The recent politically motivated assassination of a prominent local leader in Germany has raised concern about the growing threat of far-right extremism in the country. As investigators search for possible accomplices, politicians are struggling to find answers to the escalating violence. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Looking back, it was almost as if the group of high-ranking officials tasked with protecting Germany had had some dark premonition about what would soon transpire.
As the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states convened in a hotel in the northern city of Kiel, the first item on the agenda was a “security report.” Sinan Selen, the vice president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which is responsible for monitoring all forms of extremism, began enumerating the gravest threats to the country.
Then Selen did something unusual, at least for a meeting of German security officials — he didn’t talk about Islamism. Instead, according to people who were at the meeting, he spoke extensively about the danger posed by far-right extremists and so-called Reichsbürger, a fringe group that rejects modern Germany and instead adheres to the old German Reich.
This represented “one of the biggest challenges” for Germany’s security apparatus, Selen said. Less than 48 hours later, it would become abundantly clear just how serious the right-wing extremist threat had become.
The Nazi Next Door
On Saturday, June 15, at 2 a.m., a German SWAT team in Kassel arrested a man they suspected of shooting the district president, Walter Lübcke, in the head. A piece of dandruff found on the plaid shirt Lübcke had been wearing at the time of his death lead investigators to the 45-year-old suspect, who has been identified as Stephan Ernst. There was other evidence as well. Ernst has since confessed to the murder, saying he planned and carried out the attack alone and that he was motivated by comments Lübcke made in October 2015 in support of refugees in Germany.
For now, authorities are still investigating whether Erns told anyone about his plans or had accomplices. They say it’s possible someone accompanied Ernst on the night of the murder. The role a second person could have played is unclear; it’s possible that all they did was drive the getaway car, for instance. Investigators in the case did score another success this week, with the arrest of two more people based on information provided by Ernst, including the presumed gun dealer from North Rhine-Westphalia and the suspected middleman who connected Ernst and the dealer. The men are under investigation as possible accomplices to murder. Information from Ernst has also led investigators to a cache of weapons.
To his neighbors, Stephan Ernst seemed like an upstanding citizen with a wife, children and a small house with a pointed gable. They had no idea that Ernst had spent 20 years in the neo-Nazi scene, that he had once tried to plant a pipe bomb at a hostel for asylum-seekers or that he had beaten a migrant bloody in prison.
Ernst’s last job was at a manufacturer for railway technology as a shift worker. He was reserved and apparently got along best with an Iranian colleague.
Stephan Ernst’s other life, which he lived online, was vastly different. There, he consumed far-right extremist propaganda, according to investigators. In some forums, he is purported to have issued explicit threats.
A Turning Point
On the first weekend in June, those verbal threats manifested in physical violence. But instead of traveling to Berlin, where the politicians responsible for Germany’s open-door policy toward refugees reside, Ernst decided to fire the deadly shot in his immediate vicinity, in the small town of Wolfhagen-Istha, the home of Walter Lübcke, the 65-year-old member of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and a staunch defender of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. At least that’s how investigators see it.
In the fall of 2015, as hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers were descending on Germany and seeking emergency shelter all over the country, Lübcke told off a group of right-wing agitators at a town hall. He quickly became a target of online hate. Words like “Volksverräter” — literally: traitor of the people — began appearing in comment sections, as did more explicit threats: “Smash in his skull and kick him into the next cesspool.”
Walter Lübcke’s murder marks a turning point. If the suspicions of Germany’s federal public prosecutor are correct, then the crime was a uniquely political attack.
The history of modern Germany has been peppered with instances of right-wing terrorism. There were attacks against U.S. soldiers, whom neo-Nazis saw as “occupiers.” There was the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980, which left 13 people dead. And of course, there were the murders of immigrants and a policewoman carried out by the National Socialist Underground (NSU) between 2000 and 2007. But to this day, as far as anyone knows, no right-wing extremist has ever carried out a deadly attack against a politician.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer spoke of an “attack against us all, against this liberal country.” He added: “This is a new quality (of crime).”
The Threat From the Right
“Terrorism reflects, in an extreme way, the societal mood and any imbalances,” says Florian Hartleb, a German expert on extremism. According to that logic, the problems in Germany run deeper than most people expected. What has been described in recent years as increasing disinhibition and brutalization has reached a new level. As a result, the state must reconsider where its enemies lie.
