Until very recently, the threat posed by white supremacists was underestimated in Germany and across much of the Western world.
It speaks to the tension of the moment that, when a car was driven into a crowd of people at a carnival parade in the small German town of Volkmarsen, the first thought was of terrorism — jihadist or far-right, one or the other.
As it turned out, Volkmarsen police said there was no sign the 29-year-old German driver had been politically motivated and that his action February 24 did not necessarily constitute a terror attack.
That seemed to rule out jihadist or far-right terrorism but it didn’t dispel persistent fears about a yet-unseen link or the possibility of a domino effect. In fact, authorities in Hesse, the state in which Volkmarsen is located, cancelled all carnival parades “as a precaution” after the incident.
It stands to reason. The Volkmarsen incident happened just days after Germany had its third deadly far-right attack in eight months. A man, identified as Tobias Rathjen killed ten people, most of them of immigrant origin, in two shisha bars in the Frankfurt suburb of Hanau.
The gunman reportedly expressed extreme right-wing views in a letter of confession that was found after he killed himself. In rambling writings and videos posted online before his shooting spree, the killer advocated genocide, expressed hatred of immigrants and peddled conspiracy theories spread by neo-Nazis, posting about the “great replacement,” the claim that Jews and liberals want “inferior” races to replace the white race.
Official condemnation was swift. German Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the “poison” of racism and hatred in Germany. Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht expressed Germans’ growing concerns about the cancer within the body politic when she said the shisha bar killings showed that “right-wing extremism and right-wing terrorism are the biggest threat to our democracy today.” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer acknowledged that “the threat posed by right-wing extremism, antisemitism and racism in Germany is very high.”
Just how high is clear from the tragic and frightening toll it took last year. In October, an attacker killed two people and tried to storm a synagogue in Halle in central Germany. He streamed the assault live online and later admitted to a far-right motive. In June, Walter Luebcke, a regional politician who supported Merkel’s policy of welcoming Syrian refugees, was shot in the head at close range. The killer had far-right links. It was the first assassination of a politician by a right-wing extremist since the birth of the German Federal Republic in 1949.
Seehofer pointed to a longer timeline and a deeper trend, not least a 2016 attack on migrants in a Munich mall and a bloody trail that stretched from 2000-07 of the killing of immigrants by a group that called itself the National Socialist Underground.
Two points are worth noting. First, until very recently, the threat posed by white supremacists was underestimated in Germany and across much of the Western world. Until Christchurch, Charlottesville and the Finsbury Park mosque attacks, the focus was Islamist extremism.
It made sense, at a time when London, Madrid, Paris, Brussels and other European cities faced repeated jihadist attacks but tunnel vision meant another, equally dark and virulent terrorist threat stayed under the radar. That is changing and demonstrably so in Germany and Britain.
For two years, Britain’s domestic counterintelligence and security agency MI5 has carried out serious investigations of suspected far-right plots, which police describe as the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the country.
Recently, the German government approved a bill to crack down on hate speech and online extremism, including of the sort advanced by Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
Though the AfD does not explicitly espouse violence, its rhetoric may nurture it. After the Hanau killings, for instance, the AfD issued a formal condemnation but also suggested that Merkel’s open-door refugee policies were the reason that ordinary Germans “flipped out.”
The AfD’s fulminations are potent. While the party is just 7 years old and garnered less than 13% of the national vote in the last election, it has members in all 16 of Germany’s state legislatures and is the largest opposition party nationally.
The AfD’s increasing ability to influence German political discourse brings us to the second, key point at issue: the rise in Western democracies of nationalist and right-wing populist movements. Their stock-in-trade is xenophobia. They use the guarantee of free speech to advance those views and win a place in legislatures by means of the democratic tools freely afforded to all who seek them.
It is time for the West to wage an all-out battle to preserve those freedoms by confronting all forms of hatred and exclusivism.
Originally published in The Arab Weekly