Extreme-right killings leave Merkel coalition searching for answers

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Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

Germany’s political class is struggling to articulate a response to the events in Hanau and elsewhere.

BERLIN — The murderous rampage by a suspected right-wing extremist near Frankfurt is forcing German leaders to confront an uncomfortable question: Why does it keep happening?

The killing of nine people, almost all of Turkish descent, in two bars in the small city of Hanau, is the latest in a series of murderous attacks in recent months that have renewed fears of a resurgent right-wing subculture in Germany with the wherewithal and will to act.

In October, an alleged right-wing extremist tried to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle, where about 50 Jews were celebrating Yom Kippur. A locked door saved them, but the attacker killed two other people before being arrested.

In June, Walter Lübcke, a local official with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who was a champion of refugee rights, was gunned down at his home. A suspected neo-Nazi has been charged in the case.

The timing of the recent attacks, which occurred in a season of somber observances marking the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Auschwitz, further darkened the national mood, leaving many Germans with a sense of helplessness. How can such crimes continue to occur in a country that took such strides to confront the horrors of its past, many wonder.

Germany’s political class is struggling to articulate a response to the events, much less offer an answer to them.

The recent success of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, especially in eastern Germany where it commands about a quarter of the vote, has added to the country’s growing insecurity.

The Hanau killer was identified by media as Tobias Rathjen, 43. He had published a confused, racist manifesto online and had recently contacted German authorities claiming to have information that a foreign intelligence service was secretly manipulating the minds of Germans. Rathjen, who lived with his parents, committed suicide in the family home after murdering his mother, authorities said.

In his home town, few appeared to suspect anything was amiss. A member of a local gun club, Rathjen purchased the weapons he used in the attacks legally.

“Everything seemed normal” in the Rathjen household, Konrad Well, a local Lutheran priest, told the Hanauer Anzeiger, the city’s newspaper.

People gather for a vigil at the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the victims of the Hanau shootings | Emmanuele Contini/Getty Images

Germany’s political class is struggling to articulate a response to the events, much less offer an answer to them. Merkel, appearing shaken, described the racism that drove the attacks as “poison” on Thursday.

“Hate is a poison that exists in our society and is responsible for far too many crimes,” she said in a televised statement before leaving Berlin for a summit of EU leaders.

A parade of senior German politicians, including President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, traveled to Hanau on Thursday in a show of support for the victims and their families.

“What happened cuts a deep wound in our society,” said Steinmeier, who in recent weeks visited both Israel and Auschwitz, where he spoke at length about Germany’s enduring duty to combat right-wing terror. “We won’t allow ourselves to be divided.”

The attacks in Hanau were shocking not only because of the number of casualties. The city is a diverse Frankfurt suburb, where ethnic Turks and Germans have lived side by side in harmony for decades. While much of the recent right-wing violence has occurred in eastern Germany, where relatively few foreigners live, Hanau is in the heart of the old West German republic.

“That this could happen on our doorstep is shocking,” said Peter Feldmann, the Jewish mayor of Frankfurt whose wife is of Turkish descent.

At a time when the largest opposition party in the German parliament is the far-right AfD and extremist violence is on the rise, that unease is increasing.

Despite the area’s history of diversity, Hanau is far from an isolated incident. Like the Hanau killings, the Lübcke assassination in June also took place in the state of Hesse. Lübcke was shot in the head while standing on his porch.

Neo-Nazis in Hesse were also suspected of supporting the so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU), the right-wing terror cell that killed 10 people between 2000 and 2007, including nine with an immigrant background. While the perpetrators of the murders either committed suicide or are in jail, many in Germany worry that the network that supported them was never fully exposed.

At a time when the largest opposition party in the German parliament is the far-right AfD and extremist violence is on the rise, that unease is increasing.

AfD leader Jörg Meuthen sought to head off attempts to link his party’s anti-immigrant rhetoric with the Hanau killing spree early Thursday.

Joerg Meuthen, lead member of the right-wing Alternative for Germany | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

“This is neither right-wing nor left-wing terror, it’s the crazy act of a deranged man,” he tweeted.

Germany’s political establishment, meanwhile, wasted no time in connecting the dots between the AfD and the Hanau killer.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is also the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said the events confirmed her party’s decision to distance itself from the AfD.

“One can see on a day like today why it’s so important to maintain the firewall,” she said during a visit to Paris.

She was far from alone.

“Lübcke, Halle, Hanau: the concentration of extreme right-wing terror and murders within a few months is abhorrent and cries for consequences, sooner rather than later,” Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a Merkel confidant, tweeted.

Now, Germany’s political leadership just has to figure out what those consequences should be.

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