In fact, it has long been apparent that far-right violence is escalating. In the fall of 2015, the mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, only narrowly survived a knife attack. Further violence followed.
The agitation online, threatening messages, hate expressed at campaign events, hostilities against refugee accommodations, politicians and civil servants, from the chancellor all the way down — all this makes up one side of this trend.
The other side can be seen in places like the German state of Hesse, where the murder of Walter Lübcke took place. There, several police officers have been under investigation for some time now on suspicions that they sent a lawyer with Turkish roots a threatening letter signed “NSU 2.0.” In the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, members of an elite police special task force have been arrested on charges of providing police munition to a doomsday prepper. And Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, is dealing with its own string of right-wing extremist incidents.
The fact that public servants, of all people, are suspected of working secretly against the state is especially worrying.
Local politicians who support liberal refugee policies can reasonably expect to become targets, not just online but in real life. State parliamentary offices have even established security checks. Police recommend that local politicians check their tires before getting into their cars to make sure no one has loosened the lug nuts.
A Cold-Blooded Execution
The murder of the district president of Kassel happened in the middle of the night on June 2, in the town of Wolfhagen-Istha. The streets were filled with loud music from the nearby Weizenkirmes festival, a days-long affair of beer-fueled carousing.
That evening, 65-year-old Walter Lübcke was sitting on his terrace at the edge of town. The festival was in audible range. Lübcke’s property abutted a field and there was nothing obstructing the view from his terrace. The district president and his wife were watching their grandchild that evening while the child’s father attended the festival. At one point, Lübcke’s wife went inside, bringing the grandchild with her. Lübcke remained outside with a guest. The two could be heard laughing. The visitor left between 10:30 and 11 p.m.
The police have yet to exactly reconstruct what happened afterward. Lübcke stayed outside for a while, smoking. At some point, the perpetrator showed up. Investigators say it’s possible that Lübcke spoke with Ernst before being killed.
At 12:30 a.m., Lübcke’s son, who had just returned from the festival, found his father bleeding from a head wound on the terrace. He called a paramedic friend of his who had also been at the festival. Other paramedics would also arrive. Their attempts at reanimation failed and at 2:35 a.m., Lübcke died at a hospital in Wolfshagen.
It wasn’t until they got to the hospital that doctors recognized the laceration on Lübcke’s head as a gunshot wound. The autopsy revealed that Lübcke had died at the hand of a 9 mm pistol fired at close range. It was an execution.
At first, investigators believed they had found evidence that the murder may have been for personal reasons. One of the paramedics was even briefly arrested. It turned out to be a cold lead. It wasn’t until many days later, when crime scene investigators analyzed some DNA they had found on Lübcke’s shirt, that the trail led to Stephan Ernst.
The police also came across Stephan Ernst’s name multiple times in their records. Authorities had taken his fingerprints seven times over the years. Once, they even took a sample of his DNA. The earliest record of Ernst’s name dates back to 1989, when he was arrested in Wiesbaden, where he was born. The crime: aggravated theft. Ernst was only 15 at the time.
One Very Active Neo-Nazi
Over the years, as Ernst had more encounters with the law, his police record grew: “threatened with a knife and then used a knife as well as irritant gas,” “extremely violence-prone,” “armed,” “a politically motivated criminal.” Police also noted: 1.85 meters (6’1″) tall, brown hair, blue eyes, nasal voice, multiple scars.
Stephan Ernst has been a far-right extremist for decades. He has committed violent crimes time and again. He has been convicted and has spent time in prison.
In November 1992, when Ernst had just turned 19, he nearly killed an immigrant in a train station bathroom in Wiesbaden. Ernst would later say the man had made a sexual pass at him, so he stabbed him, first in the back and then in the front.
More than a year later, a day before Christmas Eve 1993, Ernst wanted to carry out an attack on a refugee hostel in the Hessian town of Hohenstein-Steckenroth. That period was the high-water mark for right-wing extremist violence after the Berlin Wall came down. A few months prior, neo-Nazis in the German town of Solingen conducted an arson attack on the home of a Turkish family, killing five and making headlines around the world.
