On Monday, an eight-year-old boy got pushed in front of a train in Frankfurt and died. The crime has horrified the entire country and right-wing populists have sought to instrumentalize it. But can such acts of violence really be prevented? By DER SPIEGEL Staff
It is Friday evening in Frankfurt, three days before an 8-year-old boy will die at the city’s central station after a stranger suddenly shoves him in front of an incoming ICE long-distance train. A 42-year-old Eritrean who has lived in Frankfurt for 30 years stops his Peugeot in front of a hotel at the convention center. An aunt of his is staying there and his girlfriend accompanies the aunt to her room. He says that in the time that his girlfriend was in the hotel, he got out of his car to make a phone call.
At exactly that moment, he says, a man ran up to him from the direction of the train station and jumped into the passenger seat. He spoke Tigrinya, one of the languages spoken in Eritrea. He told me: “Drive! The police are following me!” Then, the 42-year-old continues, “he tried to convince me to drive him to the Swiss border.” When the Peugeot driver refused and waved the hotel porter over for help, the man got out of his car and disappeared into the darkness.
The Eritrean immigrant is convinced that the man was Habte A., the suspect who is thought to have killed the boy at Frankfurt central station on Monday morning. He claims he recognized the man from the pictures that were published in the press. On that Friday in front of the hotel, the 42-year-old says during a meeting at a restaurant in Frankfurt, the man didn’t seem confused or aggressive, just afraid.
The man he describes, the 40-year-old Habte A., who was born in Eritrea, has been in investigative custody since Tuesday. State prosecutors have accused him of murder and two counts of attempted murder. He has so far remained silent about the crime, merely saying that he had arrived by train a few days previously from Basel and that he had slept on the streets.
It remains unclear what exactly Habte A. did in Frankfurt in the days preceding the murder. There are also no answers to the question as to why he, the father of three young children, would shove an eight-year-old to his death. Testimony would seem to indicate that he suffers from mental illness and prosecutors now intend to have him psychologically examined.
The shock from Frankfurt has hit Germany in the middle of summer vacation, with millions passing through the country’s train stations and their overcrowded platforms to head out to their holiday destinations. Frankfurt central station alone sees up to 500,000 passengers pass through each day. Many people were shocked and horrified by the crime.
It could have been anybody. Evidence thus far collected indicates that the man chose the boy and the woman completely at random. The death was just as random as that of the 149 passengers aboard the Germanwings plane that pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally crashed into a mountainside in March 2015. The crime in Frankfurt has once again shown just how disturbing it can be when someone kills a person for no reason, someone he didn’t even know. It is a crime that triggers the most visceral of fears because they come out of nowhere, without warning or cause. And because there can be no complete protection against them, no measures that can prevent them.
The fact that the suspect is from Eritrea has struck a particularly sensitive nerve in German society. The 2015 refugee crisis intensified the fear of foreigners that many feel has strengthened the right-wing populists. Every crime is examined to see who was behind it, with many in the country fearing that the large number of refugees has led to an uptick in crime. It is a fear that has been deepened by violent acts committed by asylum-seekers, such as the case of Ali B. from Iraq, who allegedly raped and murdered the 14-year-old Susanna in Wiesbaden in May 2018.
Politicians from the right-wing fringe seek to take advantage of and intensify such fears to turn society against the refugees and further divide the electorate. Just hours after the crime in Frankfurt, Alice Weidel, parliamentary floor leader of the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD), blamed the “unbridled open-door policy,” even if the Eritrean, as it soon became clear, didn’t live as a refugee in Germany.
Statistically, not a day goes by in Germany without a murder or manslaughter, and many of the crimes hardly even make it into the papers. So, what made the crime on Track 7 in Frankfurt different?
“Such unforeseeable episodes of violence triggered by a person show us just how unstable and fragile our world is,” says Andreas Zick, a professor of conflict research at the University of Bielefeld. “Plus, the victim was a child, which should enjoy special protection.”
Thomas Feltes, a criminologist and professor at Ruhr University Bochum, says: “The act violates everything that makes us human. For sexual or domestic violence, we have explanatory frameworks. Those are crimes that somehow fit into established paradigms, but the crime in Frankfurt does not.” In most instances of violence, he adds, the victim knows the perpetrator.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer promised increased security in the wake of the crime. But how is it possible to provide complete protection from potentially psychologically ill perpetrators who don’t even need a weapon?
On the day after the murder in Frankfurt, many concerned parents asked German rail employees to accompany them to the train platforms to help keep their children safe. A loud noise in the train station had everyone looking around fearfully.
