On the night of 19 February, a gunman opened fire outside a shisha bar in the small west German city of Hanau; he then got into a car, drove to another shisha bar, and continued his rampage. When he fled the scene of that crime, nine people were dead in total, with more wounded. Police quickly identified the alleged perpetrator as a certain “Tobias R” (his surname was not given, in line with German practice).
When they went to his apartment they found both the 43-year-old suspect and his 72-year-old mother had been shot dead. The massacre has left the country – which is already struggling with a surge of rightwing activity – reeling, and politicians ranging from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Angela Merkel have rushed to condemn the racial hatred that is widely thought to have motivated the crime.
Little time has passed, and the killings in Hanau seem to have produced a kind of disbelief among Germans. There is an assumption that mass shootings are supposed to be an American phenomenon. If a mass shooting on German soil is especially distressing, a massacre in a small town in the West is terrifying. In the German imagination, the neo-Nazis are all in the former East – in Dresden, where the Pediga demonstrations first announced the ascendant new right; in Chemnitz, where fascist thugs rioted last year; in Erfurt, where the far-right AfD recently conspired in a coup that removed a popular leftist leader from office. And then there’s the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a terrorist cell who conducted a series of murders in Germany in the early 2000s. They were from the East, too.
The strength of the far right in the formerly socialist states has allowed the rest of the country to distance itself from the resurgence of extremism. After all, democratic norms were never so thoroughly embedded in the formerly socialist part of the country; the West, in contrast, was supposed to be a stronghold of democratic sentiment. What’s more, an active culture of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, or “dealing with the past”, is supposed to help Germans grapple with the nation’s history, dampening nationalistic impulses before they appear.
The massacre in Hanau is the latest in a series of events that are causing Germans to look at their country anew. The tide started to shift with the assassination of Walter Lübcke in June 2019. The centre-right politician had been at the centre of a raging controversy after announcing his support for Merkel’s immigration policies in 2015. He was assassinated by a gunman thought to have strong ties to rightwing groups. The killing took place in Wolfhagen, just a few hours’ drive from Hanau. Both towns are in the state of Hessen, where an investigation that began shortly before Lübcke’s assassination revealed that the state’s police force has been infiltrated by the far right.
The attack also followed directly on the heels of a number of raids against a neo-Nazi terror cell that had been planning a series of “Christchurch-style” attacks in mosques throughout Germany. Just this past Monday, the country was breathing a sigh of relief on learning that 12 men, including one police officer, had been arrested after an informant tipped off police.
Germans have at least been quick to acknowledge that the Hanau attack was almost certainly racially motivated. The perpetrator left a video indicating that he had a drastic act planned, and a lengthy written explanation of his motivation. Both statements referenced widespread rightwing conspiracy theories, and made it nearly impossible to escape the conclusion that the crime was racially motivated. Still, given that German police resisted a racial interpretation of the NSU’s string of murders for years, it counts as a sign of some progress that federal police have already opened a terrorist investigation into the crime, and to know that Merkel has condemned it as a racist attack.
Still, if the gunman turns out not to have had ties to far-right groups, it is likely he will be treated as an exception to the rule. German investigations of the far right have long assumed an individual actor acts alone and wait for strong evidence of a conspiracy. But even if it turns out that he wasn’t radicalised by direct contact with a criminal organisation, it is already apparent that his crimes followed an all-too-familiar pattern of rightwing hatred and reactionary paranoia.
Germany today is grappling with the fact that problems that once seemed far away now seem very close to home. Those outside Germany should also be sobered by the realisation that the hatred and resentment that animated Tobias R are spreading fast. And neither gun control nor a widespread cultural engagement with the history of violent extremism seem to be sufficient to stop this.
• Peter Kuras is a writer and translator based in Berlin
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