On February 19, a 43-year-old man shot and killed eleven people, including himself, in Hanau, Germany, a small city some 15 miles east of Frankfurt. The victims are Ferhat Unvar, Gökhan Gültekin, Hamza Kurtović, Said Nessar El Hashemi, Mercedes Kierpacz, Sedat Gürbüz, Kaloyan Velkov, Fatih Saraçoğlu, and Vili Viorel Păun.1 The victims were a mix of German citizens and foreign nationals, mostly of Turkish and Kurdish background, and were apparently targeted because of their race.
The gunman, identified as Tobias Rathjen, a banker with no previous criminal history, targeted two establishments popular within the local Kurdish community. The details of his assault—the third right-wing attack in Germany in the last 12 months—are chilling. The shooter first entered a hookah bar in downtown Hanau, where he killed three people; then drove to a cafe in an outlying area and gunned down four more; before returning home and killing his mother and himself. All victims were residents of Hanau with immigrant backgrounds.
Like many men who have perpetrated violence linked to far-right ideas in recent years, the Hanau shooter left behind written and video testimony. His video was in English and addressed to U.S. citizens, calling on them to “wake up” and fight a massive, “satanic” conspiracy of children being abused at secret military bases. The perpetrator attributed this conspiracy to an unnamed secret organization, which he believed had been surveilling him, and many others, for his entire life.
The references to a shadow government and a malignant global conspiracy with supernatural powers immediately calls to mind classic antisemitic conspiracy narratives such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The details of such stories vary from case to case, but the overall form is set: a small group of shadowy, malevolent actors secretly control the world, manipulating events to destroy the lives of hapless, ordinary citizens. The accusations of secret abuse of children echo the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that circulated in right-wing circles during the 2016 presidential campaign, accusing Hilary Clinton of running a child-sex ring. In a more historical perspective, it is an idea that harkens back to the blood libel, the medieval myth that Jews kidnapped and murdered Christian children and used their blood for ritual purposes. In response to such evil, almost any level of violence is construed as justified.
Additionally, in the shooter’s 24-page manifesto, he called for the genocidal elimination of whole countries, including Israel, India, Egypt, and Pakistan. In this, he echoed the thinking of White nationalists who see Jews as the ultimate enemy, but people of color as the demographic weapons Jews deploy against Americans and Europeans alike.
Where the Hanau gunman differed from many who identify with White nationalism (or as it chiefly manifests in Europe, the “Identitarian” movement), is in imagining himself special not in his exceptional willingness to take violent action, but in his persecution by the “Secret Organization,” which he believed was not only tracking his movements but attempting to control his mind. As a result, the Hanau shooter claimed, he had never been married or had a girlfriend. In practice, his attitude toward women was that if he couldn’t have the “best,” he’d rather have none. Such attitudes are entwined with contemporary organized misogyny, like “involuntary celibates,” or incels, and particularly in its Men Going Their Own Way subculture, which advocates male separatism.
That the stew of racism, misogyny, and conspiracism expressed by the shooter resulted in violence is perhaps unsurprising. But it is important to place his actions in context. While his beliefs seem far-fetched, so are the martyr manifestos of Dylan Roof, a White supremacist who shot and killed nine Black church goers in Charleston, South Carolina; Robert Bowers, who said “all Jews must die” as he gunned down 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Anders Breivik, who killed eight people with a bomb before killing 69 more with a gun at a youth summer camp in Oslo, Norway. In no case can their actions be reduced to individual mental health problems: none of these mass killers chose their victims at random, but rather went out of their way to select racial and cultural others, or those they blamed for supposed willful destruction of their group. Their manifestos reveal connections to shared modes of thought that have been circulating for decades and which are increasingly amplified by political parties such as the German Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a far-right wing nationalist party, and the “MAGA” wing of the Republican Party, both eager to capitalize on the politics of resentment. And their messages are everywhere: that the West is being invaded by immigrants; that globalists and the Deep State are out to destroy Western civilization; that feminists are ruining the world for men; and that “White genocide” is imminent. Effective responses to attacks such as Hanau’s must include law enforcement and mental health, but cannot be limited to, nor even focus on, these factors. It is the corrosive politics of White and ethnic nationalism, misogyny, and authoritarianism that must be exposed and opposed.