Ernst made a pipe bomb and placed it in a car parked between two containers, which were serving as refugees’ dormitories. Instead of exploding, the pipe bomb merely caught fire. Residents were able to extinguish it.
While still in pretrial detention, Ernst committed his next act of violence. Again, it was directed at an immigrant. He assaulted another prisoner with a metal chair leg, beating him in the head until he began to bleed. He was sentenced to six years of juvenile detention.
After his release from prison, Ernst joined a neo-Nazi group in Kassel. Experts say it was one of the most dangerous such groups in the entire state.
In Ernst’s orbit were men in contact with Combat 18, a group of militant neo-Nazis that also goes by the name Kampftruppe Adolf Hitler. Many of these people’s names came up repeatedly over the course of parliamentary inquiries into the NSU. To this day, many of them live openly as far-right extremists.
A Party Man
It’s Wednesday, and Mike S. is wearing an undershirt and jogging pants on the balcony of a yellow apartment building. He and Stephan Ernst have gone to a lot of protests together over the years. Violence was often involved.
Now S. leans against the railing and peers into the courtyard. He turns the music up. He’s listening to the Fehrbelliner Reitermarsch, an old German cavalry song. “We want our good old Kaiser Wilhelm back,” he says. What does he have to say about his former friend Stephan Ernst allegedly murdering a Christian Democratic politician? “I think it’s bad that a family man, a father, has been locked up. They don’t have any proof,” he says.
In Kassel, right-wing extremists used to meet at the Stadt Stockholm bar, or “Stocki” for short. A former informant told SPIEGEL TV that Ernst could often be spotted there. “If the guys from the NPD were there, so was he,” the man said, using an acronym for the National Democratic Party of Germany, a neo-Nazi political party.
Anyone who enters the bar is immediately confronted with a distinct olfactory sensation: cigarette smoke, beer, sweat. Middle-aged men sit at the u-shaped counter, nursing their drinks. The jukebox plays schlager music. The bartender immediately recognizes Stephan Ernst in a photo. “Of course, he was always here with the whole troop,” she says. She’s glad they’re no longer around.
Once there was a demonstration against neo-Nazis in front of the bar. A photo from that day shows Stephan Ernst reaching for a chair. On his shirt was an NPD sticker.
Stephan Ernst was a member of the far-right party for a while until getting kicked out, ostensibly for not paying his dues.
Lying in Wait
Ernst was also active regionally. In April 2003, when he was 29, he apparently took part in a neo-Nazi march in the northern German town of Neumünster, where demonstrators were protesting an exhibition about war crimes committed by the German army during World War II. Violence ensued. Ernst belonged to a group of around 500 neo-Nazis who had traveled from across Germany, Denmark and Sweden to attend. A district court sentenced him to a fine of 90 days’ pay for violating Germany’s public assembly law: Ernst had brought a weapon to the protest.
On May 1, 2009, 400 “autonomous nationalists” rushed a peaceful assembly of the German Trade Union Confederation in Dortmund. They threw rocks, bottles and fireworks. A court would later convict the attackers, who included Stephan Ernst, of “breaching the peace.” After that conviction, Ernst went quiet. This could have something to do with the fact that his first child was born around this time. The authorities, in any case, lost track of him. But can a person really just shed their hatred and convictions like that?
Ernst lived with his wife and child in a small house on the eastern edge of Kassel. The neighborhood is close to a highway, and on the rare occasion that one doesn’t hear cars speeding by, there is always a lawn mower or some other man-made sound to cut the silence.
If his neighbors at the time are to be believed, Ernst managed to keep a low profile during this time. He worked on his house a lot, sometimes he tinkered with cars. He always greeted everyone and left for work at different times. He belonged to a local marksmen’s club, which was apparently only for bow hunters. Members weren’t supposed to have access to firearms.
Today, investigators suspect that Stephan Ernst never abandoned his radical views despite adopting a more civilized lifestyle. He could have been a far-right sleeper, as Thomas Haldenwang, the head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) speculated last week. Ernst could have been ready to commit violence at a moment’s notice.
In 2016, Ernst wired 150 euros ($170) from his bank account to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, with the note: “God bless you.” The party declined to comment on the transfer, citing data protection rules.