Train stations, though, have likely become safer. According to a 2018 German rail report, the number of reported crimes at German rail facilities has “dropped slightly.” The police have registered significantly fewer thefts, though drug and sexual offenses have risen.
Statistics and probabilities, though, tend to influence our feelings of security much less than horrific isolated cases or cases that seem to confirm extant fears and prejudices. And one factor could also be the fact that our society has become safer and less violent. Since 2007, the number of violent crimes committed in Germany has dropped, as have the number of accidents on our roads and elsewhere. As a society, we have an expectation that risk can be completely eliminated, and we thus react all the more emotionally when reality shows us that such a thing isn’t always possible.
It was 9:59 a.m. on Monday when the high-speed ICE 529 train from Düsseldorf arrived on Track 7 at Frankfurt central station. Vacationers, many of them families with children, were waiting for the high-speed train to Munich. Comments from officials seem to indicate that surveillance cameras recorded what happened next. In section E of the platform, Habte A. stood hidden behind a pillar. As the ICE was approaching, he shoved a 40-year-old woman into the track bed and then did the same to her eight-year-old son. The mother was able to get out of the way in time, but the boy was hit by the ICE. He died at the scene of the crime.
Habte A. tried to shove another woman in front of the train, but the 78-year-old fended him off, suffering a shoulder injury and shock in the process. In the ICE, passengers heard the conductor say: “For the love of God, he shoved her in front of the train!” The train braked suddenly and an announcement told the passengers that there had been an injury, according to the later accounts of those in the train. On the platform, the suspect fled, followed by passersby and an off-duty policeman. Habte A. was captured not far from the station.
‘Hanging Around the Train Station’
At Track 7, witnesses to the horrific deed began crying, with some sinking to the ground. Police and first responders hurried to the site as did emergency pastors. Security personnel closed off tracks 4-9 for several hours. Temporary white barricades were set up to prevent people from filming the site with their mobile phones. The first responders set up a station in the railway mission, with many requiring psychological treatment.
Habte A. had only arrived in Frankfurt, a city that is home to 177 different nationalities, a few days earlier from Switzerland. At the time of the crime, he was neither on drugs nor was he under the influence of alcohol; and when he was arrested, he wasn’t carrying a mobile phone or identity papers. An Eritrean who works in a shop at the Frankfurt train station believes he saw the perpetrator shortly before the crime. “He was hanging around in the train station,” he says, adding that he saw him from behind the counter where he was working. He says he noticed the man because he was a compatriot who walked back and forth several times and seemed confused.
The account and the crime are diametrically opposed to the seemingly successful life in Europe that Habte A. had thus far lived. He arrived in Switzerland in 2006 and was granted asylum in 2008 and given a status that allowed him to travel anywhere in Europe. He ended up in the town of Wädenswil and found a job as a metal worker. He was briefly unemployed, but in January 2017, he was accepted into a Swiss program for the jobless and assigned to a job coach who began looking for suitable employment for him. He found one in Zürich, working for the city’s public transportation system.
Laetitia Hardegger, who heads up the communications department of the job agency that assisted Habte A., still remembers the Eritrean. She interviewed him in January 2018 for the 2017 annual report, in which he was presented as a shining example. In the ensuing brochure, his boss praised his work ethic and that he didn’t “just stand around idly chatting.”
“He was a friendly, calm and open man and we found him to be reliable and upright. He really was an example of successful integration,” says Hardegger. She says that not everyone is able to find regular employment but that Habte A. was simply good at his job.
She says that he was intent on getting a regular job and had to wait quite a while until one came open when an older employee retired. He was, she says, extremely excited to get a permanent position. “This has hit us all really hard and we are extremely sad,” Hardegger says.
There seems to be no connection between the two realities — that of an exemplary refugee in the Alpine foothills of Switzerland and the brutal murder on Track 7 at Frankfurt central station. He lived with his wife and his three children, aged one, three and four, in a pink-hued house on the outskirts of Wädenswil in a development above town. There are around a dozen homes in the neighborhood, a few farmhouses, a restaurant and a nursery. From his balcony, Habte A. could look out on green meadows and Lake Zürich.
No Criminal Record
The family lived above an Italian restaurant. None of the neighbors wanted to talk about Habte A. The apartment where the suspect lived is now empty. At 10 p.m. on Monday, the police searched his home and the next day, authorities took his wife and children to another site where they are receiving psychological care.
Habte A. has no criminal record and the Zürich police found no indications of radicalization or any ideological motive for the crime. He belongs to a Christian Orthodox church in Switzerland. But according to Swiss investigators, he recently began experiencing serious psychological problems and in January, he was unable to go to work for a time because of it.
