The assassination last month in Germany of a popular pro-migrant politician has raised alarm about a growing threat of right-wing terrorism. It was the first political assassination in more than half a century, and it has shaken the country.
Walter Lübcke, a 65-year-old member of the Christian Democratic Union and a staunch defender of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door refugee policy, was shot in the head late at night on June 2 as he sat smoking on his terrace, according to German investigators. The confessed killer is an avowed neo-Nazi with a 20-plus-year history of violence against immigrants. But experts on extremism and some mainstream political leaders suggest the far-right, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany political party shares at least some of the blame.
In recent German history, right-wing attacks have mostly targeted immigrants. The assassination of a prominent German politician is unprecedented, says Hajo Funke, a professor at the Free University of Berlin who studies right-wing extremism.
“So coldblooded, so prepared, so decisive,” he says. “That kind of killing is a new step, and that is what, for me, is right-wing terror.”
German officials were still calling Lübcke’s assassination a mystery at the time of his funeral on June 13 in the German state of Hesse, where he was the district president of the city of Kassel. Gun homicides are rare in a country with strict gun laws.
The break in the case came on June 15, when a German SWAT team arrested 45-year-old Stephan Ernst, based on DNA evidence collected at the crime scene.
Ernst’s police record includes an attempt to plant a pipe bomb at a hostel for asylum-seekers in 1993. Investigators say he had ties to neo-Nazi groups, including Combat 18, an extremist group that originated in the United Kingdom, spread to other European countries and has chapters in the U.S. and Canada.
“He was closely associated with leading figures of Combat 18,” says Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Stuttgart. “He was friends with them on Facebook.”
After Ernst was arrested, says Koehler, “Combat 18, for the first time ever in Germany, released a propaganda video in support of the suspect.”
When Ernst confessed to the killing, he told police he acted alone. But German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said investigators continue to look for accomplices and a network. Two more arrests were made last week.
The case is a “game changer, an extremely extraordinary incident,” says Koehler. Leading politicians in Germany now feel under direct threat of violence from far-right extremists. “It’s not that [extremists] didn’t want to do it before, but they simply didn’t dare,” says Koehler.
Over the weekend, media reports — confirmed by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency — surfaced of a neo-Nazi network that ordered body bags and compiled a target list of political leaders.
When Lübcke’s killer confessed, he also spelled out his motives to investigators. He said he was enraged by comments Lübcke made in 2015 in support of refugees in Germany.
Lübcke’s remarks came during a heated town hall meeting to discuss a new shelter for asylum-seekers, as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees began entering the country. Far-right hecklers interrupted the meeting. Lübcke challenged them.
“There is this famous town hall where he was telling people in the audience, ‘If you don’t like human rights, you should go,’ ” says Mohamed Amjahid, a political reporter for Die Zeit newspaper. “He was very tough.”
The exchange led to an online hate campaign against Lübcke, who received death threats. He was provided police protection until the storm eventually subsided.
In February, his 2015 town hall comments surfaced again in a video posted by Erika Steinbach, a former CDU member of parliament who broke with her party and aligned herself with the political ideology of the AfD, German’s far-right party, now the third-largest in parliament.
Her post spurred another storm of hate.
“She herself never actually threatened Lübcke, but she provided the platform for those who did,” says Koehler.
Koehler connects AfD rhetoric to growing extremism. The AfD’s warning of an existential threat to German culture has contributed to extremist violence, he says.
Studies produced by his institute show “a significant link between AfD hate speech directed against refugees and the level of far-right, xenophobic crimes in certain areas,” Koehler says. A prominent AfD member of parliament was temporarily suspended from Twitter last year after she referred to Muslim men as “barbaric” and “gang-raping hordes.”
“Statistically, there are three violent, far-right attacks every day in Germany, so that is just significant. We have no other form of violent extremism that presents such a threat,” Koehler says.
When high-ranking AfD members use language that dehumanizes refugees to create an existential threat, he says, that spurs violence: “Far-right extremists act out on that fear and threat.”
As the Lübcke assassination investigation continued and alarm rose in Germany, senior members of the CDU charged that the AfD was partly to blame for the politician’s death.
AfD rhetoric especially demonizes refugees from the Middle East, Funke says.
“There’s an … indirect link,” he says, “being utterly against all Muslims, Muslims in this country, Muslims around the world. Unleashing of resentment is one of the conditions for murder and for violence.”
AfD leaders and supporters accuse the CDU of attempting to politicize Lübcke’s death.
“Everybody has to condemn a murder,” says Armin-Paul Hampel, an AfD member of parliament. Threats, he says, are “my daily business. I got threatened, including ‘We will kill you’ and things like that. Nobody complained, by the way, in the German media.”
AfD political leaders have also dismissed fears of an extreme right-wing terrorist network. “The one gentleman imprisoned is saying nothing. So, let’s wait,” says Hampel.
The heated political exchanges come as the AfD hopes to boost its support in a series of local elections in the fall. AfD leaders have accused CDU leaders of “using a murder to discredit political competitors,” as an AfD parliamentary leader wrote on Twitter.
The AfD has been consistent in criticizing what Hampel calls Merkel’s “illegal open-door policy” for refugees and asylum-seekers. AfD leaders demand that most, if not all, of the recent arrivals be sent home. Germany’s welfare system will collapse, he believes, under the strain of refugees who refuse to integrate.
The central message of his party, he says, is “Do we really want a melting pot from all nationalities, or do we want to keep our identity?”
He insists that message had nothing to do with Lübcke’s assassination.