Ernst also spent time in right-wing extremist forums. It’s also believed that he posted an explicit threat: If the government doesn’t step down, people will die.
At some point, Ernst concluded that Lübcke needed to die. Perhaps Ernst viewed Lübcke as a stand-in for all politicians responsible for what he saw as the misery that had taken over Germany. But why the district president of Kassel, of all people?
Walter Lübcke was no agitator, no ideologue. He wasn’t the kind of politician one would expect to become a target of right-wing terrorists. “He was a conservative, Christian patriot,” says Michael Brand, a CDU lawmaker in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, from the Hessian city of Fulda who described Lübcke as not only a party colleague but a friend. “If someone had told me that Walter would become the victim of far-right violence, I wouldn’t have considered it possible.” Just a few weeks ago, he said, they had met with tradespeople from the region, the kind of event Lübcke liked. “Even though he had an administrative job as district president, he didn’t spend a lot of time behind his desk,” Brand says. “He needed to go out to the people, to the base.”
The politician was down to earth in the truest sense. He spent eight years as a regular soldier in the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, and was the father of two grown sons. He held a doctorate in economics and business and had a side job as a farmer in his home region in nothern Hesse. “For my 30th birthday, he gave me a piglet,” says Lothar Koch, a now retired photographer from the northern Hessian local newspaper HNA who knew Lübcke from his time in the Bundeswehr.
In 2009, Lübcke failed to get elected into the Landtag, the state parliament, and was given the job of district president in Kassel as a kind of compensation. The job involved managing a government authority and came with little political elbow room. Even though he mostly just implemented instructions and laws from the state capital, Wiesbaden, Lübcke was held responsible for their consequences by many citizens: for the construction of windmills in the forest, for the introduction of potash into the Werra River, or for the construction of new refugee shelters.
Soon after he took on the position, the first threatening letters and insults began arriving in the regional council’s office — from opponents of wind power, from self-described Reichsbürger who didn’t want to pay fines, but mostly from opponents of the German government’s refugee policy. Time and again, Lübcke had to be placed under police protection.
He didn’t let it affect him much. His name and the address of his house on the edge of Wolfhagen-Istha were listed in the phone book, and his property was enclosed only by a thin pasture fence. His driveway was open. Lübcke wanted to be close to the people, and that ultimately led to his downfall.
The Fateful Town Hall Meeting
It was possibly a single incident that set in motion the events that ended his community-oriented life — just two small sentences, uttered in the heated atmosphere of a town hall meeting in Lohfelden, a town near Kassel, on Oct. 14, 2015.
At the time, Lübcke’s district had to find space for 14,000 refugees who had been allocated to northern and eastern Hesse by the state government in Wiesbaden. The district president traveled to the places where the housing was to be built, and made himself available to answer questions from citizens. These often centered around organizational issues. Some centered on concerns. Usually the atmosphere was tense but sober.
But in the Lohfelden community center, where 800 people had shown up, things got turbulent. Shortly before the event began, Kassel photographer Kurt Heldmann recalls, around 15 members of northern Hesse’s far-right scene arrived. These included the organizer of the local offshoot of the Islamaphobic group PEGIDA, who sat in the front row.
According to Heldmann, these 15 people repeatedly yelled provocative statements: “get lost,” “shit country,” “shit government,” and so forth. In Heldmann’s recollection, Lübcke remained calm at first, but later became increasingly irritated.
In a video recorded that evening, one can see Lübcke, the Protestant Christian Democrat, praising the church. He spoke of values and said it was worth living in Germany. He stood alone behind a podium, next to a wall for projections, in front of a laptop and the right-wing disruptors. He said that one needs to stand up for values, and then: “And anyone who doesn’t represent these values, he can leave this country at any time if he doesn’t agree.” He said that that was a freedom afforded to every German. The room got loud. Some people booed, while others shouted “ew!” and “get lost!”
These sentences became a kind of verbal online iconography. Stripped of context, packaged as a short video sequence, they spread rapidly and were viewed millions of times, primarily by people on the far-right. Seventeen words, or four seconds, was all it took to seal Lübcke’s fate.
Soon, there were insults and blatant calls for him to be killed in the comments below the video. “Just hang from the nearest lamppost, with a sign around his neck: Here hangs a traitor to the German people. The next one will think twice.”
