If Germany can’t stop the rise of white nationalism, how can Canada?

With an unflinching grasp of its own horrific history, Germany should be a model for dealing with neo-Nazism. But recent events suggest otherwise.

On October 9, a 27-year-old man killed two people outside a synagogue in the German town of Halle. Stephan Balliet confessed to the murders, admitting he targeted the synagogue on Yom Kippur, one of the most significant Jewish holidays. Balliet told investigators he was motivated by extreme-right, anti-Semitic views; he had intended to livestream a massacre inside the synagogue.

“Our country and its basic order [are] being attacked from within,” German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said in an interview with the newspaper Tagesspiegel following the shooting. She characterized the attack as a “wake-up call.”

But in an environment where anti-Semitic and xenophobic crimes both rose nearly 20 per cent between 2017 and 2018, her statement was criticized. “It’s much too late to call this a wake-up call,” Wenzel Michalski, director of Human Rights Watch in Germany, told Maclean’s. “Everybody should be awake already.”

Four months earlier, another death was also labelled a “wake-up call” in Germany. On June 2, Walter Lübcke was fatally shot in the head while smoking on his terrace in the small village of Istha. It wasn’t just the brazen violence that shook residents in the region—it was the fact that this was a targeted political murder. Lübcke, 65, was well-known as the regional president of the district council in Kassel, a mid-sized city in central Germany.

The suspect, Stephan Ernst, has a long history of violent crime and connections to neo-Nazi groups. He confessed to the murder soon after he’d committed it, later retracting his statement after switching legal counsel. Initially, Ernst said he was prompted by comments Lübcke made at a town hall in October 2015 supporting the influx of refugees which was the result of an open borders policy made by Lübcke’s Christian Democratic colleague, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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“One has to stand up for values here,” Lübcke had said at the assembly in Lohfelden, just outside Kassel. “And those who don’t do so can leave this country any time if they don’t like it. That’s the freedom of every German.”

The town hall had been held to discuss converting a former garden market into a shelter for refugees. This effort was part of broader accommodation of the 890,000 refugees Germany took in that year. Kurt Heldmann, who worked closely with Lübcke to settle refugees, estimates 700 or so were in attendance when a dozen people burst in and disrupted the assembly. A long-time resident of Kassel, Heldmann recognized them as members of the city’s far-right scene. “It was clear that it would be a problem,” he says, recalling the event several years later.

Following Lübcke’s death, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas published an op-ed in the newspaper Bild with a clear message: “Germany has a terrorism problem.” That same day, the headline on the newspaper Tageszeitung read, “Lübcke is not an isolated case.” A week later, Germany’s domestic intelligence agency busted Nordkreuz, an extremist organization that compiled a kill list of 25,000 liberal politicians considered “pro-refugee” while also acquiring weapons, 200 body bags and quicklime, which prevents the rotting that makes corpses smell.

That these developments are happening in Germany, a country known for an unflinching view of its own horrific past, might be considered surprising. Since the end of World War II, Germany has built institutions and cultivated a historical memory to avoid the atrocities of the Nazi era. Germany’s Federal Office of Constitutional Protection, the nation’s domestic intelligence agency known locally as BfV, is charged with monitoring extremism that threatens democratic order. For most Germans, the dangers of nationalism are obvious and there is a willingness to vigorously defend democratic values. But even still, there are 24,100 known right-wing extremists in the country and 12,700 of them have been classified as violent, according to the BfV. There has also been an alarming rise in extreme-right views which has already spilled over into mainstream politics. And Germany isn’t alone among countries considered “liberal”—the United States, United Kingdom and even Canada are grappling with criminal and political strains of white nationalism. And if Germany is struggling to contain this threat, what does that mean for countries that haven’t been as vigilant?

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Following the deaths in Halle and Lübcke’s murder, politicians called out Germany’s third-largest federal party—the far-right, nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD)—for contributing to a climate of hate leading to violent attacks. After Lübcke was killed, Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is Merkel’s successor as CDU leader, said the AfD has incited hate and “lowered inhibitions so much that they result in pure violence.” After the Halle attack, Social Democrat (SPD) leadership candidate Michael Roth didn’t mince words when speaking to newspaper Die Welt: “The political arm of right-wing terror sits in the Bundestag, and it is called the AfD.”

The AfD vehemently rejects these criticisms. Responding to comments made by Kramp-Karrenbauer and others after Lübcke has murdered,  AfD party co-leader Alice Weidel condemned the attack in a press statement and tweeted that critics were “using a murder to discredit political rivals.”