Long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) unambiguously condemned the Hanau gunman’s attacks, explicitly naming the perpetrator’s affinity with “right-wing extremism” and his “racist motives.” Compared to President Trump’s slow and tepid reaction to the murder of Heather Heyer at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings that killed 51, Merkel’s response is exemplary. But that’s a low bar. Being better than a U.S. president who routinely makes racist remarks and whose immigration policies are drawn from the ethnonationalist Right is faint praise indeed.
In her speech, Merkel said, “Racism is a poison; hate is a poison. This exists in our society, and it’s to blame for too many tragic events.” It is an all-too-familiar way of talking about racist violence. The language of “extremists” who are linked to “hate groups” and commit “hate crimes” is what PRA refers to as the “hate frame.” By the hate frame we mean a reductive overemphasis on states of mind and individual acts that obscures the context of the systemic and state-level violence within which such acts occur. The hate frame also leads to a misleading equivalence among, to quote Trump in his response to Charlottesville, actions “on many sides.”
After the Hanau shooting, both government and the media were quick to warn about matching threats from the Left, although the latter have mostly amounted to clashes with far-right demonstrators, even as far-right murders since the 1990s number in the dozens and are most often perpetrated against unarmed and unsuspecting immigrants. Less than a week after the violence in Hanau, German police warned about “attacks by far-left groups” and said they “cannot rule out a violent reaction from the radical Islamist scene.”
From 2000-2007, a German neonazi network called the National Socialist Underground systematically killed nine people from migrant communities with nail bombs and shootings. In 2017, a lieutenant in the German army was arrested for planning to foment anti-immigrant sentiment by posing as a Syrian refugee as he committed a shooting attack. The interception of those plans revealed a broader neonazi network within the German military. In August 2018, hundreds of people chased down and attacked people perceived to be refugees and migrants in the German city of Chemnitz. Two months later, a terrorist group called Revolution Chemnitz was dismantled after authorities found their plans to attack cities with high numbers of migrants. In June 2019, Walter Lübcke, head of the administration of North-Hessia, was shot in the head by a neonazi in Kassel. In October, a gunman attacked a synagogue in Halle with homemade weapons, killing two people. And this January, German authorities arrested 12 neonazis across the country who were plotting to ignite a civil war with attacks on mosques. These are just a few examples.
The Hanau shooter’s manifesto and videos contain political statements that resonate with mainstream society. Like those of Robert Bowers or El Paso shooter Patrick Crusius before him, the Hanau perpetrator’s actions were extreme—but the generic label of “extremist” fails to capture the specificity of both their motivations and the political context shaping them. Many of his ideas are consonant with those of Germany’s far-right AfD party, or the MAGA wing of the U.S. Republican Party, which is known for its draconian approach to migrants, particularly Arab refugees. AfD also opposes LGBTQ rights and has often downplayed the significance of the Jewish Holocaust.
Last fall, the AfD gained recognition in the states of Brandenburg and Saxony, securing more state funding and influence in parliament. This February, the regional branch of the Christian Democratic Union in the state of Thuringia broke an informal rule that the CDU would not cooperate with the AfD, marking the first time that a German state premier came into office with the support of a nationalist party. This normalization of “center” cooperation with the Far Right caused a national outcry in Germany, forcing the head of Thuringia’s CDU to resign. A week later, civil society punished the party in the Hamburg state elections, with CDU’s worst-ever election results—a clear consequence for collaborating with the AfD.
Meanwhile, in the days since Hanau, shots have apparently been fired at the windows of hookah bar in the cities of Döbeln and Stuttgart as well as outside the home of a prominent German Muslim in the city of Heilbronn. Rather than a left-wing backlash, the response from ordinary German citizens has been mass gatherings in peaceful protest and public mourning in 70 towns and cities across the country. We grieve with the families of the victims. We are also invested in their demands for solidarity against right-wing racist violence.
The kind of solidarity needed in moments like these not only promises to remember the lives of loved ones lost, but must also skillfully name the conditions that allow something like this to happen. In Germany, politicians and authorities might now be willing to denounce racist attacks as such. That’s a start. Going forward, let’s name the damage done by both inflammatory rhetoric and racist policies. Let’s identify the echo between violence and politics, recognizing that violent acts have political consequences.
1. It is not common practice for mainstream German media to list the names of victims of racist right-wing violence. Here is press conference organized by anti-racist groups to give the voice to the family’s of the victims: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ph08zk_phsU