A Plausible Motive
The AfD also shared Lübcke’s statement. Their Facebook post featuring his statement became one of the party’s more successful posts on social media. The district president’s private address soon appeared in the comments of PI News, a racist blog. In February, Erika Steinbach, a prominent former CDU lawmaker in the federal parliament and current chairwoman of the AfD-affiliated Desiderius Erasmus Foundation, set off a new wave of anger with Lübcke’s three-and-a-half-year-old statements.
These eruptions of anger also reached Stephan Ernst. It’s possible he saw them in the YouTube video, maybe even live at the town hall meeting. Investigators believe that could have been the case and are currently looking into it. The meeting was about plans to house 800 refugees a kilometer from his home, and the community center was only about 2 kilometers from Ernst’s home.
Could this be the motive for his act? Was it resentment over the refugee shelter in the neighborhood, combined with the things Lübcke said?
It sounds plausible, but it doesn’t explain why the alleged perpetrator waited more than three and a half years before he attacked.
Investigators know that Ernst not only “took very close notice” of Lübcke’s town hall appearance in Lohfelden, but also “commented and evaluated” it with like-minded people. He supposedly got “terribly” worked up in a chat about Lübcke and described him as a “traitor to the German people.”
‘First Come the Slogans, Then the Knives’
Local politicians in rural areas have been particularly frequent targets of hostility since the refugee crisis — mayors or district heads who, like Lübcke, spoke out in support of the refugees or put right-wing brawlers in their place.
A far-right extremist rammed a knife into the neck of 62-year-old Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker during her election campaign in October 2015. She only barely survived. The perpetrator, an unemployed housepainter who had been part of the far-right extremist scene in Bonn in the 1990s, had selected an extra-large hunting knife for the attack because he wanted, as he put it, to send a “signal” against the liberal refugee policy. When the votes were counted, Reker was still in a coma. The attacker almost completely severed her windpipe and nearly split a thoracic vertebrae.
Last Wednesday, Reker received another death threat. The text of the confusingly articulated message referred to the murdered Walter Lübcke and rambled about a “phase of upcoming purges” that had been launched with the district president’s murder. It said “many others” would follow, including Reker and Andreas Hollstein, the mayor of the western German town of Altena. The letter also mentioned a bounty of 100 million bitcoins. It was signed “Sieg Heil.” The Public Prosecutor’s Office didn’t want to comment on an evaluation of the text.
Reker said on the phone that wasn’t the first threat she has received since the attack, so she was “not alarmed.” She said she doesn’t read the threatening letters or the hate-filled online posts targeting her. She described Lübcke’s murder as a “horrific violent act,” a “new kind of attack.” Apparently, she said, there is more to right-wing violence “than we thought possible.”
She said what disturbed her is “that something has changed in our society that is making it more brutal, and that people are willing to cross lines.” On the day of her inauguration as mayor, she said, the novelist Herta Müller told her that first come the hateful slogans, then the knives. “That sums it up pretty well,” said Reker.
‘If I Was Afraid, I Couldn’t Do My Job’
Andreas Hollstein, 56, the mayor of Altena, brought more refugees into his town than was required. In May 2017, he received the national integration prize from Chancellor Angela Merkel. Half a year later, a man put a knife to his neck in a fast-food restaurant, and threatened him: “I will stab you. You let me go thirsty but bring 200 foreigners into this city.” Hollstein managed to escape with only a cut. The owner of the restaurant and his son helped him wrestle the man to the ground.
On the phone, Hollstein said Lübcke’s killing had resurfaced memories of the attack. He said he was thinking about the family of the murdered district president, “because I know what an act like this can do to a family, even if one was only injured like I was.” Hollstein has also received new threats, which he said can all be ascribed to the “far-right fringe.”
Has his fear returned? “If I was afraid,” the CDU lawmaker says, “I would no longer be able to do my job.” He says that’s why he has eschewed the assignment of a police security detail to him. “I need to be able to encounter my citizens without hindrance.” Besides, he adds, even the police can’t protect tens of thousands of elected municipal officials.
Nevertheless, Lübcke’s murder will affect the danger assessments of so-called “persons in need of protection.” Depending on the situation, the measures will be strengthened. “These kinds of acts can also spur copycats,” says one high-ranking government official. “This is to be prevented.”
