An Extremist Murder Shocks Germany’s Politicians Into Action

Raymond Colitt and Arne Delfs

(Bloomberg) -- It wasn’t your usual meeting of mayors in Germany’s presidential palace this week. One had been stabbed in the throat, another received death threats and most feared for their loved ones.

They’ve all become victims of a wave of political violence that culminated last month in what appears to be the first assassination of a politician by a right-wing extremist since the end of the Nazi-era. Walter Luebcke, an immigrant-friendly member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, was shot in the head on his front porch. The detained suspect, a man with a neo-Nazi background, first confessed and, upon switching legal counsel, recanted.

In a country where ultra-nationalistic and xenophobic fringe movements have become more public and outspoken in recent years, the brutality of the murder was a wakeup call. Democracy itself was under attack, top officials declared. Now, there are growing signs that Germany is reacting.

Secret services are stepping up intelligence work, some political parties are driving out radicals. Politicians like President Frank-Walter Steinmeier are driving a zero-tolerance campaign, while parliament held a special session to discuss right-wing violence before its summer recess. The latest intelligence report, presented in June, identified 24,100 people as right-wing extremists, half of whom are willing to use force.

“All of us are getting emails, calls, and letters that make us ask—is this still the Federal Republic of Germany,” said Ralph Brinkhaus, the most senior legislator in parliament from Merkel’s ruling coalition. “Many colleagues, not only at a national and state but also at a local level, ask themselves ‘am I sufficiently protected. Can that happen to me?’”

With nationalists from London to Warsaw challenging the European consensus that helped maintain peace and prosperity on the continent since World War II, Germany’s ability to deal with similar demands will have far-reaching consequences abroad and at home. 

While right-wing extremists are less visible than during last year’s massive anti-refugee demonstrations in the city of Chemnitz, they’ve become more violent and are increasingly targeting politicians. According to a June poll carried out by ARD’s Report Muenchen, roughly 40% of city officials get hate mail or other threats. In 8% of municipalities they have been physically assaulted.

One reason for the radicalization could be frustrated expectations among right-wing extremists, said Gideon Botsch, professor of political science at the University of Potsdam. Nearly a year ago supporters of the movement were all but certain it could bring down the government amid the mass anti-immigration protests and the recent entry of the right-wing AfD in parliament. Then the rallies stopped. The AfD began to stagnate and bicker.

“Such a situation we consider highly explosive because it carries the risk that groups that want more, and dabble in terrorism, feel they now can or must act,” Botsch says.

“Every CDU politician who would propagate such a coalition, should close his eyes and think about Walter Luebcke”

The wave of extremist activities has far-reaching political and economic repercussions at a time when Europe’s largest economy is losing steam and uncertainty has grown over the succession to Merkel, who said she won’t run for another term. Merkel’s ruling CDU is clearly distancing itself from the right.

In her weekly podcast on Saturday, Merkel marked the 75th anniversary of a failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler, saying the people who carried out that attempt showed how to live by one's conscience. She also invoked Luebcke’s murder and expressed regret that the number of right-wing extremists is on the rise.

“Today, we’re all compelled to take a stand against all tendencies that want to destroy democracy,” Merkel said. “Everyone is invited to take part in our society so that democracy is strong, that civil society is strong and that right-wing extremists have no chance.”

Read more: How Germany Finds a Leader If Merkel Steps Down Early

The AfD, known to have links to extremist groups, is steeped in its own leadership battle. And in Western Germany,  the murder will likely cost it support, while strengthening those who pursue “a more sensible political tone,’’ said Steffen Kailitz, professor of totalitarianism at the Hannah-Arendt-Institut in Dresden. But the big test will come in fall with elections in the Eastern German states of Saxony and Thuringia, where the AfD is currently polling as strong as the CDU, or even stronger, like in Brandenburg.

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who took over the CDU leadership from Merkel last December, is also putting herself and her party at arms length from the AfD, abandoning conservative rhetoric designed to win back voters from the movement. Politically incorrect jokes and calls for tougher measures to thwart immigration earlier in the year have been replaced with warnings to her colleagues not to sympathize with the AfD. “Every CDU politician who would propagate such a coalition, should close his eyes and think about Walter Luebcke,” she said in an interview on public TV.

Business leaders who welcomed the opening of Germany’s doors to refugees because it would bring cheap labor, are equally concerned. Growing social conflict is spilling over into the streets and onto factory floors, raising questions about Germany’s investment climate, until now considered one of the most attractive world-wide. 

“Businesses think about that,” said Andreas Freytag, an economist at Friedrich-Schiller Universitaet in Jena, though he still considers the country’s overall public security quite good.

Simon Brost, who works at MBR, a Berlin-based group that counsels on how to counter extremism, says he regularly gets queries from businesses seeking advice on how to deal with right-wing and rightist-populist attitudes at the work place.

“Every CDU politician who would propagate such a coalition, should close his eyes and think about Walter Luebcke”

The influential German business association DIHK late last year dedicated much of its annual conference to what it called “uncertainty” and “angst” stemming largely from migration and globalization. Business leaders  need to do more to quell the breeding ground for political populists, they said.

That won’t be easy. Intelligence reports paint a picture of a highly-sophisticated but diffuse part of society that propagates their way of life through rock concerts and martial arts competitions. On weekends, some use images of leading public figures for target practice, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said.

Then there’s the dark side of social media, which the country’s chief intelligence officer cited as one of the reasons for Luebcke’s death. “A person defends the building of refugee camps, is massively attacked in social media, covered in hate posts, and finally virtually executed in his garden,” said Thomas Haldenwang, head of the German domestic intelligence service in reference to the Luebcke case.

Authorities too may have dropped the ball or even turned a blind eye. Critics say intelligence personnel were heavily focused on Islamist terrorism while there were extremist sympathizers among security forces, a claim Seehofer has played down as an isolated issue.

Tackling the latest wave of crime requires not only repression but addressing its fundamental origins—cohabitation between Germans and a flood of foreigners, says Freytag, the economist. The good news is that, at least, the country is beginning to take the issue serious, he says.

“It’s actually about integrating people with vastly different perspectives on life and that’s damn hard. But I see more people thinking about the problem, that makes me mildly optimistic we can overcome this.”

(Added details of Angela Merkel’s weekly podcast.)

To contact the authors of this story: Raymond Colitt in Berlin at rcolitt@bloomberg.netArne Delfs in Berlin at adelfs@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Caroline Alexander at calexander1@bloomberg.net, Ben SillsThomas Penny

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