German politician′s killing leaves unanswered questions, one year on | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.06.2020
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German politician's killing leaves unanswered questions, one year on

Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel's conservatives, was shot and killed in his garden in June 2019, allegedly by a far-right extremist. His alleged killer goes on trial this Tuesday.

It seems Walter Lübcke had no chance of escape when his alleged killer, Stephan E., moved in on him early in the morning of June 2, 2019. 

According to federal prosecutors, "under the cover of darkness he approached Walter Lübcke‘s house, where he was sitting on the terrace." The suspect "crept up on his victim and shot him in head from a short distance with a Rossi revolver."

The killing bore all the hallmarks of a politically motivated execution. The impression was deliberate; nothing had been left to chance. The 66-year-old conservative Christian Democrat (CDU) politician had been a target of hatred in militant right-wing extremist circles since 2015. At that time, Germany faced a huge influx of refugees into the country and Lübcke was an outspoken advocate of efforts to welcome them and integrate them.

Lübcke's assassination was different from other killings carried out by far-right fanatics in that it was the first time in postwar Germany that a serving politician had been murdered by a right-wing extremist. There were, however, previous targeted killings of asylum-seekers and members of Germany's migrant communities.

Murder suspect Stephan E. in Karlsruhe (picture-alliance/dpa/U. Deck)

Stephan E. initially confessed to the politician's slaying, but later recanted his statement

Lübcke’s death came just under a year after the end of the trial of Beate Zschäpe, one of the key figures in a far-right terrorist cell called the National Socialist Underground (NSU). In July 2018, Zschäpe was sentenced to life in jail for her part in a seven-year killing spree that included 10 murders and two bomb attacks. These had been jointly planned and carried out by Zschäpe and two far-right co-conspirators, Uwe Böhnhardt und Uwe Mundlos, who were both found dead in 2011.

Read more: The new dimension of far-right extremist terrorism

Lübcke's killing reminiscent of NSU murders

The sentence passed down on Zschäpe did not appear to have any kind of deterrent effect. On the contrary: Lübcke was gunned down in a way that was shockingly reminiscent of the NSU killings, which left nine members of Germany's immigrant communities and one policewoman dead. All were shot and killed from short range. However, while the victims of the NSU were entirely unaware of the fate that awaited them, Lübcke was well aware that far-right fanatics were out to get him.

Hate mail and death threats against him had become an everyday occurrence since 2015, when he sided with Chancellor Angela Merkel on a welcoming refugee policy. Emotions were running high on all sides after the decision to set up a refugee accommodation center in the small town of Lohfelden, close to the village where Lübcke lived. He had defended the project at a heated town hall meeting where a large section of the local population of 14,000 made it clear that they did not welcome the refugee center.

Read more: What were the NSU neo-Nazi murders?

Watch video 03:01

Anger and solidarity in Hanau after deadly racist attack

Driven by racism and xenophobia

The suspected killer, Stephan E., who says that he attended the gathering in Lohfelden, initially confessed to the killing but later retracted the confession. Nevertheless, federal prosecutors remain convinced that they have the right man. The apparent motive for the killing: "a fundamentally ultra-nationalist attitude based on racism and xenophobia."

Furthermore, prosecutors believe that Stephan E. was determined "to use the murder to send out a public signal in defiance of the current German state as it manifests itself." 

Read more: Germany's far-right AfD to dissolve extreme 'Wing' faction

Never again a blind eye?

Although this sort of incriminating evidence had been gathered at such an early date, politicians and security services both overlooked the far-right threat for many years to come. That only changed with the killing of Lübcke and the October 2019 attempted mass shooting at a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle. The German government suddenly had no time to lose in coming up with a far-reaching plan of action against far-right extremism.

Just how necessary such a plan is became clear in figures on politically motivated criminal offenses only recently released by the Federal Criminal Police Office. The numbers prompted Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, of the Bavarian conservatives (CSU), to say that far-right extremists had left a "long trail of blood."

This trail includes the racist attack on the western city of Hanau on February 19, which left 10 dead. Just a month later, the German government responded by creating a special committee to combat far-right extremism and racism, led by Seehofer and including a wide range of other key ministries. Whether it will guarantee that Germany's political leaders will never again turn a blind eye to far-right violence remains to be seen.

Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, who was killed by German right-wing extremists in 1990 (Imago/K. Horstmann)

The Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which works to fight far-right extremism, racism and anti-Semitism, was named after Amadeu Antonio Kiowa, who was killed by German right-wing extremists in 1990

The battle does not stop here

The new committee met for the first time at the end of May, shortly before the first anniversary of Lübcke's murder. Afterwards, government spokesman Steffen Seibert announced that "on top of the measures already taken, there would by November of this year be further concrete measures to combat right-wing extremism and racism."

Organizations that have long been involved in the battle against right-wing violence praised the government's initiatives. But Timo Reinfrank from the Amadeu Antonio Foundation — named after one victim of right-wing extremist violence — says that the work of the committee needs to be more broad-based, including victims of hate crimes, members of civil society and academic experts. If the committee it to fulfill its mandate, says Reinfrank, it must have clearly-defined goals, such as concretely reducing the number of politically motivated crimes by the far-right in the next five years.

Editor's note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.

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