The man who almost killed Reker was sentenced to 14 years in prison for attempted murder. Hollstein’s attacker, however, got away with a suspended sentence. He disputed having xenophobic motivations. The judge concluded that the attack was not a political one, but rather a “knee-jerk reaction.” Hollstein believes the sentence was far too lenient. He argues that if politicians or public officials are attacked because of their positions, that should influence the sentence their attacker is given.
A Triumph for the Far-Right
For some attackers, merely identifying with free democratic values is enough to launch a crusade. Volker Poss, the mayor of Kandel in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, merely called for people not to cast suspicions on all asylum-seekers following the stabbing of a 15-year-old girl named Mia by her ex-boyfriend, an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan. Strangers then threatened to carve Poss’ face “into confetti” and to “slaughter” his family. Sometimes the messages included his private address.
In Tröglitz, in the central German state of Saxony-Anhalt, right-wing extremists seemingly scored a win in March 2015. For weeks, the NPD had mobilized against plans to house 40 asylum-seekers there. Ultimately, the mayor resigned — not out of fear, he said, but to protect his children. In the end, the NPD wanted to pass his private home in a protest march — a move the district administration did nothing to stop, prompting the mayor to resign.
Another local politician, district president Götz Ulrich, intervened and worked to get the refugee shelter ready to accommodate guests. But before the first occupants could move in, the shelter went up in flames — and threatening right-wing extremist letters with Nazi slogans began appearing in Ulrich’s mailbox. For several months, he was under police protection.
Because of the attack in Kassel, the security of Ulrich’s office is set to be increased. In the future, visitors may need to pass through security checkpoints and bags will be inspected at public meetings. Ulrich says he has never thought about stepping down: “That would be a triumph for the right-wing scene. As a representative of the state, one needs to be able to resist that.”
Threats Against Parliamentarians
Politicians in the Bundestag are also now facing threats daily. Karamba Diaby, for instance. In the early 1990s, the member of parliament with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), got punched in the face for no reason by strangers after a bus trip. Today, the black 57-year-old is his parliamentary group’s integration commissioner. He’s been in the Bundestag since 2013. “I receive three to four insults and threats per week,” he says. “One time, I also received a text in the mail with a drawing of a person hanging by a noose.” When he takes the regional train to his hometown in Saxony-Anhalt, the politician, who has a PhD in chemistry, doesn’t feel safe. He grew up in Senegal, then came to Halle to study, where he lives to this day.
“Ever since the AfD entered the Bundestag, the verbal attacks against me have increased,” Diaby says. He’s now also considering getting personal security.
Helge Lindh, a Bundestag member for the SPD from the western German city of Wuppertal, has also received threats for months. During the refugee crisis, Lindh was one of the loudest voices among the Social Democrats and his engagement in favor of a liberal refugee policy made waves even outside of his electoral district. To this day, he faces massive hostility. Several months ago, he received a seven-page handwritten letter in which the author threatened to hang him from a tree or decapitate him with a guillotine. In January, he and his lawyer from Berlin’s Kreuzberg district received an email saying, “we are now calling for your murder,” with a link to a website. Since then, Lindh has been in regular contact with the police and intelligence services.
The escalation wasn’t unexpected. There were many signs — some big, some small. Confidential intelligence reports from past years describe, in detail, how the number of attacks on asylum-seekers and refugee shelters shot up during the refugee crisis — from six arson attacks in 2014 to 94 the year after.
Attacks against politicians followed the attacks against refugees. Germany’s federal prosecutor moved this week to press charges against eight members of the suspected far-right terrorist group Revolution Chemnitz, a number of whose members have been held in investigative custody for months. In chat messages, the neo-Nazis dreamt of “effective attacks against left-wing parasites, Merkel zombies, the media dictatorship and their slaves.”
A ‘Particular Threat’
Internally, the security agencies have long warned of a “particular threat” posed by “perpetrators who are determined, acting irrationally or fanatical lone wolves” who “have no close ties to extremist groups.” This “type of perpetrator” sometimes acts spontaneously and against targets in their immediate surroundings. References to this could already be found in one classified document dating back to the autumn of 2015.