Last Thursday, it became clear just how serious his problems had become and that he might present a danger to others. Habte A.’s wife called the Zürich police to report that her husband had threatened her and the children and locked them in the apartment. He also allegedly threatened a neighbor with a knife and also locked her in her apartment. According to investigators, both women said that Habte A. had never before displayed such behavior. By the time officers arrived, he had disappeared and had taken the knife with him.
The police sent out a warrant for the 40-year-old, but it was limited to Switzerland. And the search was never made public because the authorities didn’t believe he was dangerous.
A close friend of the suspect, with whom a DER SPIEGEL reporter met with on Wednesday in Wädenswil, says that Habte A. had begun to suffer from severe psychological problems. A few months ago, reports the 30-year-old — whose name is known to DER SPIEGEL and who also comes from Eritrea — Habte A. began complaining of people talking about him. The 30-year-old says he has been friends with Habte A. for 10 years and describes him as a quiet man who avoided large groups of people. “He felt like he was being followed and that someone was coming after him.”
In recent months, the friend says, he began suffering from clear delusions. “On one occasion, I brought him to the fitness studio and he immediately began pointing at others and complaining that they were talking about him.” To reassure his friend, the 30-year-old approached the people Habte A. had pointed to and said: “See, nobody’s talking about you. They don’t even know you.” His friend, he says, appeared calm but it was clear that he was extremely unsettled.
The friend urged Habte A. to go to the doctor, which he ultimately did. The doctor sent him to a hospital in Horgen for further examinations and treatment. The daily newspaper Zürcher Tagesanzeiger reported that the doctor had diagnosed symptoms of paranoia.
Can More Safety Measures Help?
As the friend tells the story, he repeatedly struggles to hold back tears. He says he also has an 8-year-old son. Wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Freedom,” he explains how he had seen less of his friend recently because he had become too difficult. He says his friend called him last week and reported that his wife had called the police on him. And the friend told him he had to leave or he would be arrested. “I thought it was one of his anxieties again and said he should see a doctor.” But this time, what he said turned out to be true.
A well-known Eritrean activist from Switzerland says that a relative of Habte A’s called him about two months ago to report that Habte A. felt he was being followed everywhere and that he was constantly the subject of racial slurs — on the train and in the bus. He asked if the activist could help him and said he was worried.
The activist said that Habte A. should get in touch with him, but he never did.
Hans-Ludwig Kröber, a forensic psychiatrist, has examined perpetrators in the past who have pushed strangers in front of trains. Some, he says, actually were schizophrenic. “With crimes that seem pointless or without motive, you do have to consider the possibility that the perpetrator acted as the result of mental illness,” he says.
Not an Isolated Case
The horrific act at Frankfurt’s central station may seem like an isolated case, but it isn’t. During the first half of this year, several people died in Germany as a result of being pushed onto railway tracks by strangers. Two 16-year-olds died in Nuremberg in January after they were shoved onto a track by 17-year-olds from a nearby district.
In January 2016, a 28-year-old with Iranian roots pushed a 20-year-old girl in front of a train arriving at Berlin’s Ernst-Reuter-Platz subway station. The impact killed the recent high school graduate instantly. In court, the man declared that he felt he was being persecuted. He had only been discharged from a psychiatric hospital in Hamburg one day earlier, and the court found him to be not guilty because of his illness.
Not all perpetrators suffer from mental illness, however, and there doesn’t appear to be any kind of uniform profile for the assailants. They include youth, but also older adults, primarily men, but also women. And they include both Germans and foreigners.
On July 20, nine days before the Frankfurt incident, a 28-year-old pushed a 34-year-old mother in Voerde on the Lower Rhine in front of a regional train pulling into the station and killed her. The public prosecutor spoke of a desire to murder and malice. The perpetrator, a Serbian born in Germany, had traces of cocaine in his blood.
An 18-year-old man who pushed a 43-year-old onto the tracks of a subway station in Cologne later declared in court that he had acted out of anger and aggressiveness and apologized to his victim. He got away with a suspended sentence and has to undergo anti-aggression training. His victim, a man who had just come from work, was lucky because there was no train coming and passersby helped him.
Around two years ago, a 38-year-old woman threw a man in front of an oncoming train at a Munich subway station. At the time of the crime she had 1.8 milligrams of alcohol per liter in her blood. The Hungarian woman had already attacked two other people before pushing the man onto the tracks. She was also mentally ill. Her victim, a Munich entrepreneur, was only slightly injured because the train driver made an emergency stop and came to a halt only three meters in front of the 59-year-old. The subway train driver later testified in court that the 38-year-old had earlier been a passenger on his train and that he had a “strange feeling” about her. For that reason, he entered the station at a lower speed, which may have ultimately saved the 59-year-old’s life.
