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Antisemitic, homophobic, racist attacks on memorials linked

August 22, 2023

Antisemitism, racism, homophobia — attacks on memorial sites in Germany are becoming increasingly frequent. They are acts of aggression against democracy and hatred against minorities. What connects these acts?

The founders of the Berlin Bücherboxx (book box) near the Holocaust "Track 17" memorial in Berlin stand in front of its charred remains after a targeted antisemitic hate crime
The founders of the Berlin Bücherboxx (book box) near the Holocaust "Track 17" memorial in Berlin stand in front of its charred remains after a targeted antisemitic hate crimeImage: Fabian Sommer/dpa/picture alliance

Several attacks on memorial sites within a timespan of only two weeks have shocked Germany: A suspected antisemitic attack on a mini library at the "Platform 17" memorial in Berlin on August 12. An attack on the tent at the Ohlsdorf Peace Festival held in a cemetery where the victims of Second World War bombings in Hamburg are remembered. An arson attempt on the monument in Berlin's Tiergarten park, which commemorates the homosexual persons who were persecuted during the Nazi regime. Smashed windows at the headquarters of the Foundation for Memorials in Lower Saxony. Vandalism of the offices of a lesbian women's group in the Berlin district of Neukölln.

"When I first learned of the attack on our BücherboXX (book box), I cried for a whole hour," Konrad Kutt told DW. "It felt as if it were a physical attack on me," he added, close to tears.

Kutt had the idea for the book boxes, which are located throughout Berlin, about 15 years ago. They are disused telephone boxes that have been transformed into mini streetside libraries. The BücherboXX closest to the "Platform 17" memorial is especially significant, in his view, because of its historical location and the box's contents. The books that were burned in the August attack – about 300 of them – focused on the deportations and systematic murders of Jews during the Nazi era.

Uniformed Nazi officers holding imperial and swastika flags and a crowd of people around a massive book burning at 1933 at Bebelplatz in Berlin
The massive book burning held by Nazis in 1933 in BerlinImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

About 50,000 Jews were deported to concentration and extermination camps from Platform 17 of the Grünewald train station as part of the Holocaust, the Nazis' campaign to exterminate Jewish people and many other minorities. The recent attack is particularly chilling as it carries echoes of the book burning at Berlin's Bebelplatz public square, where the Nazis set fire to more than 20,000 books that they considered "un-German" and "degenerate" on May 10, 1933 as they prepared to carry out the Holocaust. At that site now stands an underground memorial by sculptor Micha Ullmann and a nearby plaque with a quote from 18th-century German writer Heinrich Heine, reading: "That was just a prelude. Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too."

'A problem for the whole of Germany'

There are no official nationwide statistics on the number of such attacks in Germany. However, according to historian Karsten Uhl, there is a feeling that they are increasing. It is no longer about isolated cases: "Now I would say that we have a new situation: The extent of the attacks which we have had is surprising and shocking," the researcher told DW. For several months, he has been working for the Foundation of Hamburg Memorials and Learning Centers Commemorating the Victims of Nazi Crimes.

People looking into 'The Empty Library' by sculptor Micha Ullman, the Bebelplatz underground memorial commemorating the 1933 book burning by Nazis
At the site of the Nazis' 1933 book burning on Bebelplatz now stands an underground memorialImage: Susanne Spröer/DW

Until May, Uhl oversaw the memorial sites at the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora concentration camps and had worked for years in the eastern German state of Thuringia. The fact that attacks are now being reported this frequently throughout western and eastern Germany demonstrates above all that "these attacks are a problem for the whole of Germany, not only an eastern German one."

What role does the Alternative for Germany (AfD) play?

"We have a right-wing extremist scene that feels emboldened by the AfD," researcher Uhl said. The far-right populist, and in parts right-wing extremist, anti-immigrant and homophobic political party, is polling at more than 20% Germany-wide. In some eastern German states, they could become the strongest party.

Uhl speaks of a sociopolitical climate in which an increasing number of people with far-right views are expressing them openly: "This climate, which the AfD and its supporters create, perhaps also leads to the situations where verbal aggression escalates into actions. Not against people yet, but to severe damage to property."

How big a problem is racism in Germany?

First violence against property, then against people?

BücherboXX initiator Karsten Kutt echoes this analysis: "I already have the feeling that the AfD has emboldened the perpetrators to carry out such attacks." He has observed an increasingly misanthropic attitude in which people harboring racist and bigoted views think it is, as he puts it, a good thing that perpetrators of such acts are "showing it" to Jewish people, queer individuals, and homosexuals.

The attackers are currently focusing on cultural and memorial sites, not people, researcher Uhl said. But that could change. The "bogeymen as portrayed by the right" could be attacked. That includes people who work towards equal rights, Uhl explained. "Or also minorities such as Jews or queer people, and antifascist groups that clearly take a stand." Acts of violence against homosexuals or Jews are increasing, especially in Berlin.

German historian Karsten Uhl
German historian Karsten Uhl: The AfD has emboldened people to express their hatred and bigotryImage: KZ-Gedenkstaette Neuengamme

In the German capital, at least 105 crimes or offenses with antisemitic motives have been recorded in the first half of this year. That includes 72 crimes classified as politically motivated violence from right-wing extremists, said the Berlin Senate Administration. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) has already recorded about 960 antisemitic crimes so far this year, including 25 acts of violence against people.

Antisemitic confession letter

In the meantime, the suspected perpetrator of the three attacks in Berlin between August 12-14 has been caught. The 63-year-old German was already known to authorities in relation to incitement to hatred. He had allegedly left behind a crude, antisemitic letter of confession at the scenes of the crimes, which DW has seen.

The Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism in Berlin's Tiergarten park
In the overnight hours of August 12, the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism was also attackedImage: Markus C. Hurek/dpa/picture alliance

For Konrad Kutt, founder of the book box mini library at the Platform 17 memorial, the perpetrator's arrest brings a certain "satisfaction." However, he is increasingly worried about the "conspiracies in circulation against diversity, against Jews, against homosexuals." However, he refuses to be discouraged: "We have experienced a great amount of solidarity and received many donations. We will rebuild the box!"

This article was originally written in German.

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Volker Witting
Volker Witting Volker Witting has been a political correspondent for DW-TV and online for more than 20 years.