BERLIN—Late Wednesday night in the central German city Hanau, a gunman that police have identified as 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen opened fire at two shisha bars. They’re the kind of places favored by people who enjoy a laid-back atmosphere as they puff tobacco bubbling through water-filled hookahs, and on any given evening, many of those folks may be from Turkish, Kurdish, or North African backgrounds. They’re quiet places for conversation and minding your own business.
Do Germans Know a Hate Crime When They See It?
But Rathjen just started blowing people away. He first opened fire at a hookah bar called Midnight in the center of Hanau. He then drove five minutes away to the Arena Bar and Cafe, where he opened fire again. He killed nine and injured several others at the two locations, then fled.
Police swarmed into the neighborhood. When they tracked Rathjen down and stormed his apartment at 5 a.m., they found his dead body next to that of his 72-year-old mother. Apparently he had shot her, too.
Investigators also found a manifesto with racist and ultranationalist views, and the federal prosecutor is treating the case as an example of extreme-right terrorism and it is already clear the shooter was drawing on the international propaganda of hate that has inspired murderers from New Zealand to the United States.
It is also apparent that, despite condemnation of the killings by the ascendant far-right German opposition party AfD, or Alternative für Deutschland, it has contributed to this country's increasingly incendiary atmosphere.
Witnesses were stunned.
“I got a call from a colleague that there was a shooting,” Can Luca Frisenna, the 24-year-old son of the owner of a convenience store next to the Arena Bar, told reporters in front the taped-off crime scene. “I drove here directly. First I thought that my father had been hit and my little brother... and then I saw both of them, they were in shock, they were crying. Everyone was shocked.
“Things like this do not happen in this area,“ Frisenna said. "It’s like a film, like a prank. I can’t yet believe what has happened. I think all of my colleagues, they are like my family, they cannot believe it either.”
Both the Midnight and the Arena have owners with Kurdish backgrounds, according to Mehmet Tanriverdi, the chairman of the Kurdische Gemeinde Deutschland, or Kurdish Community in Germany.
Tanriverdi said that five of the nine victims have Kurdish backgrounds, but “They are German citizens.”
One witness, Kenan Kocak, told the television network station NTV, “It’s very sad in particular that young people—a young lad, and a young girl about 20 or 25 years old—have died. I was there with them yesterday. Someone who worked there was also taken to the hospital. It looks very bad.”
The news agency ANF has identified two of the people killed as Ferhat Ünvar and Gökhan Gültekin, both young men.
A week ago the killer, who described himself as a bank teller, published a video on YouTube in which he addressed “all Americans.” He spoke English in a light German accent and mouthed bizarre conspiracy theories about “underground military facilities” on U.S. soil. He referred repeatedly to 9/11 as an example of the imminent threat. He said that he, for one, has been under surveillance since birth and called on American citizens to wake up and “fight now.” The video appeared to have been recorded in a private apartment; a bookshelf in the background was stacked with dozens of binders.
Meanwhile, Rathjen uploaded a 24-page text on his personal website. It included long sections of white supremacist, ethno-nationalist rambling. He wrote that “not everyone who owns a German passport is purebred and valuable.” He talked about one German Volk—“the people” in the ethno-nationalist sense—which he describes as being the best. Otherwise there are only “destructive races.” The “solution to the puzzle,” he wrote (misspelling “puzzle”—is that billions of people (he named Arab countries and Israel) be “annihilated.”
If such demented ravings were limited to one unhinged bank teller with a gun, society might rest easy in spite of the tragedy. But they are not.
Last week, police in Germany arrested 12 right-wing extremists who allegedly had been planning terror attacks on mosques across the country, inspired by those carried out in New Zealand last year. They had plans to provoke revenge attacks and bring about a “civil war,” authorities said.
This often is part of the global hate network's gospel. The young white supremacist who murdered nine black men and women in a Bible study group in Charleston, South Carolina, one evening in June 2015, preached much the same philosophy.
Rathjen also wrote about the coming “war” on his website, claiming that it would be a double blow, both against the secret organizations that he says are reading his mind, and against the “degeneration of the Volk.”
Right-wing extremists who turn to terror rely on apocalyptic scenarios (“civil war”) to characterize their targets as a threat and thus justify their criminal acts as “self defense.”
Politicians from Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), now Germany’s biggest opposition party, have spurred this narrative by spreading conspiracies about “ethnic replacement” and disinformation campaigns about non-existent crimewaves—as exemplified by campaign posters that accused hookah bars of being places of “rape “ and “poison.”
For Germany’s radical right, escalation is the goal. Crime levels in Germany are still at an all-time low. Right-wing terrorism aims to spread fear and potentially bring about authoritarian measures that the AfD cannot implement directly. So of course AfD politicians have condemned the terror attack—one AfD politician wrote on Twitter, “Is this still the ‘Germany in which we live well and happily’ that Merkel’s CDU (Conservative party) conjured up in 2017?”
Four months ago, 27-year-old Stephan Balliet tried to commit a terror attack against a synagogue in the city of Halle an der Saale, and killed two bystanders. As was the case with Rathjen, he had not been known to intelligence services prior to his act of terror.
Meanwhile, Stephan E., the man accused of murdering conservative politician Walter Lübcke on his front porch in June, was a neo-Nazi in the '90s, but only became active again in the past few years. The German newspaper Die Zeit reported Thursday that police found a New Right book in his apartment that propagates the same ethnic replacement theories AfD politicians have cited.
In 2016, 18-year-old student David Sonboly killed nine people in Munich on the fifth anniversary of the terror attack in Norway by Anders Breivik. He had been bullied at school, but turned his resentment and fury on people simply for their appearance, claiming that refugees and immigrants were a threat to Germany’s future.
In 2018, reporters from the newspaper Taz uncovered a network of people (including soldiers from the German army) who were preparing “kill lists” of left-wing politicians and activists, whom they could execute on the apocalyptic “Day X.”