‘My Husband Is a Different Man’
Dresden’s Rene Johne has a lot to say about what it means to be the victim of this type of crime. The 40-year-old survived after two men in spring 2017 threw him onto the commuter train tracks two times early one morning on his way to work. The crime left him traumatized and unable to work for years.
He explains in a telephone interview how he had a breakdown at home a week after the attack and relates that he tried several times to commit suicide. As he speaks, he often breaks off his sentences before his wife takes the phone from him. “My husband is a different man,” she says. He can’t stand it when there are men standing behind him, she says, and, while he has begun riding the commuter train once again, he gets off immediately if there are too many people in the coach.
The perpetrators, two asylum-seekers from Morocco and Libya, were drunk when they approached Johne and asked for a lighter. When he didn’t give one to them, they grew angry and pushed him onto the tracks. He was able to climb out, but they pushed him back down again. It was only when the train approached that they let him go.
Because of an injured arm, he was unable to work. While he received disability pay, it wasn’t enough and money grew tight. The right-wing populist AfD collected donations for him and the “commuter train attackers from Dresden” also featured in the party’s campaign for the national election in 2017, an effort to foment resentment against asylum-seekers.
In December 2017, the Dresden Regional Court sentenced the perpetrators to prison sentences of several years for assault and grievous bodily injury. The court ruled it couldn’t be proven that the perpetrators intended to kill the victim. Johne says he hopes the men will be deported after they are released from prison.
The question as to whether the state has failed reliably arises after serious violent acts. So far, though, there is no sign of that in the case of Habte A. The Swiss authorities and civil society apparently did everything they could to integrate him, and they succeeded.
But should the Swiss police have searched beyond Switzerland for him and entered his name into the Europe-wide Schengen Information System? Had they had done so, German police may have been on the lookout for him at the border or in the Frankfurt train station.
Interior Minister Seehofer didn’t criticize his Swiss colleagues when he held a press conference in Berlin on Tuesday. But he nevertheless made clear that he and other security officials in Germany aren’t pleased with the decision made in neighboring Switzerland.
To Seehofer, it’s important to send the message to the German public that the government is doing something about it. Chancellor Merkel and almost all the other members of her cabinet are currently on holiday and Seehofer himself had been hoping to spend a few days at his vacation home in Bavaria. Instead, he found himself convening a meeting of the German security authorities in Berlin. Seehofer, who often acts on instinct, clearly felt that, following the murder of the center-right politician Walter Lübcke, the shots fired at a refugee in the state of Hesse and the killing in Frankfurt that public sentiment could be shifting dangerously.
While he was still en route to Berlin, he called Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer and asked him to ensure that the German national railway, Deutsche Bahn, would go along with the stricter safety precautions Seehofer would like to see put in place at train stations. But it will take a lot of persuasion to get railway executives to agree, because such measures are expensive. “We will have to spend millions over the years,” Seehofer told DER SPIEGEL. In September, he plans to convene a top-level meeting with Transport Minister Scheuer, the executive board of Deutsche Bahn and railway safety experts.
The Border Debate Returns
He refuses to accept the objection that cameras and a greater police presence wouldn’t prevent crimes like the one that occurred in Frankfurt. “If we’re only going to implement what promises 100 percent security, then our agencies might as well shut down completely,” he said.
In response to the killing, he also wants to implement measures that are sure to spark a debate within the coalition government in Berlin. “I’ll do all I can to ensure intelligent border controls,” Seehofer says. In 2018, he says the country recorded 43,000 unauthorized entries, and many migrants entered without being checked. “We need to counter this by means of expanded dragnet controls and temporary checks, also directly at the border, when needed, including the border to Switzerland.” Seehofer wants to present his plan in September.
But in contrast to the dispute over border controls that almost led to a permanent split between German conservatives in recent years, Seehofer doesn’t think there’s a danger of a conflict with Angela Merkel this time. “I know that the chancellor is fully in line with me on security issues,” he says.
At his press conference, though, the interior minister said he was still unable to present much more than pledges. He wants a larger police presence and a greater number of surveillance cameras. He also wants to discuss the introduction of the kind of gates and barriers on train platforms that are used in London and Paris. Seehofer read about security measures that are standard in those cities on the internet at his vacation home the night before.
But experts don’t believe it is feasible to install platform screen doors that only open once trains have stopped at the more than 5,600 stations in Germany. Also, a wide variety of different trains travel across the rails in Germany each day, including high-speed ICE trains, Intercity trains, regional trains and also foreign trains and private competitors to the national railway. The doors are located in different places and at different heights, making automatic security gates at the entrance relatively unfeasible.
