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The latest German terror-attack signals an ascent of xenophobic racism

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  • A 43-year-old gunman walked into two bars in Hanau, Germany, this week and killed nine people, all of whom were immigrants.
  • Before carrying out the massacre, he called for the “annihilation” of the country’s minorities. 
  • The domestic-terror attack is the latest in a trend of far-right violence against refugees, migrants, Jews, Muslims, and people of color.
  • The ascent of the far-right in German government has led to rising concerns that the country is losing its collective memory of the lessons imparted by World War II and the Holocaust.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

From Christchurch, New Zealand, to Pittsburgh, United States, the last several years have seen a swift uptick in extreme-right terrorism that is typically waged against people of color, Jews, Muslims, refugees, and migrants. 

Late on Wednesday, the German town of Hanau became the most recent site of violence when a 43-year-old gunman walked into two bars and murdered nine people. Most of the gunman’s victims were men and all of them were immigrants. Five held Turkish citizenship.

Before the killings, the gunman uploaded a now-deleted post calling for the “annihilation” of Germany’s ethnic minorities. 

The massacre comes on the heels of great tumult across the country. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party won big in the state of Thuringia’s election last October, doubling its previous support with 24% of the vote. It placed second behind the socialist Linke party (30%). 

The result was heralded as a victory for AfD in “an election widely seen as a bellwether of the far-right party’s growing strength in its eastern heartlands,” according to Al Jazeera. Shortly before the election, a court ruled that Thuringia’s AfD leader Björn Höcke can be legitimately described as a “fascist,” a term that is potentially slanderous under German law. 

Earlier in 2019, a right-wing extremist fatally shot politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. Officials characterized the murder as the first political assassination carried out by the German far-right since the Nazis were in power, the New York Times reported

Is Germany losing its historical memory?

Germany has sought in myriad ways to recompense for the brutalities of the Holocaust. Such reflection “has been kind of institutionalized in the memory of the people there,” John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Insider. 

“It’s not just the museums and memorials, but even small things like the project of paving-stones that you find throughout German cities,” he added, referring to the “stumbling stones” that line city streets, engraved with the names of the Nazis’ millions of victims.

That’s what makes the rise of right-wing terrorism in Germany so confounding: It appears to be at odds with the country’s collective memory of World War II and the Nazi regime.

Germany has attempted to quell the far-right from resurrecting itself as a political force by imposing a “quarantine of far-right parties,” which mainstream parties imposed to exclude extremists from decision making and, ultimately, from power. Germany has also banned neo-Nazi organizations and “language that’s somehow connected to Nazism,” Feffer added. 

But the increasing prominence of the far-right, combined with fascists winning seats in government, has challenged Germany’s collective resistance to the forces of racism, nationalism, and white supremacy — and its historical memory, too. 

Thuringia is “a neo-Nazi hotbed,” journalist Alex Dziadosz wrote in the American Prospect. And Thuringia’s CDU party recently joined forces with the far-right AfD to oust Thuringia’s left-wing leader. 

The quarantine, said Feffer, “is starting to be broken.” 

Right-wing violence, not confined by borders

Under the leadership of Merkel, who will resign before the 2021 federal election, Germany has maintained “a pretty tolerable position” on refugees and asylum-seekers, said Feffer. Merkel welcomed nearly one million refugees and migrants to the country in 2015. Ever since, the number of annual asylum applications has slid and deportations are increasing, CNN reported

Those who do take up residency in the country are subjected to right-wing violence that is unpredictable and increasingly common. 

Between 2000 and 2007, an extreme-right German terror cell killed 10 people, nine of whom were immigrants, over the course of three bombings and 15 armed robberies. The terrorists tried to kill another 43 people.

“It took years for the German authorities to even recognise (or acknowledge) that these violent incidents constituted a campaign of terrorist violence,” wrote political scientist Daniel Koehler in a 2019 policy report. 

Between 2000 and 2016, at the height of the so-called refugee crisis, right-wing arson attacks increased nearly tenfold, according to Koehler. (In 2017, the figure dropped off: There were 42 arson attacks that year — almost triple the 16 arsons in 2000.) 

The overt hostility against non-natives did not begin during the surge in refugees, however.

In 2013, 23% of people in western Germany agreed with xenophobic statements, a study found. In the east, 32% agreed with such statements. Nor is German neo-Nazism new: In 1991, there were 30 neo-Nazi groups and 46 other right-wing groups, according to the government. The total membership of the groups was 39,800. 

Extreme right violence isn’t just a concern in Germany. Throughout Europe, the far-right continues to target Jews, and increasingly “immigrants, left-wingers, and homeless people,” as well as Muslims and queer people, according to a 2019 report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. 

The upswing in violence could not have been possible without online communication, which serves as a fertile breeding ground for the ideology of the far-right — and its strategies of violence. 

The internet “allows people to whip themselves into a frenzy that allows these ideas to feel omnipresent and threatening in a unique way,” Keegan Hankes, the interim research director of Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, told Insider.

Crucially, internet chat-rooms are not confined by borders.

In the United States, far-right terrorism incidents doubled between 2016 and 2017, according to Koehler’s report. In 2018, every extremist murder was perpetrated by someone with ties to the far-right, the Anti-Defamation League found. As the American right-wing terror movement becomes more dangerous and powerful, its members and organizations are communicating with European cells. 

“There’s this constant look over the Atlantic from both sides,” Hankes said, “for tactics and theme-building.” 

“That’s been going on for decades,” he added, but “the internet just really opened that up.” 

‘Never again’: The struggle over history and collective memory

Against the backdrop of increasing violence, a call is ringing out in the US and Europe: “Never again.” 

The expression, an allusion to the Holocaust, is a declaration of solidarity with the persecuted. It is meant as a rejection of the “troubling increase in xenophobia, homophobia, discrimination and hatred of all kinds,” in the words of António Guterres, the United Nations secretary-general. 

But more and more people are completely disregarding the message of “Never again,” Hankes said. “It does not hold the same weight and power that it really should.” 

The explosion in far-right terror in Germany, too, suggests that the lessons of “Never again” have been supplanted by extremism. 

“Germany is everywhere presented as the model country, as one of the few countries in history that has honestly faced its crimes,” Jason Stanley, a philosopher at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works”, wrote in the New York Times

“But who can really decide,” asked Stanley, whose father escaped Nazi Germany in 1939, “when a reckoning is complete?”

The tragedy in Hanau may prompt a reckoning with right-wing terror across the western world. If it does, Stanley has a reminder: “The struggle to maintain a liberal democratic culture while living with fearsome ghosts” — xenophobia, racism, and white supremacy — “is, in fact, never-ending.”

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