Lessons not learned: From Christchurch to Halle

Mourners gathered outside the Halle synagogue

In early October, the east German city of Halle became the scene of yet another terrorist attack on European soil. Armed with multiple homemade weapons, explosives, and Molotov cocktails, a 27-year-old right-wing extremist aimed to storm the local synagogue to commit a massacre during Yom Kippur. After he failed to enter the premise, he shot a passerby, 40-year-old Jana L., and continued his mission in a nearby Kebab restaurant, where he killed the 20-year-old Kevin S. More were seriously injured in this incident. Testifying his extreme right worldview in English in advance, he livestreamed his actions for an international community and aimed to receive recognition as a “saint” in the far-right terrorist subcultures that radiate on Chan boards, gaming servers and Telegram channels.

It does not take much to understand that he appropriates the ‘toolkit’ of the Christchurch massacre that inspired further shootings in the US and Norway this year. This toolkit instructs the lone perpetrator to publish a pseudo manifesto on a fringe board and to kill as many people as possible. Much of the content can be traced back to far-right communities that use digital cultures such as gaming as framing devices to receive broader media attention and to invite further copycat acts trying to make Christchurch a real-life meme. This gamification of far-right terrorism has been much discussed in the past months. Yet, its global dimension is absent in the German discourse surrounding Halle, prompting pitfalls and failures in dealing with this particular face of far-right terrorism in the 21st century in security agencies, politics and the media. While Christchurch has – thanks to the sensitive handling of the situation – also evolved as a symbol of solidarity and cohesion, public consciousness in Halle is dominated by media sensationalism, discourse deflection and political instrumentalization from the radical right. Vital lessons from Christchurch have not been learned.

The Security Agencies

“We could not take care of right-wing extremists at the same time as we combat terrorism with a lot of personnel” stated Oliver Malchow, Chairman of the Trade Union of the Police, following the terrorist act in Halle. This problematic distinction between terrorism and right-wing extremism might have been accidental in this very situation. It highlights, however, that despite the recent wave of far-right terrorism in Germany there is little understanding of the threat from the right – and especially in how far-right terrorism is expressed in the context of an increasing interplay between online action and offline consequences. The call for an increase in personnel in security agencies and police departments cannot silence the disqualification of much of the existing structures. For instance, police were unable to save the uploaded files of the perpetrator even though they have been online for four days on a fringe gamer forum before having been taken down by the provider, thus missing the chance to investigate into prior activities of the user. Security agencies hardly monitor any right-wing extremist online network as long as it does not appear ‘in real life’. The dualism between a ‘virtual’ and a ‘real’ world is still prevalent and caused confusion and mismanagement in advance and in the aftermath of attacks like Halle. This is hardly surprising. The majority of police staff lack training in the language and culture of digital hate communities and faces a tech-savvy generation of right-wing extremists who understood to creep into our daily digital spheres. Increasing the number of police personnel will unlikely solve the issue.

The Politics

Disregarding the importance of globally operating hate groups has also been prevalent in German politics. The thesis of the (very) lone wolf with an interest in computer games fit into the general pattern of isolating such acts from broader developments. Consequently, Minister of Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) put the focus on the ‘gamer scene’ as the source of the problem. There may certainly be some tendencies in the universe of gamers that are overdue to be challenged, yet this handling symbolizes the awkwardness of the German state in grasping the root of the problem. Politicians and bureaucrats do not understand that far-right terrorism appropriates digital (sub-) cultures that make their acts attractive to broader communities. The central aspect in planning such an act as a computer game mission is the immanent call for replication. The proxy debate on gamers deflects from the political cause and the strategy of a globally acting community that aims to cause an accelerated collapse of democratic societies. Adding fuel to the fire, political parties such as the Christian Democratic Union Party (CDU) enforced their demands for steep cuts in liberal rights by calling for a decryption of digital messaging. In sharp contrast stands the Call to Action by New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, which calls for governments and tech companies to “eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online” on a global scale to safeguard “a free, open and secure internet [that] offers extraordinary benefits to society”. Beyond the digital spheres, the sincere gestures of grief and solidarity to the Muslim community following Christchurch have strongly exceeded ritualized political responses.

The Media

In the aftermath of the attack in Christchurch, leading news outlets from New Zealand and beyond agreed on a media codex on how to report this attack. They would offer no platform for the slogans and ideologies that have been expressed by the perpetrator. In fact, it was understood that this media reproduction has been part of such far-right plots. “We, in New Zealand, will give him nothing. Not even his name” was the courageous response by Ardern on the murderous attacks. This clear message appealed to the decency of the victims and condemned anyone who would praise the worldview of the perpetrator.

What did German media learn from this? Not much. Just a few hours after the video circulated on Telegram, we saw extensive reproduction of its contents on mainstream media. The face, the name and video snippets were all over the place. Against any academic advice, parts of the “manifesto” have been disseminated publicly. Even worse, pictures of the homemade weapons (from one of his uploaded files) have been extensively shared, with the possibility of inciting further terrorists. Much of the ignorance of the media play into the rationale of far-right terrorists. “If the tyrant dies, his game is over. If the martyr dies, his game begins.” This sentence, combined with the face of the extreme right shooter Dylann Roof, has become a famous meme among terrorist subcultures and gets to the heart of their strategies.

The Radical Right

Politicians have claimed that the Alternative for Germany (AfD) bears moral complicity for the deed in Halle. AfD rhetoric and social media postings repeatedly featured revisionism with anti-semitic overtones and (anti-Muslim) racism that questions fundamental rights of minorities. Additionally, the radical right network around AfD created a scenario of fear that justifies violence as an act of self-defense. After Halle, the AfD put the blame of the ‘rampage of the lunatic’ on the government who cannot secure the rule of law. The party leadership presented itself as a pro-Jewish party and, more recently, tried to instrumentalize the gaming scene. The rationale is easy to unravel: to amplify the debate about gaming instead of far-right terrorism, the AfD nurtures the ‘same side’ narrative of taking a position against every form of extremism. By trying to deflect from its own entanglements with extreme right organizations such as the Identitarian Movement, the AfD aims to whitewash from accusations of right-wing extremism by taking distance from the act in Halle. At the same time, however, there are AfD members who talk about Halle as a false flag operation and downplay the anti-semitic motivation of the perpetrator.

It is the new normal in Germany that media outlets repeatedly preferred to provide a stage for the radical right than to foster mutual respect and solidarity following this horrendous incident of Halle. The terrorist attack in Halle has not been the first of its kind and will certainly not be the last. Yet, it seems that simple mechanisms of protecting communities from far-right harm are flawed in German public and politics.

Mr Maik Fielitz is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate in Department of Political Science at Goethe University Frankfurt. See his profile here.

© Maik Fielitz. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).