Michael Lehmann, a professor of railway engineering at the University of Erfurt believes platform screen doors would be most conceivable in the subways in some large cities. “But they won’t stop truly criminal or psychologically ill people. They can just switch to bus or tram stops and do their pushing there,” he told Switzerland’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.
Politicians are placing their hopes in “intelligent video surveillance” systems. In Mannheim, the Fraunhofer Institute is testing cameras designed to detect conspicuous body movements: They sound the alarm when someone starts kicking or slamming, starts running hectically or suddenly falls down.
But Markus Müller, a surveillance expert at Fraunhofer, says these systems are better suited for stopping violent acts that have already commenced than preventing them from the outset. “We do not prevent the first blow, but perhaps the second or third — and thus the escalation of a tragedy,” he says. In the Frankfurt case, however, “the boy’s death couldn’t have been prevented with our technology,” says Müller.
Violence researcher Zick laments what he believes to be a lack of potentially effective prevention plans for public spaces like Frankfurt’s central station. “As a society, we aren’t particularly well prepared for violence,” he says. “The discussions we have after crimes like this are too short-sighted.” Each time, there are calls for increased security staff and more surveillance cameras. “But that doesn’t go far enough,” he says. Nor does he generally consider barriers placed in front of the tracks to be the right solution. Instead, he says, social workers or better-trained police officers are needed who can better identify risks and potential perpetrators when they wander onto a site.
The ‘Starting Point for Violence’
As soon as it became clear that the suspect was an Eritrean, the right-wing populists hijacked the security debate in order to stir up sentiment against migrants. Shortly after the crime, Verena Hartmann, a member of parliament with the AfD, set the tone alongside parliamentary group leader Weidel. She held Chancellor Merkel personally responsible and wrote that she “cursed the day she was born.” She later erased the tweet.
A “meme” soon began making the rounds on the right-wing online forums: a fake yellow railway warning sign with the words “Beware of shoving migrants.” Some are also trying to stoke the waves of anger on the social networks. One fake tweet falsely attributed to Health Minister Jens Spahn circulated in which he appeared to be playing down the boy’s killing by comparing it “quite soberly” with the number of children who died of measles this year. Spahn felt compelled to set the record straight on the fake posting on Twitter. “The fact that the horrible death of a child is used like this as cheap propaganda and fake news. That’s particularly nasty and crude.”
For his part, Interior Minister Seehofer describes as “highly alarming” what is happening on Twitter. “The quality of public debate is going to the dogs there,” he says. “A polarization is emerging there that is the starting point for violence.”
On the day of the crime, a fake user account (“_Naschkatze88_”) published posts mocking the murdered boy and expressing empathy for the perpetrator and his future prospects. The fake account appears to have been named after a real Twitter account belong to a young woman whose photos were stolen and used.
As the unidentified poster presumably intended, the post sparked hatred, along with threats of murder and rape against the young woman.
This insidious method of inciting hatred isn’t new and has been around at least since the last U.S. presidential election campaign. Its aim is that of further polarizing society. Eritreans living in Germany are now among the victims of this polarization. Rut Bahta, 38, is a board member at Uniting Eritrean Voices in Germany, the umbrella organization of the Eritrean immigrant community in the country. She grew up in Germany and works as a resident physician in a psychiatric clinic.
She says many Eritreans were already in a state of shock after a man shot and killed Eritrean Bilal M. a week earlier in Wächtersbach in a racially motivated crime. “Everyone thought they were actually safe in Germany,” she says.
But now, only a few days later, the focus is on an Eritrean as a perpetrator. Since then, she and her colleagues have been asked constantly by other Eritreans to take a stance on behalf of the exile Eritrean community here. “The public should know that we are good and peace-loving people,” they say. Bahta expresses her “deepest condolences” to the mother of the boy killed. The fact that the perpetrator in Frankfurt was from Eritrea, “means nothing at all,” says Bahta, “It’s merely by chance.”
The crime continues to torment the Eritrean in whose car Habte A. likely sat in for a short time on Friday night. What would have happened, he wonders, if he had talked to the man and looked after him? Could he have stopped him from committing this horrendous crime?
It is a question for which there is no answer.
By Melanie Amann, Laura Backes, Felix Bohr, Katrin Elger, Annette Großbongardt, Hubert Gude, Lucia Heisterkamp, Anna-Lena Jaensch, Timo Lehmann, Ann-Katrin Müller, Marcel Rosenbach and Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt