by Anna Merz

Ferhat Unvar | Mercedes Kierpacz | Sedat Gürbüz
Gökhan Gültekin | Hamza Kurtović | Kaloyan Velkov
Vili Viorel Păun | Said Nesar Hashemi | Fatih Saraçoğlu

The names of these 9 victims of the far-right terror attack in Hanau (Germany) on February 19th, 2020 have repeatedly surfaced in the news, in speeches by victims’ families, the chancellor or political and public debates in remembrance of the racist murders a year ago. With yet another ‘far-right incident’ in recent times, the question arises why, and how authorities still fail to recognise the far-reaching problem of structural racism, racist attacks, and the existence of neo-Nazi networks in Germany. 10 years after the identification and resolution of the National Social Underground, a far right extremist group who killed 9 people with minority ethnic backgrounds (8 Turkish and 1 Greek), and one German police officer, right-wing extremism[1][i] continues to lack adequate responses and framing by authorities.

The Hanau terror attack

With the Hanau terror attack, Germany witnesses yet another act of right-wing extremist violence, resulting in the death of 9 people with foreign roots. The terror attack in Hanau shows a multitude of weaknesses in authorities’ structures and their responses. The emergency phone number did not work properly that night (resulting in one of the victims not being able to reach the police). Another victim who survived the attack and served as a witness was asked by police authorities to take a 3-km walk to the next police station to testify, while the shooter was still on the run. Months prior to the attack, the shooter had sent a letter with conspiracy theories to chief federal prosecutors and owned a webpage on which he distributed his racist ideology. Nonetheless, he was in the possession of a firearms license and had travelled to Slovakia for shooting practice several times without authority’s intervention. Most of these failures have not been officially acknowledged by authorities, neither have apologies been offered to this point. Without families and bottom-up initiatives persistence (such as the ‘February 19 Initiative’[ii], the quest for explanations and consequences in the Hanau shooting) many questions (and weaknesses) would not have been debated at all.

The far-right extremism problem in Germany

Given the country’s history, right-wing extremism remains a delicate issue. While after World War II, Germany put much effort in reconciliation and the creation of an Erinnerungskultur (Culture of Remembrance), the critique (or sometimes rather fear) of police, justice and intelligence services turning a blind eye to activities of the extreme right or insufficiently condemning these, continued.

In 2005 with the entry of the extreme right party National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), ideologically a successor of the NSDAP, in the local parliament in Saxony and one year later in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania the far-right began to publicly take root. Although the NPD is no longer present in any local parliament, another nationalist, anti-immigration party with neo-Nazi affiliations took their place, known as the ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD). The AfD, which increasingly shifts further to the far-right, entered multiple local parliaments (Saxony in 2014; from 2016 in several other local parliaments) and the federal Bundestag (in 2017). Now, the AfD forms the biggest opposition party in the Bundestag. Recently, the party has (temporarily) been placed under surveillance due to extremist traits, allowing the domestic intelligence agency to tap phones and monitor movements by its members. Due to a failure of authorities to abide by the agreement to not disclose the classified surveillance, surveillance  was suspended soon after.

The manifestation of the far-right in the political landscape is not just a German problem, but visible all over the globe. Quite alarmingly, in just one year, far right extremism has risen by 33 percent with several (organized and unorganized) incidents (such as National Socialist Underground terrorist cell, political assassination of Walter Lübcke, attack on synagogue in Halle, Hanau shootings) having occurred over the past years. Yet, certain politicians seem to think that by either ignoring the increasing problem, or dismissing these cases as isolated incidents, the issue will magically disappear, while one may state that the country is currently facing a profound, far-right crisis.

Infiltration of authorities

As of today, far right terrorist cells have infiltrated the country’s authorities, especially its elite special forces and the police. This might not be surprising given the rise of far-right movements and its manifestation in politics. However, the responses it triggers (or better said: lack of adequate responses), are concerning.

As German authorities have systemically focused on Islamic terrorism since the arrival of nearly one million asylum seekers and other migrants from 2015 onwards and incidents such as the Christmas market terror attack in 2016, the issue of right-wing criminality has been underestimated. The country has too long shut its eyes to its meanwhile most significant threat as even conservative (anti-immigration and right oriented) interior minister Horst Seehofer had to admit.  An investigation by the national intelligence service found (not necessary on first account) 1400 incidents in the last 3 years in which officials (soldiers, police, intelligence agents) were suspects of far-right extremism including the distribution of neo-Nazi propaganda. Despite dozens of revelations of such incidents, the country is struggling to acknowledge the structural and far-reaching nature of the problem. Interior minister Seehofer had repeatedly resisted calls for a nationwide study into police racism, denying the structural character of the problem. That does not mean that there are no examples of officials, politicians and experts taking a hard stance by acknowledging the problem and taking (local) measures. It does mean though that denial and neutralizations are often still more prevailing on a larger scale. 

The framing of far-right extremism

Part of the denial and neutralizations on larger scale is the framing of far-right extremism. It is rather problematic that the main suspect of the Hanau terror attacks has been portrayed as a lone wolf, an isolated and radicalized individual. While the perpetrator was a single, mentally disordered offender, this account does not do justice to the underlying (social) problem and movements at hand[iii]. Rather, the attack fits in broader Anti-Islamic social movements and strengthening of far-right extremism in Germany. Despite the lack of social contacts and affiliation with a network, the Hanau shooter was not unaffiliated either. By using the lone wolf metaphor, authorities too easily overlook the parallels the Hanau attack and underlying ideologies have with other cases far right violence. A similar mistake has been made before; the National Socialist Underground had gone undetected for several years, allowing them to kill 9 people across Germany. These cases had not been linked for years, as such the existence of the neo-Nazi network was overlooked.

Acknowledgement and responsibility

I can only repeat the words of foreign minister Heiko Maas: “I asked myself — what is happening in our country?” Yet, it would be detrimental to leave it to that. Until authorities acknowledge their responsibility, learn from, and take ownership for their mistakes, these remain empty words. Given the evidence, it can be stated that we can no longer speak of ‘incidents and lone wolves, seeing the increasingly problematic and volume of manifested networks. Governmental responses and framings, that would do justice to the structuredness and thereby, seriousness of the problem are much overdue.


[1] Right-wing extremism (in this post also referred to as far-right extremism) refers to an ‘ideology characterized by anti-democratic opposition towards equality’ and often finds its expression in politically motivated violence (see Carter, 2018)
[i] Carter, E. (2018). Right-wing extremism/radicalism: reconstructing the concept. Journal of Political Ideologies, 23(2), 157-182
[ii] For more information on this initiative (in German), see: https://19feb-hanau.org/
[iii]  Berntzen, L.E. & Sandberg, S. (2018). The Collective Nature of Lone Wolf Terrorism: Anders Behring Breivik and the Anti-Islamic Social Movement. Terrorism and Political Violence, 26(5), 759 – 779. Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/09546553.2013.767245?casa_token=cI1wFxlj9SkAAAAA:fhQmteSut-BMZ-Hxjk_gmf0G6rvRxVhGkh3cTxBLhA1MEtK1cCwwIDaenGB52sMcE7je2hcB0XmRVQ

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