault and killed himself and his mother. One person remains seriously injured.

The choice of targets — the Midnight shisha bar and the Arena Bar and Cafe — lend credence to the far-right motivation theory. The establishments are located in areas of the city mainly inhabited by immigrants, and shisha bars — where patrons can smoke flavored tobacco — were first popularized by Hanau’s Turkish community.

Local reports say the first victims in the attack were of Kurdish origin. Peter Beuth, the interior minister for the state of Hesse, where Hanau is, said: “Our current insights give enough ground for a xenophobic motive.”

Those insights are also based on a 24-page manifesto the alleged shooter left behind in which he espouses far-right and anti-immigrant sentiments.

Peter Neumann, a terrorism expert at King’s College in London, got a look at the document and provided analysis of it on Twitter.

“He hates foreigners and non-whites,” Neumann tweeted in a thread early Thursday morning. “Although he doesn’t emphasise Islam, he calls for the extermination of various countries in North Africa, Middle East and Central Asia (which all happen to be majority Muslim).”

“He justifies his call for killing the populations of entire countries in explicitly eugenicist terms,” Neumann added.

That tracks with what the Amadeu Antonio Stiftung, a German foundation that combats far-right extremism, found in the shooter’s manifesto. “He feels a great threat to himself and his people and believes that he is chosen to defend them by force against enemies from outside,” Robert Lüdecke, the head of public relations for the organization, told me. “He believes that he is chosen and therefore feels legitimized to carry out his violent acts.”

Vox has not independently confirmed the entire contents of the manifesto.

It’s important not to extrapolate too much from this assault. This was one person on one night doing a horrendous thing. But it’s also important to note that Germany is seeing a rise in far-right violence and crime, and a surging far-right party in the country’s politics.

It’s a growing problem that has many concerned, including the country’s current leader.

“Racism is a poison; hate is a poison,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a televised address on Thursday in response to the shooting. “This poison exists in our society, and it’s to blame for too many tragic events.”

There’s an overall rise in far-right crime in Germany, but not violence — yet

There is no question that far-right extremists are becoming a problem in Germany.

Neo-Nazis and other groups committed 8,605 crimes nationwide in the first half of 2019, according to Germany’s interior ministry, which is 900 more offenses than during the same period in 2018.

About 180 people have been injured during these crimes, and many culprits remain at large: Just 23 people out of 2,625 suspects have been arrested. Importantly, only a small number of these offenses have been violent.

The problem, though, is that it looks like those numbers may soon tick upward.

“There are not necessarily more incidents overall, but the severity has increased,” Neumann told me in an interview, adding that German officials “generally judge that more people that are considered far right contemplate violence.”

“The figures,” he made sure to note, “don’t fully reflect this — yet.” Sadly, they soon might.

According to a report released by German authorities last year, local police took away 1,091 weapons from right-wing extremists in 2018. In 2017, police only grabbed 676 — which means there was a 61 percent increase in weapons seizures from far-right groups.

It seems some of those organizations want to commit major acts of violence. Earlier this month, 12 men were detained for plotting an attack similar to the one in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year in which a shooter filmed himself killing Muslims in their mosque. Authorities believe the 12 men were planning to carry out simultaneous attacks on Muslims during prayers all throughout the country.

Officials have started to crack down harder on these extremists. In December, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said the government would create 600 new intelligence positions for identifying, tracking, and rooting out violent right-wing networks.

Many saw that announcement as a response to two major attacks in Germany last year: the killing of politician Walter Lübcke by a far-right extremist in June, and the shooting at a synagogue on Yom Kippur that left two dead.

None of this has stopped the growth in popularity of Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), a far-right political party that is gaining in both local and federal elections. They have ridden the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment since Germany let in over 1 million people in 2015, many of them refugees fleeing the war in Syria.

The party’s strength is one of the reasons Merkel chose to no longer lead her own center-right party since she couldn’t find a way to curb AfD’s rise.

The far-right in Germany, then, is not only a threat to the physical safety of minority groups in the country, but also the nation’s entire political system.

But at least there are some in power looking to face this problem head on.

“We in Germany are confronted with virulent right-wing radicals that have and still are trivialized by parts of the state authorities and underestimated by some politicians,” Franziska Brantner, a Green Party member of Germany’s parliament, told me. “We need to fight racism and the language of hate in our society and demand the authorities to pursue and condemn right-wing terror unconditionally.”