At the beginning of this year, the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) again warned of “very serious violent crimes” that could be committed by extreme right-wing individuals or very small groups. The document identified representatives of the German federal government as possible “targets.”
The authorities were thus very much aware of the growing threat. For many longtime staffers at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the situation following Stephan Ernst’s arrest is reminiscent of the time of the discovery of the NSU’s terrorist acts. It quickly became apparent just how under-informed the BfV had been about the situation.
One former high-ranking official says that a lot of lip service had been paid to what needed to be changed in the offices after the discovery of the NSU. “But not much of it has been followed to this day.” The source says the analysis carried out by the departments responsible for right-wing extremism is still weak today. “Who is systematically investigating which right-wing extremists have access to legal weapons, through gun clubs or through reservist associations? Who’s addressing neo-Nazis for whom there are arrest warrants, but who have gone underground?” Few, the source says.
The Hessian state Office for the Protection of the Constitution, in particular, is facing uncomfortable questions following Ernst’s arrest. “We just didn’t have him on our radar any longer,” says one official. He had dropped out of the active scene and wasn’t attending demonstrations or getting into any fights. Apparently, nobody noticed anything about the alleged hate messages on the internet.
Following the NSU scandal, the state arm of the BfV in Hesse claimed to be keeping a very close eye on the far-right scene. The BfV even doubled the number of its employees in the past three years. But it hasn’t made a huge difference. And that could, in part, have to do with the limits on storage times within the messaging network.
A searchable database called NADIS (intelligence agency information system) is operated by the BfV and accessible to other German intelligence agencies. It is used to store all references to persons and events.
But even in the days after the assassination, most of the information collected in Hesse about Ernst over many years was inaccessible to the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. The reason being that German data privacy laws have created a state of amnesia for NADIS: If new findings haven’t been added in that period, the data record for a person must be deleted after five years. The old files about that person still exist, but only in a specially secured container that the data protection commissioner hasn’t released yet.
“Anyone not stored in NADIS doesn’t exist,” says one high-ranking security agency official. “And that’s precisely the problem.” There needs to be an organized system for keeping track of people who slide from violent radicalism into harmless normality, he argues.
For many years, though, the Hessian state Office for the Protection of the Constitution also did a pretty poor job of monitoring Stephan Ernst. His name was even on a classified list of right-wing extremists who were deemed to be particularly dangerous and potentially violent. Hermann Schaus, a member of the federal parliament with the Left Party, came across the paper during his research into confidential files at the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. When he asked the responsible clerk at the BfV about it in a closed-door committee meeting, “she couldn’t come up with anything concrete about the name,” Schaus recalls.
One of the reasons the BfV’s monitoring of the far-right extremist scene has deteriorated is that it has expended much of its energy and resources combating Islamic terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks — at the expense of other departments. “Most of the (BfV) offices still haven’t recovered from this to this very day,” says one former employee. And even though new jobs are being created at the agencies, quantity is no a replacement for quality — at least not initially. Years are likely to pass before there are notable improvements.
Moreover, in Hans-Georg Maassen, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution long had a president who, in the opinion of some employees, completely underestimated the phenomenon of right-wing extremism, whether consciously or unconsciously. “Of course, they should have systematically taken a look much earlier at the interrelationship and influence of right-wing extremists with and on the AfD,” says the former BfV official. It was only under the new President Thomas Haldenwang that a so-called audit procedure for the AfD got initiated earlier this year.
The Internet Factor
And it was high time, because the danger has become much more difficult to grasp — the borders are blurred and the right-wing radical fringe is fraying. There is no longer any need these days for the so-called Kameradschaften, loose groups of far-right extremists, and even parties like the extreme-right NPD hardly play a role any longer. Potential perpetrators cavort in anonymous internet forums or chat rooms for gamers, where they glorify mass shooters and terrorists.
A recent analysis by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution found that many are driven by a “diffuse motive of resistance” that is fueled by conspiracy theories or right-wing extremist doomsday scenarios. The “decisive factor in the process of radicalization” is the internet. What used to happen in a favorite bar today takes place in the parallel universe of the internet, with all its echo chambers and rage amplifiers. Solid structures are being replaced by loose-knit connections.
