Not for the first time, Germany is confronting homegrown extremism. When CDU (Christian Democratic Union) politician Walter Lübcke was murdered on June 2, it starkly highlighted a problem that has long been simmering under the surface of German politics, and that belies Germany’s enviable image as the EU’s economic powerhouse.
Yes, Lübcke’s murderer has far-right political convictions, with national media reporting that he targeted Lübcke principally as a result of pro-migrant remarks the 65-year-old politician had made in 2015. But while German authorities and journalists are frantically rushing to unearth formal links between their suspect and known terrorist cells, the fact that the man identified only as “Stephan E.” has claimed to have acted alone should provide Germany with pause for thought.
That’s because his act of ‘lone wolf’ violence is symptomatic of the changing nature of German right-wing terrorism. In contrast to the National Socialist Underground of 2000 to 2007 (for example), acts of extreme right-wing violence are no longer isolated, aberrant events that can be pinned on specific neo-Nazi gangs. Increasingly, they’re not coming from ‘outside’ the German political system, and are often not the result of politically abnormal groups coaxing new members and subjecting them to indoctrination. Rather, they’re a manifestation of the current German political climate, which has witnessed a steady increase in extremist political and cultural activity over the past few years, facilitated by the rise of social media, exacerbated by a sense of political neglect, and coinciding with 2015’s significant increase in immigration.
Such a view is backed up by a significant December study published in the Perspectives on Terrorism journal. Written by Dr Daniel Koehler of the German Institute on Radicalization and De-Radicalization Studies (GIRDS), it asserts that most extreme acts of right-wing violence in Germany are the result of ‘hive terrorism’, in which “more or less ordinary persons without previous ties to extremist groups and movements [get] caught up in severe, but more or less spontaneous, plots or acts of violence.”
Tellingly, this paper cites a 2018 intelligence analysis on the backgrounds of 77 individuals involved in recent cases of extreme rightwing terrorism, and notes that the majority of perpetrators “were completely unknown to the security agencies before the attacks or their involvement in plots.” Not only that, but their attacks “were also mostly carried out impulsively, with a distinct lack of preparation and sophistication.”
The study demonstrates that most perpetrators without formal links to terror networks regularly consume “extreme rightwing subcultural products like music and literature,” while they also voice xenophobic or racist views, for example on social media or by taking part in anti-immigration rallies.” And such activities have increased since the post-2015 rise in immigration, with far-right music events and concerts rising from 55 in 2014 to 199 in 2015 alone.
As a result, Koehler’s article ends by concluding that combating terrorism and extremism “is indeed a ‘whole of society’ endeavour.” It is not something that can be tackled simply by pointing at a single terrorist group or faction and demanding its eradication, but rather something that requires a direct and unflinching confrontation with German society and political discourse at a more fundamental level.
As surveys from Pew Research Center have shown, German citizens exhibit certain tendencies and beliefs to a more pronounced degree than most of their counterparts, and it’s this that needs to be addressed if the threat of extreme right-wing terrorism is to be reduced. For instance, a Pew survey published in April found a big gap between pro-EU and anti-EU German people in terms of satisfaction with the workings of national democracy, with the 43-point difference being the largest witnessed in any major European country.
Dissatisfied individuals need to be accommodated and integrated by German politics, but rather than simply pandering to what may be unacceptable views, there’s clearly space in Germany for anti-immigrant sentiment to be challenged and rectified. Another Pew survey, published in March, discovered revealing inconsistencies in German views on immigration. While 59% of Germans believe that immigrants make their country stronger, 52% also believe that immigrants are more to blame for crime in their country than other groups. It’s such illogical contradictions that need be challenged, and more importantly, that can be challenged, since Germany’s crime rate was recently revealed to be at its lowest since unification, while a November study found that (EU) migrants added 0.2% annually to Germany’s GDP between 2011 and 2016.
On the other hand, the German government passed new immigration laws in June, which attempt to appease anti-immigrant views, given that these new laws make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers. To some extent, this could quell the worst excesses of extreme right-wing sentiment, but there’s also a risk that it could simply encourage the far-right to demand more. This is why it’s doubly important that German political discourse is moved in a more positive direction, one that corrects the distortions of anti-migrant rhetoric, because Walter Lübcke may not be the last German politician who pays the ultimate price for inaction.