The AfD was founded in 2013, initially as a reaction to the European debt crisis. The party leaned further into populist territory in 2015, leading co-founder Bernd Lucke to quit, partly over concerns the party was anti-foreigner and in particular anti-Islam. As the AfD continued to move further to the right, party discord over its extreme elements grew, but so did its popularity. The AfD campaigned on an anti-EU, anti-immigration platform in 2017 and its members were elected into federal parliament for the first time with nearly six million votes—12.6 per cent of the popular vote — becoming the third-largest party with 94 members in the 709-seat Bundestag. 

The AfD presents itself as an organization protecting against an imminent Islamic threat. The party’s co-leader and co-founder Alexander Gauland told the Atlantic shortly after the 2017 election that one of the reasons the AfD was popular was likely that “we don’t like Islamic invasion.” Gauland went on to reference sharia, repeating a popular argument casting Muslims as incompatible with Western traditions.

It’s a familiar line heard across Western countries, including Canada. Federally, the People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier conveys similar ideas with statements like, “Sharia law is not part of our country.” While the PPC is polling at less than three per cent ahead of the forthcoming election, Ryan Scrivens, who studies far-right movements in Canada, says this rhetoric should still be seen as a threat, a way of “normalizing hatred.”

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In 2017, Aydan Özoğuz, the first person of Muslim and Turkish background to be appointed a minister of state, described Germany in a way that echoed Justin Trudeau’s vision of Canada as a post-national state. “A specifically German culture is, beyond the language, simply not identifiable,” wrote the SPD politician, whose portfolio at the time included immigration and integration, in an editorial in the German daily Der Tagesspiegel. “That’s what a German-Turk says,” Gauland said while campaigning for the federal election. “Invite her to Eichsfeld and tell her then what specifically German culture is. Afterwards, she’ll never come back here and we will be able to dispose of her in Anatolia.”

The AfD’s invocation of nationalism extends beyond targeting migrants; it also veers into anti-Semitism. In a 2018 speech, Gauland lauded the “glorious history” of Germany, dismissing the Nazi era as a “speck of bird poop.” The previous year, Björn Höcke, arguably the party’s most extreme member, called for the rejection of the culture of guilt around the Holocaust. He said that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of its capital,” referring to the 200,000-square-foot Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. (In response, a group of artists called the Centre for Political Beauty built a replica with 24 concrete blocks outside Höcke’s home.)

Höcke’s faction of the party, along with its youth wing, are under surveillance by the BfV. Thomas Haldenwang, head of the BfV, said in January that Höcke’s group was “a threat to the liberal democratic principles of Germany’s constitution.”

“When populists say something, especially those who are legitimized from being [present] in the parliament, it has a lot of weight for extremists.” said Michalski, director of Human Rights Watch in Germany. “They feel emboldened and protected.”

While the AfD didn’t make major gains in the EU Parliament elections in May, it garnered strong support in the recent regional elections in Brandenburg and Saxony, becoming the largest opposition party in both regions. Höcke is up for re-election in the state of Thuringia on Oct. 27. 

Cologne-based investigative journalist Georg Restle, who was recently subject to death threats after criticizing the AfD, rejects the argument for neutrality that leads journalists to give far-right politicians equal airtime; he wants to see the AfD treated like an extremist party. For Restle, the risk is clear: the AfD is bringing hatred—racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia—back into the public discourse. “You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Well, let’s be neutral on this,’” he told Maclean’s. 

People hold up pictures of victims of right-wing violence during a march in Berlin on June 18, 2019 against the killing of Walter Luebcke, who was shot dead of June 2 on the terrace of his home near Kassel, 160 kilometres northeast of Frankfurt (Christoph Soeder/DPA/AFP/Getty Images)

Ten thousand people turned out for a rally against hate in Kassel, a city of 200,000, three weeks after Lübcke’s death. Then, on July 20, thousands showed up again to oppose a planned demonstration by the extremist right-wing party Die Rechte.

Both the sheer number of people as well as the broad coalition of church groups, political parties and unions that participated in the rally represented an important political step in the fight against racism, says Emin Günaydin, a University of Kassel graduate student. As a German born in Bavaria to parents who were part of a wave of Turkish guest workers who settled in the country, he’s buoyed by the support he witnessed.

“Everyone feels confident to say this city is against racism, fascism and nationalism,” Günaydin said this past August at a Turkish teahouse not far from the route of the rally. “To know that we have the support of many, many institutions—it’s really important.”

Similar rallies have been held across the country in reaction to rising tensions and far-right attacks. In October 2018, two months after a violent neo-Nazi march in Chemnitz, organizers of the #unteilbar (indivisible in English) rally expected 40,000 to march in Berlin—over 240,000 showed up. The same organizers held a rally after the Halle attack in Berlin, where 10,000 gathered to show their solidarity with the Jewish community.

