BERLIN – As Germany's president expressed his sympathy and shock during a candlelight vigil for nine people killed by an immigrant-hating gunman, a woman called out from the crowd, demanding action, not words.
But the country's leaders are struggling to figure out how to counter a recent rise in right-wing hate, 75 years after the Nazis were driven from power.
The shooting rampage Wednesday that began at a hookah bar in the Frankfurt suburb of Hanau was Germany's third deadly far-right attack in a matter of months and came at a time when the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has become the country's first political party in decades to establish itself as a significant force on the extreme right.
In the wake of the latest spasm of violence, Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the “poison” of racism and hatred in Germany, and other politicians similarly condemned the shootings.
The rampage followed October’s anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Halle and the slaying in June of a regional politician who supported Merkel’s welcoming policy toward migrants. But Germany's top security official, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, said the trend goes back further, noting a 2016 attack on a Munich mall against migrants and a years-long cross-country killing spree against foreigners by a group calling itself the National Socialist Underground.
“Since the NSU and the rampage in Munich through today, an extreme-right trail of blood has run through our country,” he said.
Extremism is no new phenomenon in modern-day Germany, where the Red Army Faction and other radical-left groups waged a campaign of kidnappings and killings from the 1970s through the '90s, and where some of the key Sept. 11 plotters lived and schemed before heading to the U.S. to attend flight school ahead of the 2001 attacks.
Germany has strict laws prohibiting any glorification of the Nazis, with bans on symbols like the swastika and gestures like the stiff-armed salute, and denial of the Holocaust is illegal.
But security officials have frequently been accused of being “blind in the right eye,” for intentionally or inadvertently overlooking some far-right activity.
That was said to be the case with the NSU, which was able to kill 10 people, primarily immigrants, between 2000 and 2007 in attacks written off by investigators as organized crime. It was only after two NSU members died in 2011 in a botched robbery that the group’s activities were uncovered.
Mehmet Gurcan Daimaguler, an attorney who represented victims' families at the trial of an NSU member, said German authorities need to give more than “lip service” to fighting racism.
“We haven't really begun yet a real fight against neo-Nazis, and one of the reasons, for me, clearly is the victims,” he said. “The victims of Nazis are not members of the German middle class, but Muslims, migrants, LGBT people, immigrants. As long as the victim pool, so to say, was limited to minorities, it was not considered a real threat for society.”
Seehofer said that has changed, noting increased resources are being devoted to fighting far-right crime, including the addition of hundreds of new federal investigators and domestic intelligence agents. In addition, stricter laws have been passed, and the Cabinet approved a bill just this week, before the Hanau attacks, to crack down on hate speech and online extremism.
Under the bill, which is awaiting passage in parliament, internet companies would have to report a wide range of hate speech to police, and retweeting such material to a wide audience, or explicitly condoning it publicly, could be subject to prosecution.
“We are not blind in any eye,” Seehofer said.
Still, with national elections coming next year, politicians are grappling with strategies to confront AfD and blunt its appeal to disgruntled voters.
The AfD does not espouse violence, but many are accusing the party of producing a climate where right-wing extremism can flourish. The 7-year-old party now has members in all 16 state parliaments and is the largest opposition party nationally, though with less than 13 percent of the vote in the last election.
“One cannot see this crime in isolation,” said Norbert Roettgen, one of several members of Merkel’s party hoping to succeed her as chancellor when her term ends next year. “We need to fight the poison that is being dragged into our society by the AfD and others.”
Alexander Gauland, an AfD leader, accused Roettgen and others of trying to exploit the Hanau violence for political advantage. “Everything that we know is that it was a totally crazy person,” Gauland said.
The gunman, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, posted rambling writings and videos online ahead of the attacks, advocating genocide and espousing theories about mind control.
Gauland, who once got in trouble for downplaying the Nazi era as a speck of “bird poop” in German history, said Rathjen had probably never heard any of his speeches, and he rejected any connection between the bloodshed and his party’s anti-migrant platform, as did several other AfD leaders.
But Seehofer said the power of words cannot be discounted.
“I can’t deny that a statement that Nazism is a speck of bird poop in history provides this fertile soil,” Seehofer said. “There are also many other remarks that, in my view, mess up heads, and something bad comes from messed-up heads far too often.”
Holger Muench, head of the BKA, Germany’s equivalent to the FBI, said the threat from mentally disturbed people has grown in recent years, as they latch on to ideas often found online and turn violent.
“The fact that there are mentally ill people in society, that is unchanged for the most part,” he said. “But the fact that there are mentally ill people with a world view that makes them a risk to serious acts of violence, that is changing.”
No evidence has emerged to link Rathjen to the AfD. But people in Hanau were quick to suggest at least an indirect connection.
Dieter Hog watched as the police descended upon Rathjen’s house after the shootings and said he didn’t know his neighbor or what might have motivated him. “But it might be the seed of Mr. Hoecke,” he said, referring to Bjoern Hoecke, an AfD leader who called Berlin’s memorial to the victims of the Nazi Holocaust a “monument of shame.”
And Hatice Nazerzadeh, the woman who yelled at German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier during the candlelight vigil, said that with the party’s ascent, attacks are becoming common. Parts of AfD are already under close scrutiny by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, but she said more should be done.
“The core problem is the AfD,” said Nazerzadeh, whose cousin was shot in the head by Rathjen and killed. “As long as the AfD is legal, racism is legal.”
_____ Daniel Niemann in Bonn and Christoph Noelting in Hanau contributed to this story.