The murder of Walter Lübcke, a member of Merkel’s political party, highlights the long history of radical right terrorism against German politicians.
On 2 June 2019, Walter Lübcke, the acting district president of Kassel (Hesse) and member of Angela Merkel’s CDU, was murdered in front of his house door with a headshot. A couple of weeks later, on 16 June 2019, a DNA match enabled the investigators a breakthrough in the case. They arrested a suspect, 45-year-old Stephan Ernst, who is known as neo-Nazi with ties into the militant scene. Lübcke had been a target of hate speech and murder threats from the radical right for his pro-migrant positions especially in 2015 when he publicly spoke out for refugees.
The arrested suspect, Ernst, admitted to having committed the murder first, but later withdrew his confession. He is currently in custody awaiting trial. If the trial proves his guilt, this crime will mark a milestone in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. Lübcke will be the first governing politician that became a fatal victim of radical-right terrorist violence in Germany after WWII.
The History Of Radical Right terrorism Against Politicians
Radical right violence and threats against ruling politicians are not new to German society. The country faces a long history of violence from the far-right against politicians, particularly in the Weimar Republic from 1918 until 1933. During those years, governing politicians belonged, as representatives of the republican “system”, to the declared enemies of rising National Socialism. The National Socialists denounced those pro-republican politicians as “system politicians” – a vocabulary that is still used by radical right parties such as the NPD or the “Alternative für Deutschland” (“Alternative for Germany”, AfD) today.
The Weimar Republic experienced a series of fatal attacks against politicians, such as the killing of the former finance minister and Centre Party politician Matthias Erzberger (1921) or the murder of the acting liberal foreign minister Walter Rathenau (1922). Members of the radical right terrorist “Organisation Consul” were responsible for those and many other crimes.
After 1945, radical right hatred against the ruling parties lived on. “Put Brandt against the wall” was a popular slogan by old and new Nazis in the late 1960s and early 1970s, directed against the then Social Democrat Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD). However, the situation in the FRG was quite different from the politically fragile Weimar Republic. Although radical right terrorists became active from the very beginning, they did not commit any murders against governing politicians. Instead, they stuck with murder fantasies and incitements to murder. In late 1960, it was particularly Willy Brandt and his government that caught the hatred. With his “Neue Ostpolitik” (“New Eastern Politics”), which sought for a political rapprochement with the GDR and Eastern Europe, Brandt was extremely loathed by the radical right.
In the early 1970s, the threat posed by radical right terrorists became more real. In 1971, police arrested Carsten E., a gardener, who had reconnoitered the residence of then-Federal President Gustav Heinemann (Social Democrats), armed with a knife. His objective was to hit the “top brass” because of their “communist politics”.
A few years later, in 1978, members of the radical right terrorist “Otte Group” imagined a bomb attack against Schleswig-Holstein Prime Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg (CDU). It was a declared goal of Paul Otte, the leader of the group that “politicians ought to be overthrown”.
Generally speaking, radical right terrorists attacked other targets at that time. The main enemy was communism – particularly the representatives and institutions of the GDR and the Soviet Union. From the mid-1970s, the public commemoration of the Nazi past, as well as Jews and Leftists, were targets. In the early 1980s, migrants became more frequent victims of radical right terrorist violence.
Targeted Assassinations As Modus Operandi
The modus operandi in the Lübcke case – a targeted execution vis-à-vis on the terrace of his private house – points to a cold-blooded murderer. Although radical right terrorists mainly choose to carry out arson and bomb attacks, we can observe similar radical right targeted murders in the history of the FRG, even though they did not reach the dimension of the assassinations during the Weimar Republic.
An outstanding example is the assassination of Rudi Dutschke, the most prominent face of the left-wing German student movement in 1967/68. Josef Bachmann, the perpetrator, shot him on 11 April 1968 in the open street in West Berlin. Dutschke survived seriously injured and died in 1979 as a result of this attack. “You filthy communist pig!” Bachmann shouted before he fired. Many years later, it turned out that the perpetrator had connections to the radical right scenebefore the attack.
In December 1980, Uwe Behrendt, a member of the radical right “Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann”, assassinated the Jewish publisher Shlomo Lewin and his partner Frida Poeschke in their house in Erlangen. This double murder, for which Behrendt was never put to trial for since he escaped abroad, was obviously motivated by anti-Semitism. Twenty years later, starting in 2000, the racist murder series of the “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) began. Until 2007, the NSU killed its victims with targeted shots from close range. Still, a ruling politician has not become a target so far.
A Turning Point In Radical Right Terrorism
After 2015, we can observe a change in the target choice of radical right terrorism. When a public migration debate arose around the fact that many refugees sought refuge in Germany, radical right terrorists started to physically assault not only left-wing politicians – who were and still are a preferred target – but also governing politicians from other parties:
On 17 October 2015, Frank Steffen stabbed the independent mayoral candidate of Cologne, Henriette Reker, with a knife, injuring her and four other people. Reker survived severely injured; the very next day, still being in a coma, she won the election as mayor. Steffen, who had had ties to the neo-fascist “Freiheitliche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (“Free German Worker’s Party”, FAP) in the 1990s, acted for racist motives since he attacked Reker because he rejected her refugee policy.
Two years later, on November 27, 2017, Werner S. attacked Andreas Hollstein (CDU) the mayor of Altena, a small town in North Rhine Westfalia, with a knife in a kebab shop and injured his neck. Two employees helped Hollstein and probably prevented worse. The perpetrator also spoke out against the mayor`s refugee policy. While Frank S. was sentenced to 14 years for attempted murder, Werner S. was given a suspended sentence for inflicting grievous bodily harm.
The murder of Walter Lübcke was the first successful attempt in the history of the FRG to kill a politician because of his pro-refugee politics. However, the idea of murdering government politicians is not a new objective in German radical right terrorism – which does not come as a surprise since such attacks fundamentally challenge the power of the state.
Looking at the context – current debates on migration and social dynamics that inspired radical right terrorists – in this case is crucial. Lübcke, as well as Reker and Hollstein, were personified as representatives of the German refugee policy by the perpetrators. The radicalization of the German neo-Nazi scene has progressed so much that murdering a politician has now become a tangible option.
Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher at the University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf. See her profile here.
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