A German court sentenced a right-wing extremist to life in prison Monday for a deadly attack targeting a synagogue, described by prosecutor Kai Lohse as “one of the most repulsive anti-Semitic acts since World War II”.
Stephan Balliet, 28, was found guilty of two counts of murder, 66 counts of attempted murder, and sedition. The severity of the crime also led to him being sentenced to preventive detention, effectively ruling out any chance of an early release after 15 years in jail.
It was the maximum sentence possible from the court.
Balliet – a self-described loner who lived with his mother and had been radicalised in online forums – was seeking to carry out a Christchurch-style massacre when he launched his assault on the crowded synagogue in Halle, in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, on the 9th of October last year. Inside, 52 worshipers were observing Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.
Broadcasting the attack live on Twitch from a helmet-mounted camera, he declared, “Hey, my name is Anon, and I think the Holocaust never happened,” before attempting to storm the synagogue.
Prevented from entering by a heavy, bolted door, he instead fatally shot in the back a 40-year-old woman who was passing by, before shooting dead a 20-year-old man at a nearby kebab shop.
Summing up the case against Balliet, prosecutor Kai Lohse said the extremist had been motivated by his hateful beliefs to inflict violence not only against his victims, but against “Jewish life in Germany as a whole”.
During the five-month trial, Balliet – who frequently smirked during survivors’ testimonies – expressed no remorse for his actions, other than for shooting his female victim, saying he “didn't want to kill whites”.
He continued to deny the Holocaust in court – itself a crime in Germany – and spouted other racist conspiracy theories, claiming he had been motivated into violence by the arrival into Germany of hundreds of thousands of refugees in recent years, who he said he felt had “superseded” him.
Balliet spoke of how he felt that being “on the bottom rung of society” justified his actions, and at one point insisted that “attacking the synagogue was not a mistake; they are my enemies”.
He said his attack was inspired by Brenton Tarrant, the far-right gunman who killed 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March of 2019. Like Tarrant, Balliet uploaded a “manifesto” outlining his hateful views immediately before the attack, written in English to attract as wide a readership as possible.
The trial – the largest in Saxony-Anhalt’s history – was closely followed in Germany, amid broad concern over the growing threat of right-wing extremism and rising anti-Semitic crimes. More than 2,000 offences targeting Jews were recorded in 2019, up 13 percent on the previous year, while the country has also been rocked by recent far-right attacks including the assassination of a pro-immigration mayor, and a shooting spree targeting people of immigrant descent in Hanau in February.
Christina Feist, a survivor of the Halle attack, said in a statement to the court last week that the assault had highlighted the deep-seated problem in Germany with anti-Semitism and racism.
“That is a fact we cannot ignore any longer,” she said.
She said that, since the trial began, she had been receiving messages on social media from strangers, which ranged from trivialising and downplaying the events in Halle, through to “openly anti-Semitic and misogynist” hate messages.
“The tone had rapidly shifted from, ‘What are you all making such a fuss about when nothing happened to you Jews anyway?’ to become ‘Fuck you, you damned Jewess.’”
Another survivor, Jeremy Borovitz, called in his statement for German society to take a more active role in confronting racism.
“At least one man is guilty. This much is clear. But all of German society is responsible,” he said. “Every day, every moment, we must speak out.”
Tuija Wigard, a researcher and co-founder of democ.de, the Centre for Democratic Contradiction, who was observing the trial, told VICE World News that the verdict came as no surprise, given the gunman’s confession and live-stream of the attack.
But, she said, “it is also clear that the hatred that drove the assassin cannot be fought with the means of criminal law”.
“The accused may spend his entire life behind bars, but his murderous ideology cannot simply be locked away,” she said. “It remains a task for society as a whole to fight anti-Semitism, racism and antifeminism.”