‘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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Scholz calls on coalition to ‘pull ourselves together’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Saturday called on his fractious governing coalition to "pull ourselves together" following a dismal showing in EU parliament elections last week.

Scholz calls on coalition to 'pull ourselves together'

In power since the end of 2021, the three parties in government — Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the liberal FDP — have been at loggerheads on a wide range of issues including climate measures and budget spending.

“I think that this is one of the entirely justified criticisms of many citizens, namely that there is too much debate” within the coalition, Scholz told German television channel ZDF on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Italy.

“We need to pull ourselves together and stick together to reach agreements,” he added.

“The people have the right to demand that things change,” Scholz told public broadcaster ARD.

The three parties in the coalition suffered a severe defeat in the European elections, with the SPD achieving its worst result in a national election since 1949.

Subsequently, Scholz has faced mounting criticism within his own party.

On Saturday, however, Scholz told ZDF and ARD that he was “sure” that he would be the SPD’s next candidate for the chancellorship in the parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2025.

In the very short term, a new test awaits the coalition, which must reach an agreement on the 2025 budget by the beginning of July.

The FDP’s finance minister is opposed to any exceptions to the rules limiting debt and to any tax increases.

On the other hand, the SPD and the Greens are opposed to cuts in social welfare or climate protection.

The debate is also focused on increasing the resources allocated to the German army.