The recent politically motivated assassination of a prominent local leader in Germany has raised concern about the growing threat of far-right extremism in the country. As investigators search for possible accomplices, politicians are struggling to find answers to the escalating violence. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
June 27, 2019
Looking back, it was almost as if the group of high-ranking officials tasked with protecting Germany had had some dark premonition about what would soon transpire.
As the interior ministers of Germany’s 16 states convened in a hotel in the northern city of Kiel, the first item on the agenda was a “security report.” Sinan Selen, the vice president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), which is responsible for monitoring all forms of extremism, began enumerating the gravest threats to the country.
Then Selen did something unusual, at least for a meeting of German security officials — he didn’t talk about Islamism. Instead, according to people who were at the meeting, he spoke extensively about the danger posed by far-right extremists and so-called Reichsbürger, a fringe group that rejects modern Germany and instead adheres to the old German Reich.
This represented “one of the biggest challenges” for Germany’s security apparatus, Selen said. Less than 48 hours later, it would become abundantly clear just how serious the right-wing extremist threat had become.
The Nazi Next Door
On Saturday, June 15, at 2 a.m., a German SWAT team in Kassel arrested a man they suspected of shooting the district president, Walter Lübcke, in the head. A piece of dandruff found on the plaid shirt Lübcke had been wearing at the time of his death lead investigators to the 45-year-old suspect, who has been identified as Stephan Ernst. There was other evidence as well. Ernst has since confessed to the murder, saying he planned and carried out the attack alone and that he was motivated by comments Lübcke made in October 2015 in support of refugees in Germany.
For now, authorities are still investigating whether Erns told anyone about his plans or had accomplices. They say it’s possible someone accompanied Ernst on the night of the murder. The role a second person could have played is unclear; it’s possible that all they did was drive the getaway car, for instance. Investigators in the case did score another success this week, with the arrest of two more people based on information provided by Ernst, including the presumed gun dealer from North Rhine-Westphalia and the suspected middleman who connected Ernst and the dealer. The men are under investigation as possible accomplices to murder. Information from Ernst has also led investigators to a cache of weapons.
To his neighbors, Stephan Ernst seemed like an upstanding citizen with a wife, children and a small house with a pointed gable. They had no idea that Ernst had spent 20 years in the neo-Nazi scene, that he had once tried to plant a pipe bomb at a hostel for asylum-seekers or that he had beaten a migrant bloody in prison.
Ernst’s last job was at a manufacturer for railway technology as a shift worker. He was reserved and apparently got along best with an Iranian colleague.
Stephan Ernst’s other life, which he lived online, was vastly different. There, he consumed far-right extremist propaganda, according to investigators. In some forums, he is purported to have issued explicit threats.
A Turning Point
On the first weekend in June, those verbal threats manifested in physical violence. But instead of traveling to Berlin, where the politicians responsible for Germany’s open-door policy toward refugees reside, Ernst decided to fire the deadly shot in his immediate vicinity, in the small town of Wolfhagen-Istha, the home of Walter Lübcke, the 65-year-old member of the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and a staunch defender of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. At least that’s how investigators see it.
In the fall of 2015, as hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers were descending on Germany and seeking emergency shelter all over the country, Lübcke told off a group of right-wing agitators at a town hall. He quickly became a target of online hate. Words like “Volksverräter” — literally: traitor of the people — began appearing in comment sections, as did more explicit threats: “Smash in his skull and kick him into the next cesspool.”
Walter Lübcke’s murder marks a turning point. If the suspicions of Germany’s federal public prosecutor are correct, then the crime was a uniquely political attack.