‘Hatred can’t have a place in our society’: German neo-Nazi on trial for politician’s murder

A German neo-Nazi stands trial Tuesday on charges of murdering pro-refugee politician Walter Luebcke, in a case that shocked the country and highlighted the growing threat of right-wing extremism.

'Hatred can't have a place in our society': German neo-Nazi on trial for politician's murder
Journalists and visitors waiting in the rain in Frankfurt on Tuesday morning. Photo: DPA

Federal prosecutors believe the main suspect, 46-year-old Stephan Ernst, was motivated by “racism and xenophobia” when he allegedly drove to Lübcke's house on June 1st, 2019 and shot him in the head.

Ernst is to appear before the higher regional court in Frankfurt alongside co-defendant Markus H. who is accused of helping Ernst train with firearms — including the murder weapon.

READ ALSO: 'A new strategy': How Germany plans to fight far-right extremism

The killing has been described as Germany's first far-right political assassination since World War II.

The trial is expected to draw huge interest but seating in the courtroom will be limited because of coronavirus social distancing measures.

Lübcke's wife and two adult sons plan to attend the opening hearing.

“Hatred and violence can have no place in our society,” they said in a statement.

“All of us who stand for a free democracy must not fall silent, but take a clear position.”

Pro-refugee speech

Lübcke, 65, belonged to Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party and headed the Kassel regional council in the western state of Hesse.

He supported Merkel's 2015 decision to open the country's borders to refugees during Europe's migrant crisis and spoke in favour of hosting asylum seekers in a local town.

Prosecutors believe Ernst and his accomplice attended a speech by Lübcke in October 2015 when the politician defended helping refugees and said anyone who didn't agree with those values was “free to leave the country”.

The remark was widely shared online and sparked a furious reaction from people on the far right.

After the speech, Ernst “increasingly projected his hatred of foreigners” onto Lübcke, prosecutors said in the indictment.

Following mass sexual assaults by migrants against women in Cologne on New Year's Eve 2015 and a 2016 Islamist attack in the French city of Nice, Ernst allegedly began tracking Lübcke's movements.

Between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors say he worked with Markus H. to improve his skill with firearms, and the two are said to have attended right-wing demonstrations together.

The late Walter Lübcke. Photo: DPA

In the course of their investigations, prosecutors separately charged Ernst with attempted murder for allegedly stabbing an Iraqi asylum seeker in the back in 2016.

They also uncovered a cache of weapons and ammunition belonging to Ernst, including revolvers, pistols and a submachine gun.

Although Ernst initially admitted to killing Lübcke, he later retracted his confession and said Markus H. had pulled the trigger.

But prosecutors maintain that while the accomplice “accepted and supported” the danger Ernst posed, he was not aware of concrete plans for an attack.

'Biggest threat'

In 1993, Ernst was convicted for an attempted bomb attack on an asylum home. In 2009, German media say he also took part in neo-Nazi clashes targeting a union demonstration.

But Ernst then slipped off the security services' radar, fuelling criticism that German authorities weren't taking the far-right threat seriously enough.

German police came under fire years earlier for overlooking racist crimes after it emerged that a neo-Nazi terror cell, the National Socialist Underground, had killed 10 people, mainly immigrants, between 2000 in 2007.

READ ALSO: Four years of Germany's worst Neo-Nazi scandal

Lübcke's killing was followed by a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, eastern Germany, that left two dead in October 2019, while another gunman shot dead nine people of migrant origin in the central town of Hanau in February this year.

Several politicians have reported receiving far-right death threats in recent months, including Germany's only black MP Karamba Diaby.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has since declared far-right extremism the “biggest security threat facing Germany”.

He has promised tougher security measures, including a crackdown on online hate speech.

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German far-right AfD thwarted in mayoral race near former Nazi camp

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on Sunday lost a tight mayoral race where the party had been tipped to secure the office of city mayor for the first time.

German far-right AfD thwarted in mayoral race near former Nazi camp

The AfD’s candidate Jörg Prophet was defeated by independent incumbent Kai Buchmann in a run-off vote that put the spotlight on the city of Nordhausen in the former East German state of Thuringia.

The prospect of a win for the far-right party was described as a “catastrophe” by the keepers of a nearby concentration camp memorial ahead of the ballot.

Around 60,000 prisoners were held in the Mittelbau-Dora slave labour camp — a sub-camp of the notorious Buchenwald — only six kilometres from central Nordhausen.

They were forced to make V-2 rockets in brutal underground conditions, with around one in three worked to death.

An AfD mayor would not have been welcome at commemorative events at the site’s memorial, Jens-Christian Wagner, director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, told AFP.

READ ALSO: Why are the far-right AfD doing so well in German polls?

‘Weight lifted’

“The AfD is an extreme right-wing party whose ideology is congruent or at least very similar in many areas to the ideology of the National Socialists,” he said.

Prophet looked confident ahead of the vote, flashing a brilliant white grin to passers-by at his campaign stand in the small but prosperous city.

The 61-year-old argued he represented a fresh start for Nordhausen after six-year incumbent Buchmann had fallen out of favour with many residents after repeatedly clashing with the city council.

Like many members of the far-right party, Prophet has been accused of extremism and historical revisionism.

In a blog post in 2020, he claimed the Allied forces that liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp were only interested in snooping on the site’s rocket and missile technology.

He also called for an end to Germany’s Schuldkult, or “guilt cult”, a reference to the country’s efforts to remember and learn from the Holocaust.

But in the end, Prophet failed to gather the support needed to become city mayor, collecting 45.1 percent of the vote.

The result guaranteed a “normal life for Nordhausen”, Buchmann said after the outcome became clear.

With the result “a huge weight has been lifted”, Wagner told news channel NTV.

It made clear that “you cannot win elections with historical revisionism, with an attitude that downplays the suffering of concentration camp prisoners”, he said.

Regional tests

Nonetheless, right-wing extremist attitudes are becoming increasingly widespread in Germany, according to a survey published this week by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Eight percent of Germans can now be classified as having clear right-wing extremist views, compared with two to three percent in previous years, the foundation said.

READ ALSO: Number of right-wing extremists in Germany ‘triples’

The AfD, created in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit before seizing on anger over mass migration to Germany, has had a string of successes of late.

The party secured its first district administrator position in June, also in Thuringia, and its first town mayor in July in neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt.

At the national level, recent opinion polls have put the party on 22 percent, above Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD and only a few points behind the main opposition conservative party.

The AfD’s support is especially strong in Thuringia, where it is polling  around 34 percent, according to a recent survey by regional broadcaster MDR.

Thuringia will hold a vote for its regional parliament in September 2024, along with two other former East German states, Brandenburg and Saxony.