Unless Germany starts systematically addressing the problem of right-wing extremism, commemorating the victims of the Hanau terrorist attack will be no more than a well-intentioned symbolic act.

Two years ago on February 19, 2020 nine people were killed in a racially motivated terrorist shooting spree in Hanau, Germany. The gunman, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, targetted people on the street, in a car park, three bars and a kiosk. He also wounded six others. He then returned home before killing his mother and shooting himself. 

Ferhat Unvar, Mercedes Kierpacz, Sedat Gurbuz, Gokhan Gultekin, Hamza Kurtovic, Kaloyan Velkov, Vili Viorel Paun, Said Nesar Hashemi and Fatih Saracoglu died because they were denied the right to live by their murderer. Two years on, the victims’ families and survivors are still asking themselves whether the murders could have been prevented.

More questions than answers

The Hanau massacre was associated with a long string of failures on the part of the authorities. 

Why wasn’t the murderer’s firearms licence revoked when he became the subject of an investigation and criminal proceedings – and drawing attention to himself with his racist manifesto and conspiracy theories? Why were the emergency exits at the Arena Bar locked on the night of the shooting, making escape impossible? Why did the police fail to respond despite being called several times by Vili Viorel Paun, one of the victims, who followed the perpetrator in his car and was later shot and killed? And why was the body of Hamza Kurtovic described by the coroner as being ‘Southern European, Middle Eastern’ even though he is Caucasian with blue eyes and blonde hair?

To this day, the tragedy is still associated with more questions than answers. The families feel abandoned. They have serious misgivings and no longer have confidence in a society that they feel is deeply racist.

Hanau destroyed people’s trust

The wounds it inflicted in Hanau cannot heal in a state that fails in its duty to protect, with a police force that neglects to provide help and a society that is unwilling to change. 

The Hanau shooting was preceded by similar incidents in Hoyerswerda, Rostock-Lichtenhagen, Moelln and Solingen, the NSU complex and Halle. It wasn’t by any means an isolated case and similar patterns have emerged in connection with all the attacks: failures on the part of the authorities and politicians blaming right-wing radicals rather than society’s failings. 

Many politicians have given speeches expressing their sadness, anger and horror about the events that occurred. A lot of those speeches incorporated time-worn phrases along the lines of, “never again” – pledges made on many previous occasions and rendered empty when the next attack happened. 

As an ardent liberal, I have developed a healthy sense of scepticism towards the state over recent years. The state doesn’t have to fix everything, but it should guarantee the safety of the people who live within its borders. That’s one of the most fundamental of all duties that any state has towards its citizens.

There are plenty of noble declarations of intent when it comes to the issue of right-wing extremism. And, although they are generally earnest, I always take them with a pinch of salt. Because many of the efforts to combat right-wing extremism in our country remain mere symbolic politics and good intentions without dedicated action. If we want to make real progress in combating right-wing extremism, we have to move away from sloganeering and towards analytics. Unfortunately, there has yet to be a willingness to make that shift.

Something’s brewing

This refusal to analyse the situation is why society is regularly stunned by acts of violence. Nobody had an inkling the attacks were going to happen. And our politicians sill fail to predict developments in good time.

Part of the issue is framing: the face of right-wing extremism has changed considerably over recent years. Since 2015 right-wing parties have been gaining electoral support, giving the groups bigger platforms and wider audiences. 

Although many so-called experts link neo-Nazis with Germany's far-right ecosystem, the reality on the ground is different. The far-right groups have already come to the realisation that neo-Nazi ideology has no chance of taking root in modern-day society, and is therefore not suitable as a means of building bridges to the population at large.

Instead, the strategists are starting to focus on a combination of right-wing extremist ideology and right-wing populism. Issues have been building over recent years that will keep society preoccupied for years.

Today’s social divide has its origins in our sense of identity. On one side are the people who embrace a multicultural society and, on the other, are staunch nationalists. This isn’t just a German phenomenon; it can also be found throughout Europe and around the world.

Rejectionism isn’t enough

In 2020, the extremist agenda found a new platform upon which to flourish with protests against coronavirus measures. Instead of relying on established organisational structures, extremists are participating in events alongside regular citizens. Today, they are finding common ground with people who just a few years ago would have rejected them outright, operating under the guise of negotiating freedom when their real intent is to undermine the liberal democratic constitutional structure. 

Society’s answers to this development have, yet again, fallen short of the mark. These groups are met with lamentation and marginalisation from politics. Meanwhile, members of society who aren’t even being targetted by the politicians suddenly feel ostracised and, as a result of this stigmatisation, are bonding with extremists simply on the basis of an imagined victimhood.

This is a very concerning development. There needs to be steps to identify the organisations operating under the guise of defending freedom, and find out who is communicating with the people and how. Rejectionism alone will not be enough in the long term given the situation at hand.

Shaking the foundations of an unorthodox world view

A commemorative event is scheduled to take place at the main cemetery in Hanau today. Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser, Hesse’s Minister-President Volker Bouffier, and Mayor Claus Kaminsky will all be in attendance. 

It is good, important, and right to remember and remind people of what happened, and to show compassion to the survivors. Nevertheless, if we fail to get inside the minds of right-wing extremists this will be no more than a well-meant symbolic act.

We have to engage in conversation with them rather than cracking down on them through the police, secret service, courts and jails. If we are not able to shake the foundations of their worldview, victory in the battle against right-wing extremism will always remain beyond our grasp.

It would be naive to think that we can stop all terrorist acts like the Hanau massacre from happening in the future. However, properly analysing the contemporary situation in Germany could help identify developments in right-wing extremism earlier, making timely intervention possible. This might be one way to win public confidence back and it is the only way to heal the wounds inflicted by Hanau.

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