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How Germany is being forced to face its growing neo-Nazi threat

A police helicopter above Walter Luebcke's property in Kassel. Photo/Getty Images
The boys are back in town. The neo-Nazi boys, that is. We know this because early in the morning on June 2, a body was found on the terrace of a house in Kassel, a city of 200,000 people in central Germany. Walter Luebcke, Kassel’s 65-year-old local authority boss, had been shot in the head.

Luebcke had been in the national headlines before. He was a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and, in October 2015, at the height of Europe’s refugee crisis, he met about 800 locals to discuss a new shelter for asylum seekers. The debate was heated and abuse was hurled. At one stage, Luebcke replied: “One has to stand up for values here. And those who don’t do so can leave this country any time if they don’t like it. That’s the freedom of every German.”

Luebcke’s retort quickly became fodder for far-right agitation. “A traitor to the German people,” one commentator ranted. “We won’t forget this,” another vowed.

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Representatives of rising right-wing political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) joined in the criticism. Within days, Luebcke’s office had received hundreds of abusive emails and death threats.

Early this summer, the words became deeds. In mid-June, police arrested 45-year-old Stephan Ernst, also from Kassel. Ernst had a criminal record and long-standing neo-Nazi connections. He quickly confessed, saying he had been motivated by Luebcke’s 2015 comments, but this week retracted his confession.

And now the whole country is grappling with the consequences. “This is not just an attack on Luebcke, but on freedom and democracy,” news magazine Der Spiegel wrote. It was also the first recent killing of a state representative by a right-wing extremist, the magazine editorial noted.

Der Spiegel surveyed 5000 voters, three quarters of whom felt right-wing terrorism was a growing threat. German authorities have systematically minimised and ignored the danger from the right, and in some ways, even partially supported it, another local journalist wrote. Ordinary Germans asked why their police and security agencies seem to be “blind in the right eye”, as the saying goes here, to the “brown terror”.

One of those agencies, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, reported recently the number of right-wing extremists in the country rose only slightly in 2018, to 24,100. But what apparently is new is their networking ability and penchant for violence.

“Something has changed in our society that is making it more brutal … people are willing to cross lines,” said Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker, who barely survived a 2015 knife attack by a right-wing extremist.

Luebcke’s murder has also brought into focus the bigger political questions that Germany is so sensitive about: namely, where does legitimate political commentary end and dangerous exhortation begin?

“Those who make the ground fertile for hatred are equally guilty,” German parliamentary president Wolfgang Schaeuble said in a stern speech in the federal Parliament about Luebcke’s death. Everybody knew who he was talking about. Most MPs present applauded enthusiastically, but AfD members clapped for a minute, then quickly dropped their hands.

In another provocation, when the Bavarian state Parliament stood for a minute’s silence for the murder victim, one politician remained sitting: yes, the AfD’s guy. For the AfD, it was clear who was to blame. If Merkel had never opened the borders in 2015, then Luebcke would still be alive, Martin Hohmann, a senior member, wrote in a statement.

So, yes, maybe it’s not correct to say that the neo-Nazi boys are back in town. They’ve been here all along.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.