For Günaydin, the rallies in Kassel held special meaning. After every attack, he repeatedly had to explain to people how urgent the situation was. But he sees the death of a white politician from the country’s governing party as a “turning point”—it was a step toward people understanding the gravity of the threat minorities like him face.

Two days after the July rally, there was another troubling crime: in Wächtersbach, a small town outside of Frankfurt, a 26-year-old Eritrean man was shot in broad daylight because of what prosecutor Alexander Badle labelled a “xenophobic motive.” The victim survived, but the perpetrator, identified in German media as Roland K., killed himself later that afternoon.

According to Spiegel, the shooter wrote a letter before his death stating that if he had to leave this world, he would take someone along with him as a service to taxpayers. The letter contained a swastika and the motto of the SS: “My honour is loyalty.” Police said the shooter did not have formal connections to right-wing extremists. Four hundred people attended a local vigil denouncing far-right violence following the shooting, but the national fury that followed Lübcke’s murder was missing.

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When educator and anti-racism activist Ayşe Güleç heard about Lübcke’s death, she saw the connection to extreme-right terror immediately. Lübcke had been subject to death threats since his pro-refugee comments in 2015. And the way he was shot—at close range in the head—reminded Güleç of another murder in Kassel.

Halit Yozgat was shot in his family’s internet café in April 2006. Güleç knew Yozgat and would pass by his café on her way home from work; she remembers the crowd of mourners gathered outside the café the day he was killed. Yozgat was the ninth murder victim from a minority background (including Turkish, Kurdish and Greek) in an eight-year period; Güleç, who is second-generation German-Turkish, along with others in immigrant communities, had little doubt the killings were targeted.

But there was no national emergency then. Media reports dubbed the series of crimes the “döner murders,” after the Turkish kebab. Police investigations were given code names like “Bosphorus” and were assumed, with no real evidence, to be related to Turkish organized crime.

In fact, the murders were part of a right-wing terror spree by a neo-Nazi group that called itself the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU). The NSU’s crimes spanned more than a decade, and included a 2004 nail bomb attack that injured 22 people in Cologne, and 15 armed robberies, which financed the group’s activities. The NSU targeted different cities across German states, and police never connected the crimes. After Yozgat’s murder, one more person would die before the group was discovered.

Two of its three members killed themselves after being surrounded by police in a botched bank robbery in 2011. A DVD was distributed to media days after the suicides: a bizarre collage of Pink Panther images told the story of how the NSU served the “fatherland,” including images of those killed between 2000 and 2007. A few days later, the surviving NSU member, Beate Zschäpe, turned herself in at a police station in Jena, the east German town where the trio met.

Jurisdictional issues were blamed for police failure to connect the crimes. It took seven more years to convict Zschäpe. Conspiracy theories abound that individuals within police or intelligence agencies were in on the plot, and were fuelled by the fact that dozens of neo-Nazis were being paid as informants by law enforcement as well as the fact that during the investigation, some files were deliberately shredded while others were sealed.

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Journalism professor Tanjev Schultz, who teaches at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz and has reported extensively on extreme right-wing violence, outlines some of the problems authorities face when policing violent white nationalism, including the presence of neo-Nazis within police and intelligence agencies. Last year, Seda Basay-Yildiz, a lawyer who defended the NSU victims’ families, was faxed death threats directed at her and her two-year-old, signed “NSU 2.0.” It included her private home address, information that was later found to have been accessed from a confidential database at an officer’s computer in a Frankfurt police station.

Another problem is that there are individual officers who sympathize with far-right views. “In some of these regions [like Saxony], right-wing extremist thinking is really popular and [police] think that way,” says Schultz. “And they also have relatives and friends who think that way.”

More benign, but nevertheless disastrous, there is ignorance, a blind spot to the glaring racial motivation in white nationalist attacks. This is partly a result of the fact that another type of extremism has taken hold of the public imagination. German authorities—much like Canadian authorities—have been criticized for a myopic focus on Islamic terrorism post-9/11, at the expense of managing a growing white nationalist threat.

Ernst, the suspect in Lübcke’s murder who is now awaiting trial, had been on the radar of German intelligence since the 1980s. He was involved with multiple extremist groups, including Combat 18 and the extreme-right party NPD. In 1992, he stabbed an immigrant in a train station bathroom, claiming the victim made sexual advances. The following year, he tried to detonate a pipe bomb targeting a refugee shelter in Hesse, and was sentenced to six years in prison. In 2009, he was arrested for disrupting a union rally, serving seven months’ probation. He is currently being investigated as a suspect in the stabbing of a young Iraqi refugee in 2016 in Lohfelden.

