The trial of Stephan B., suspected of carrying out the Halle synagogue attack, has begun in Germany. He expressed his virulent anti-Semitic world-view on the first trial day. DW's Ben Knight reports from the courthouse.
Anti-Semitism in Germany
Stephan B. remained impassive as he was led into the large, low-ceilinged Magdeburg courtroom on Tuesday morning. As in the video that he live-streamed on the internet during last October's deadly attack in Halle, he was shaven-headed and dressed in a thick black jacket, only this time he was also handcuffed and shackled, wearing a disposable coronavirus protection mask, and with at least six masked guards around him.
The trial itself was only able to begin after a two-hour delay, apparently because the rigorous security checks took much longer than predicted. But by midday, the courtroom was packed. Spectators and journalists observed proceedings from behind a glass screen, while the ranks of seats in front were filled with some of the 43 co-plaintiffs — many of them the people who had been in the synagogue last October — and their lawyers.
The 28-year-old defendant has been charged with two cases of murder in the killings of 40-year-old Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., as well as 68 cases of attempted murder. The latter figure comprises the 52 people who were observing Yom Kippur inside the Halle synagogue plus a number of other passers-by and police officers that he shot at during the attack and his two-hour attempted escape. He has also been charged with extortion under threat of force for stealing a taxi at gunpoint as he fled.
Cross-examination reveals no remorse
The proceedings began, after the charges were read, with a lengthy exchange between the defendant and Judge Ursula Mertens that took up the rest of the first trial day.
Stephan B. showed no remorse or emotion throughout the long cross-examination, repeating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, in line with the plan he published online shortly before the attack began.
He was lucid throughout, and had a habit of sniggering nervously at parts of his own testimony.
Asked if he had friends in his youth, he answered: "No." Did he belong to a sports club? "No."
What were his interests? "Internet." What did he like about the internet? "The possibility to converse freely." Didn't he have that possibility outside? "Not in Germany," he replied.
He said he had a good relationship with his sister, who initially encouraged him to engage more with others, though his social contacts steadily declined over time. When asked by the judge why these contacts had ebbed, he answered simply: "Different things. Not important."
Stephan B. said he had spent six months in the Bundeswehr — Germany's armed forces — which according to him was "not a real army."
He then described his brief attempt to study chemistry, which was cut short by a long illness that he declined to go into in detail about. After that, when asked whether he had had any plans, he laughed and said, "No, I had no plans."
Inspired by Christchurch mosque attacks
"After 2015, I decided not to have anything to do with this society," he added. "Especially the Muslims in it."
After this statement, the defendant was warned by the judge not to express any hate speech, or he would be shut out from proceedings.
Occasionally, the judge entered into discussions with him about his world view. "I'm angry, I'm angry! For millennia it has been normal to defend one's home country," he added at the end of a dispute with the judge about immigration.
He described Muslim refugees as alleged "conquerors from the Islamic world."
"I'm someone from the bottom rung of society, and when my country is being colonized by people I am under threat," he claimed.
He also stated, for the first time on record, that he was directly inspired by the Christchurch attacks of March 2019,which he saw as an example of "the white man defending himself," he said.
The judge countered, "But you might ask what the white man was doing in New Zealand in the first place?"
Details of the attack
During his lengthy testimony, Stephan B. described the reason why he shot Jana L., a passer-by outside the synagogue. He said he had been irritated by the way she had chided him for making a noise.
But then why shoot her several times? "When you start something, you have to carry it out," he answered bluntly.
The judge asked him directly: "You shot her once, then again several times, and then even said 'pig.' Do you feel any empathy? Do you understand what that is?"
He answered: "I'm sorry I shot her, it wasn't planned, I didn't mean to, but..." the answer trailed off there. "I do regret it, I shot at a lot of whites, I didn't mean to do that."
He said he believed that Kevin S., the customer in the kebab shop who he killed, was a Muslim when he shot him.
As the day progressed, Stephan B. was induced by Judge Mertens into describing the attack in detail. He appeared more than willing to do this, enthusiastically answering all questions in detail about his homemade weapons, his planning, his strategic considerations, and how he had experienced the day.
Several times throughout the attack, he said he thought he would die, especially when he realized he had been shot in the neck following a fire-fight with police.
'Complex personality disorder'
Few people doubt that Stephan B. will be found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The man charged filmed the entire attack himself with a camera attached to his helmet, streaming the video live onto the online platform Twitch.
During his testimony on Tuesday Stephan B. said that at one point he realized that his Twitch account, with his live-stream, had been suspended. "That's bad, because the stream was more important than the attack itself," he said.
The perpetrator confessed soon after being arrested and showed no remorse for his actions. In fact, according to an examination by forensic psychiatrist Norbert Leygraf, Stephan B.'s only regret was that his initial plan — to break into the synagogue and kill as many Jewish people as possible — had failed so completely.
Leygraf's 100-page assessment, details of which were revealed this week by news magazine Der Spiegel, found that Stephan B. has a "complex personality disorder," with some traits of autism, but that this does not compromise his criminal liability. He apparently described the two killings with no emotion.
The psychiatrist, who interviewed the defendant three times, also found that he had been obsessed with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and homemade weapons for years. In the indictment, the German federal police said Stephan B. had armed himself with eight firearms and several homemade explosives, some of which he threw over the synagogue wall in an attempt to scare the people inside to come out.
His defense attorney, Hans-Dieter Weber, previously described Stephan B. as intelligent, articulate, and socially isolated.
At the end of the exhausting court day, co-plaintiff Rebecca Blady, one of the people inside the Halle synagogue during the attack, said she was initially skeptical of the judge's insistent questions.
"But then as proceedings went on I realized that we were able to really see how he thinks through those questions," she told DW. "There's no question that there's no room in this society for a person who thinks like that. That ideology is lethal. It kills people."
Blady said Stephan's B.'s testimony was revealing. "He knows what he's talking about. He hates Arabs and Muslims, he's completely racist, he believes Jews are the source of many of the world's problems. He's convinced, and he's not speaking from a place of craziness. This is actually what he thinks."
Some 18 days have been set for the trial, which is expected to last until October.
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.