GP Insights # 264, 22 February 2020
At least ten people were killed and four injured in multiple shootings in the town of Hanau, 15 miles from Frankfurt in Germany. The attacker first opened fire in a shisha bar on 19 February and then drove to another bar to carry out a similar attack. In a chase that followed, the police revealed that the perpetrator gunned down nine people, including a pregnant woman and youth of the Middle East origin, before killing himself and his mother.
The 43-year-old attacker has left behind a 24-page manifesto which makes clear the motives behind the killings as racist. In the manifesto, he calls for the extermination of peoples from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, settled in Germany.
In the aftermath of the attack, Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised decisive action to combat racism in the country.
What is the background?
The present attack would be the third prominent one, by the extreme right in less than a year, after a synagogue attack in eastern Germany in October 2019. The attack heightens concerns over recurrent hate crimes in Germany which is home to the largest number of immigrants from the 2016 refugee crisis. The Hanau shooting has come a few days after the arrest of 12 individuals for planning attacks on the mosques across Germany. The police investigations revealed that the mosque attackers were plotting to replicate similar attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Violence owing to racism is reemerging as a pattern in Germany. In March 2009, a 17-year-old school student in the southern town of Winnenden shot dead 15 people before killing himself during a gunfight with police. In 2016, a teenager went on the rampage in Munich, shooting dead nine people at a shopping mall before turning the gun on himself. Both these attacks came after Germany was grappling with the refugee question. The State of Hesse, where the current attack took place, also witnessed in 2019 the brutal murder of a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) official by a neo-Nazi. The CDU member Walter Lübcke was targeted for his defence of Chancellor Angela Merkel's liberal refugee policy.
These are not isolated crimes. The attacks also come at a time when the far-right political party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), is making significant political progress as the country's largest opposition in the Bundestag. In the 2017 general election, the AfD scored 14 per cent in Hesse, making it the third-strongest party after Merkel's CDU and the Social Democrats. The town of Hesse and Hanau in East Germany is the most preferred by Kurds, Turks and Syrians to settle down after reaching Germany.
The shootings in Germany is, however, not an isolated incident within Europe. The United Kingdom in the past few months have witnessed a revival of lone stabbing attacks on the streets of London by convicted terrorists. The country has witnessed two such incidents in the last three months that the police has identified as incidents of terrorism.
What does it mean?
First, it is time Germany takes cognizance off the racist forces reemerging in the country. The Hanau attacks reveal not only the failure of the intelligence agency but also that off the CDU to arrest extremist racist forces within its party and outside. A party that is otherwise a staunch champion of liberal democratic values in the EU is now grappling with a tough question on racism. There are lessons to be learnt from the Hanau massacre. According to a report in the Bloomberg, the latest Interior Minister figures show that there were almost 13,000 violent rightwing extremists in Germany in 2018.
A larger question is: what has led to the rise of racism in Germany?
Second, the attack comes at an extremely delicate juncture in German politics, when Merkel's grip on power has weakened ahead of her retirement in September 2021. She took a strong stance on refugees at the height of the Syria crisis and that is coming at a price today. The refugees have been politically accepted but economically remain to be integrated. In the absence of a strong leader, the centrist party is facing a policy and power vacuum. This has been used substantially by the far-right political parties to the point that for the last two weeks in February, the country has been in crisis after Merkel's party aligned with the far-right Alternative for Germany in a vote for premier in the eastern state of Thuringia. The fallout of the crisis has exposed the weakening hold of Merkel on her party in the state with the resignation of her heir.
Third, a pattern has emerged in Germany, where the rise of racism is being witnessed in the Eastern part of Germany. Starting from Thuringia, Munich, Hesse, Frankfurt to Hanau, it is the eastern periphery of Germany linking to Eastern Europe where the attacks and the political ground for AfD have strengthened. Along with attacks against migrants in these cities, Dresden (in Eastern part Germany) in November 2019 declared a "Nazi emergency" to highlight the city's increasing trend of rightwing extremism. Dresden is also the birthplace of xenophobic citizen's organization Pegida, which stands for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West." The political crisis in Thuringia also reveals the same features as Pegida, where the first political forces of Nazism emerged in Germany.
Last, it is also important to note that radical currents have long existed in Eastern Germany. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 even though the political integration of Germany took place, the economic integration was slow and dragging. These underlined problems became evident after Germany decided to confront the refugee problem by settling them in the vacant cities in and around Frankfurt. The AfD has used this policy and the slow economic growth of the eastern states in Germany as an issue to gain support. It remains to be seen how AfD has propelled the racist sentiments among a few people leading to violent attacks.