The sentiment feeding these kinds of violent crimes is not new, as Schultz points out, but over time, Germans seem to have lost sight of the problem. And the legacy of this seemingly severed connection means while Lübcke’s murder was reviled, it wasn’t immediately connected to Yozgat’s.

“Some people don’t forget,” said Güleç. “But the majority of course, those who are safe in this country—whose body is safe, whose body is white in the political sense—they can forget.”

A 54-foot obelisk, created by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe, stands in Kassel’s shopping district. A quote from the Gospel of Matthew appears on each of the structure’s four sides, in four languages: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Sadiya Ansari)

A stone obelisk stands 54 feet tall, undeniably more majestic than the McDonald’s or Stadthotel it counts as neighbours in the middle of Kassel’s shopping district. Four pieces of seemingly indestructible grey stone stacked on top of each other are cast in shadow on an early evening in August, but a gold inscription, a quote from the Gospel of Matthew, gleams on each side: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” The quote appears in a different language on each side of the structure—German, Arabic, Turkish and English.

The obelisk was created by Nigerian-American artist Olu Oguibe. Initially, it stood in Kassel’s central city square, Königsplatz, which serves as a busy hub for commuters. On a night in early October last year, 31-year-old Eden Asfaha stopped in Königsplatz to take photos of the obelisk. As the child of Eritrean refugees who fled the war in the mid-1980s, she adored the piece and didn’t understand calls for it to be taken down.

“There are nine little words on the Königsplatz Obelisk,” Oguibe wrote in a press statement in May of 2018 amid the debate. “They were relevant 2,000 years ago, and they’re relevant today. No one should be afraid of those nine little words.”

But some people on the far-right took the monument to refugees as a personal attack. In October 2017, AfD city councillor Thomas Materner called it entstellte Kunst, disfigured art, an echo of the Nazi term entartete Kunst (degenerate art). (Materner later told that he had said “entstellend,” meaning “disfiguring,” rather than “entstellt,” disfigured.) Altering Nazi phrases slightly is a common tactic used by some in the party, including co-leader Gauland. A year later, the morning after Asfaha took her photos—which happened to be German Reunification Day—the obelisk was removed by the city.

While many Germans view the mass acceptance of refugees in 2015 as a source of pride, historically Germany has not accepted immigrants with open arms. Unlike Canada, Germany has only recently—and somewhat reluctantly—cast itself as a country of immigration. After the Second World War, Germany invited foreigners to help rebuild the country, but classified them as guest workers, expecting them to go home. It wasn’t until 2000 that children born in Germany to non-German parents were automatically granted citizenship.

This history is part of what has led to a very particular conception of who is seen—and who sees themselves—as German. Even though Asfaha is German-born, for instance, she will often respond that she is Eritrean when people ask where she is from. Berlin-based social worker and anti-racist activist Biplab Basu tells his children, “Don’t fight to be part of the family.” He came to Germany from India in 1979, and never expected to be seen as German. And although his children were born in Germany, he doesn’t think they should expect it either. This frustrates them, he says, and he sees their frustration as reflecting the longing of a new generation to be incorporated into Germany’s social fabric.

Germans often look to Canada as a model of inclusion. Last June, for instance, a delegation from the Bundestag visited to learn about Canadian integration efforts. Race hasn’t been part of Canada’s selection process for permanent immigrants since the late 1960s, and Canada was the first country in the world to codify multiculturalism. In his 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau said “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

But the fissures in Canadian multiculturalism are ever-present. Two years ago, a gunman killed six men in a Quebec City mosque. Hate crimes reached an all-time high in 2017, with Muslims, Jews and Black people the principal targets. Although 2018 saw a dip, the numbers are still higher than any year since 2009. And everyday racism has been ever-present in this election campaign. While Canada has its first person of colour running for prime minister, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has had to address why he wears a turban on the campaign trail, with some asking why he couldn’t just remove it and be “normal.”

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Anke Bohnacker, who works with migrant youth in Kassel, rejects the fabled German identity nationalists are trying to protect. “We are an immigration society—we have always been one,” Bohnacker said, sitting in an austere office in a building facing Königsplatz. “The idea of being a homogeneous national state is complete science fiction.”

Bohnacker was deeply shaken by Lübcke’s murder. At the same time, she reminds herself of the droves of people in Kassel who volunteered to help settle refugees in the city, and of the thousands who came out to the demonstrations against hate after the murder.

The obelisk was eventually re-installed in Kassel’s shopping district, a short walk from Königsplatz. Although not in the prominent place Oguibe designed it for, the obelisk is still there—massive and unavoidable, whether or not people like it.

Its existence mirrors Bohnacker’s view of migration in Germany. The issue of immigration isn’t about whether migrants should be permitted to settle in Germany, she says—they already have. Instead, she asks people to consider a more practical question: “How do we want to live together?”

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