How the Hanau Shooting Highlights Sustained Right-Wing Extremist Threat in Germany

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How the Hanau Shooting Highlights Sustained Right-Wing Extremist Threat in Germany

What happened in Hanau?

At 2200 local time (2100 UTC) on Wednesday, 19 February, a suspected terrorist opened fire on members of the public in the town of Hanau in Hesse, Germany. The perpetrator, who has since been classed as a far-right extremist, targeted customers sitting outside two shisha bars; the Midnight Bar in Hanau’s central square, and the Arena Bar & Café in the Kesselstadt area. After shooting dead nine victims and wounding five others, the gunman drove to his residence in Helmholtzstrasse, in Hanau’s western Kesselstadt district, where he shot his mother and attempted to kill his father before committing suicide. The two bodies were later discovered and recovered from the house when police raided the building at around 0515 (0415 UTC) the following morning.

The nine people killed by the attacker during the two shootings have been identified as two German-Kurds, two Turkish nationals, a German-Afghan, a Bosnian, a Bulgarian, a Romanian, and a German-Sinti. Most were customers, although a waiter and the owner of one of the bars were also killed. Two Turkish-Germans, an Afghan-German and a Cameroonian were among the five people injured. The perpetrator is thought to have deliberately targeted these establishment due to the concentration of diverse, predominately Muslim customers.

The attacker’s profile and motive

  • The perpetrator has been identified as Tobias Rathjen, a 43-year-old German national who had a history of expressing far-right sentiments online.

  • The attacker used a Glock 17 pistol which he had legally purchased via an online portal through holding a valid hunting licence.

  • He had previously published a manifesto on his personal website expressing extremist political beliefs in-line with the ‘great replacement’ white supremacist conspiracy theory. He also accused US President Donald Trump of stealing his slogans and cited his hatred for foreigners as a justification for the mass killing of people from the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa.

  • Whilst Rathjen’s mental health had never been professionally assessed, the attacker had previously admitted to being guided by voices inside his head since birth and was convinced that he was the subject of an international investigation.

  • Although the German police have claimed that Rathjen had not previously been identified as a potential threat, he is thought to have sent a letter to the Public Prosecutor General on 6 November 2019 urging government action against a “secret service” organisation, which he claimed was controlling people’s minds and world events.

The official response

The German police, Bundespolizei, were quick to classify the incident as an act of terrorism, citing a clear xenophobic motive for the killings. Force representatives have also vowed to put additional resources into combating far-right extremism and tracking individuals like Rathjen. In the aftermath of the attack, Germany’s Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht stated in a press conference that “far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now”, whilst also promising to increase state-funded security at mosques, as well as at airports and special events that draw large crowds.

On 24 February, the United kingdom Home Office announced that it had proscribed the Sonnenkrieg Division, a British branch of the American neo-Nazi organisation Atomwaffen Division, as a terrorist group in relation to the shooting in Hanau. Another UK-based organisation, System Resistance Network, was also proscribed as an alias for National Action: a British terrorist organisation with links to German far-right groups.

Several thousand people marched through Hanau three days after the shooting to remember the victims and protest against the rice of fascism and racism in Germany. Shutterstock

What is the far-right terrorism threat in Germany?

The shooting in Hanau is the latest in a series of violent incidents to occur in Germany in recent years perpetrated by far-right extremists. In the past nine months alone, three right-wing-extremist-motivated murders have taken place in the country including the shooting of politician Walter Luebke at his home and the attempted attack on a synagogue in Halle which left two people dead. On Friday, 14 February, a police operation also led to the arrest of 12 members of a German far-right group which is believed to have been plotting a large-scale attack on mosques across the country.

According to official Interior Ministry figures, police recorded a total of 8,605 right-wing extremist offences throughout Germany in the first six months of 2019. By the end of June of that year, alt-right, neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups had committed crimes nationwide, including 363 violent offences. This represents a net increase of 900 incidents when compared to the same period in 2018. However, the total number of general violent crimes has remained at roughly the same level, suggesting incidents linked to far-right terrorism are beginning to represent an increasingly larger proportion of overall crimes.

This trend follows a slight decline in far-right incidents between 2017 and 2018 (a fall of 0.3 percent), which suggests that Germany is now seeing a resurgence after the total number of crimes dipped in the wake of a high point during the height of the refugee ‘crisis’ in 2015 and 2016. Figures from the first half of 2019 also suggest that incidents linked to both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are on the rise, whilst crimes against recent immigrants of all origin have fallen. Indeed, some observers have suggested that this fresh increase could be even greater than these figures suggest, as state police officials often classify non-migrant related right-wing offenses as non-political in their initial reports.