For years, experts have warned that Germany’s increasingly radicalized far right would one day lash out with deadly violence against a politician. Now it appears this nightmare scenario has finally happened, underlining the arrival of a dangerous new political reality for the country.
German authorities announced Monday that the country’s federal prosecutor had taken over the investigation into the June 2 murder of Walter Lübcke, a prominent pro-refugee local politician, who investigators suspect was killed in a politically motivated assassination by a right-wing extremist. A 45-year-old man, arrested on Saturday on suspicion of having shot Lübcke, has a long track record of right-wing extremist associations, and a history of violent and xenophobic crimes, German media outlets reported.
Lübcke, 65, who served as the regional council chief in the western city of Kassel, was found with a gunshot wound to the head on the terrace of his home earlier this month. He was a constant target for far-right extremists and had previously received death threats for his pro-immigration comments; his death was celebrated online by neo-Nazis. The acknowledgment of a potential far-right connection in his killing has only amplified the shock over the popular politician’s death.
Experts told VICE News that the killing, coming after a number of non-fatal assassination attempts on politicians and disrupted terror plots in recent years, was the strongest proof yet that far-right terrorism had arrived as an urgent threat to German society.
“There has never been a case like this in the history of [modern Germany],” said Viola Schmidt, a spokeswoman for the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a German organization that works to combat the far-right.
Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies, told VICE News that the closest precedent was the shooting of a German student political leader in 1968, causing injuries which resulted in his death 11 years later.
In Germany’s increasingly radicalized political climate since the migration crisis of 2015, there have been a number of brutal attacks on pro-immigrant politicians that the victims were lucky to survive.
In October 2015, Henriette Reker, then a candidate for the Cologne mayoralty, was stabbed in the neck by a right-wing extremist who was yelling about refugees. Two years later, the pro-immigration mayor of Altenar, Andreas Hollstein, also survived being stabbed in the neck by an extremist. In another attack in 2015, a pro-refugee local councilman in the town of Freital had his car blown up while he slept.
The attacks were a reflection of the way right-wing extremists had increasingly framed politicians as an enemy of the people over their support for the migration influx of 2015, which saw nearly one million migrants arrive in Germany, said Schmidt. “This concept of the politician as enemy has turned into a widely-spread narrative among right-wing extremists,” she said. During the trial of Reker’s attacker, he described how his motive was to instil terror into the political class so they learned to fear the public, said Koehler.
“This concept of the politician as enemy has turned into a widely-spread narrative among right-wing extremists”
German authorities have not named the suspect arrested over Lübcke’s murder, but said he was connected to the crime through a DNA link. German media outlet Zeit, citing security sources, identified the suspect as Stephan E., using just the initial of his surname in line with German privacy protocols.
According to German media reports, the man has had past associations with various right-wing extremist groups, from the neo-Nazi political party the NPD to the militant group Combat 18, and has a criminal record for violent and xenophobic crimes, including for a bomb attack on a refugee shelter in 1993 and an attempted homicide. He had reportedly made threats against the government on his YouTube channel.
Koehler said German authorities had ramped up their response to the far-right threat in recent years, following regular warnings from the country’s domestic intelligence agency that the numbers of extremists were growing, and becoming more violence-oriented, since 2015.
That heightened responsiveness could be seen in the way prosecutors had successfully charged groups like the so-called Freital Group, which conducted a bombing campaign against refugees and their advocates in an east German town, as terror cells, rather than simply on weapons charges as they would have done in the past.
“We’re in a game-changing phase when it comes to the authorities assessing the threat from the far-right”
Koehler said that the murder of Lübcke, a representative of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union, would be “seen as a direct attack on the political establishment” that would lead to even greater priority being placed on the far-right threat.
“We’re in a game-changing phase when it comes to the authorities assessing the threat from the far-right,” Koehler said. “It will speed up changing the minds of policy makers and decision makers.”
But for critics like Irene Mihalic, home affairs spokeswoman for the left-wing Greens party, the murder of a politician by a known right-wing extremist only showed that the security apparatus needed to do more to counter the threat.
“This is very alarming for all democrats, and illustrates how dangerous this form of extremism is,” she told VICE News.
Cover: In this Monday, June 23, 2019 photo, a police tape secure the area around the home of Walter Luebcke, who was in charge of the Kassel area regional administration, in Wolfhagen, near Kassel, Germany. Walter Luebcke was found dead outside his home Sunday, June 2, 2019, and a homicide investigation was opened. (Sven Pfoertner/dpa via AP)