“We should redefine our understanding of networks in the digital age,” says Andrea Lindholz, the chair of the Internal Affairs Committee in the Bundestag and a member of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s CDU. She says in-person meetings are no longer needed to establish structures. “The instruments we have in place, like the ability to ban organizations, don’t reach far enough when extremists organize themselves through WhatsApp groups or internet forums,” she says.
‘I Fear There Will Be More Assassinations Like This’
In recent days, Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution President Haldenwang has admitted that his agency has shortcomings in that regard. “Given the scale of the threat posed by right-wing extremism, we are not yet in a position to say that we are in full control of that threat,” he said. It was an amazingly honest remark, albeit one that isn’t exactly going to reassure people.
“I fear there will be more assassinations like this,” says Miro Dittrich, who spent three years combing forums and comments on the internet for inflammatory, extremist and illegal content on behalf of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an organization that combats racism and radicalism in Germany. In the messaging app Telegram alone, he is monitoring around 200 accounts.
Dittrich says there is no longer a need for a leader, for organizations that operate in hierarchical ways or for cells for a terrorist attack to happen. “These people may go out and do this, but they still aren’t acting alone,” he says. “They know there’s a global community that encourages and eggs them on, and even celebrates and glorifies them as heroes after their deeds.”
He says that also happened in the case of the Lübcke murder. On Instagram, neo-Nazis celebrated the suspected assassination — and called for more.
The silence in political Berlin was as notable as the echo in the online forums. Given that this is the first time since 1945 that a politician in Germany has presumably been executed by someone with right-wing extremist motives, the reaction in the capital city seemed noticeably muted for days. Chancellor Merkel spoke of “distressing news,” and Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned that “we stand together as democrats.” But none of it came even close to the force with which then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder confronted an arson attack on a Düsseldorf synagogue in 2000 by calling for “the decent to rise up.” Instead, a CDU politician with the WerteUnion, or “value’s union,” a group on the right-wing flank of the party, complained after the arrest in Kassel of “agitation against the right.” The WerteUnion is now considering rejecting the member.
For former SPD chairman Sigmar Gabriel, the murder shows “that the neo-Nazi swamp of Reichbürger, Identitarians, far-right training centers and ideologists that run deep into the AfD has created a climate in which the representatives of democracy are now deliberately being targeted as victims.” Gabriel claims that the democratic government showed its teeth when the left-wing terrorism of the Red Army Faction (RAF) was hitting the country. “But what about today? Where’s the special conference of interior ministers? When will the Reichsbürger movement get disarmed and the training centers in the mansions where the ideologues act as spiritual arsonists be excavated?”
German Family Minister Franziska Giffey sees government security agencies as having a duty to take care of the problem. “Whatever is happening beneath the surface — be it the formation of dangerous networks or the radicalization of individuals, the security authorities in particular must investigate more intensively. Visible and audible signals, especially on the internet, need to be taken more seriously, the SPD politician has demanded.
Armin Laschet, the governor of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia and a member of Merkel’s CDU also backs that up. “Never in the past 70 years of our republic has democracy been challenged from the right as it is being in these days,” he says.
Two of the people he might be referring to were standing in a backyard, some 20 kilometers from Kassel, on Wednesday. They wore logo shirts by Lonsdale — a brand that has been misappropriate by neo-Nazis because four of its letters evoke the NSDAP, the abbreviation of the formal name of the Nazi party — and beards and hid their eyes behind sunglasses. They know Stephan Ernst from their time together in the far-right scene.
He doesn’t believe, one of them said, that Stephan Ernst did it — he has family, after all. They want to send him packages, perhaps visit him in jail. They say he needs support now.
And what about Walter Lübcke, the murdered man? “Well,” says the man, “that just wasn’t a nice act, what he said there. ”
By Matthias Bartsch, Felix Bohr, Maik Baumgärtner, Jörg Diehl, Annette Großbongardt, Roman Höfner, Max Holscher, Anna-Lena Jaensch, Martin Knobbe, Tim Kummert, Roman Lehberger, Peter Maxwill, Veit Medick, Ann-Katrin Müller, Henrik Neumann, Miriam Olbrisch, Sven Röbel, Marcel Rosenbach, Fidelius Schmid and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt
Related internet links
- The Guardian: Germany fears radicalisation of Reichsbürger movement after police attacks