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The far-right terror attack in Hanau has united Germans of all political stripes in condemnation of racism, with Chancellor Angela Merkel denouncing it as a “poison in society.” But the political party many blame for fueling the climate of xenophobia is trying to paint itself as the real victim.
Joerg Meuthen, co-leader of the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, went on the offensive Friday, saying it was “so shabby and disgusting” that “you want to blame us” for Wednesday’s terror attack, in which a far-right gunman shot dead nine people — all of them from minority backgrounds — at two hookah bars, before turning his gun on his mother and himself.
Meuthen insisted that the attack was the act of a “maniac,” and as such could not be viewed as an act of rightwing terrorism.
The AfD, the biggest opposition party in Germany’s parliament, denies that it is racist despite its fervently anti-immigrant, anti-Islam politics. The party routinely paints Islam as alien to German society, and senior party figures have railed against an “invasion of foreigners,” and called for the country to stop atoning for its Nazi past.
Georg Pazderski, a senior AfD lawmaker in Berlin, reiterated Meuthen’s stance after Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer condemned the shootings Friday as “a clearly racially motivated terror attack.”
“It’s pitiful how Seehofer joins the chorus of usual suspects, and instrumentalizes the heinous deed of Hanau with party politics,” he tweeted.
The gunman, who espoused wild conspiracy theories, appears to have suffered from significant mental health issues. But Robert Lüdecke, a spokesman for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German organization that works to combat the far-right, said that doesn’t disqualify him a right-wing extremist — and that xenophobic campaigning by the AfD likely fueled his hatred towards his targets.
“You can be mentally ill and extreme right-wing at the same time,” Lüdecke told VICE News.
He said the far-right was seizing on the attacker’s mental illness as an attempt to shield itself from scrutiny in the wake of the attacks.
“Even worse,” he said, the AfD was using this argument to attempt to place itself in “the victim role,” by claiming it was being smeared over the attacks.
He said the party’s rhetoric, normalizing hate speech and fomenting xenophobic sentiment, had played a role in fueling the wave of far-right violence. Lawmakers for the left-wing Die Linke party have pointed out that the AfD in the gunman’s state of Hesse campaigned explicitly against hookah bars for months, painting them as venues of gang rape and other crimes.
“The AfD must be considered as one of the intellectual arsonists which through their ideology fuel these acts of right-wing extremist violence and terror,” said Lüdecke.
Others share his concerns. “It’s this climate they’re creating, where people feel they’re entitled to question the status of people who don’t look stereotypically German,” Grigorij Richters, an activist who organized a demonstration against the far-right in Hanau Friday, told VICE News.
“All of this has changed in the last few years since that party entered parliament… Now it’s become normalized.”
Reinhard Schramm, leader of the Jewish community in the eastern state of Thuringia, agreed, telling Reuters that the AfD had contributed to a rise in racism.
“The problem is that people are voting for parties whose leaders are clearly racist, anti-Semitic and right-wing radicals,” said Schramm. “Of course not all AfD supporters are racist, but the language used by some of its leaders encourages people to translate their racist feelings into violent actions.”
The attack in Hanau — which Seehofer noted Friday was the "third far-right attack in a few months” in Germany — drew thousands into the streets of cities across Germany Thursday night in a denunciation of racism and show of solidarity with the victims.
Protesters chanted “Nazis out” and held signs reading “Never again” as they gathered to denounce the most serious far-right terror attack in Germany in 40 years.
The attack occurred amid growing concern about the rise of the violent far-right in Germany in recent years, in the wake of the government’s decision to welcome almost one million asylum seekers, mainly Muslims from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, into the country in 2015.
Last year, a local mayor who had expressed support for migrants was assassinated by a suspected far-right extremist, while another killed two people, including at a kebab shop, while attempting to storm a synagogue.
Just last week, police raided a suspected far-right terror cell which they believe was plotting a series of Christchurch-style attacks on mosques. And on Thursday, authorities revealed that a bomb had been found at a concentration camp memorial site in the state of Thuringia.
Against the rising tide of violence, Richters, the organizer of Friday’s rally in Hanau, said he and many other ordinary Germans felt compelled to make a stand, even if it meant “just standing around in a marketplace.”
“It’s to send that signal that this is not what we stand for — this wasn’t done in my name,” he told VICE News.
Cover: Men pray in a Turkish mosque in downtown Hanau. In an allegedly racist attack, a 43-year-old German in Hanau, Hesse, shot several people and then himself. Photo by: Boris Roessler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images