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How will Hanau's victims of far-right terror be remembered?

August 21, 2020

Six months after a right-wing terrorist killed 10 people in the German city of Hanau, the victims' families took part in a small commemorative rally. Local politicians are debating how best to remember the victims.

A man puts his hand up on the face of a victim of the Hanau terror attack painted as a mural
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Arnold

Cetin Gültekin has not been able to sleep properly for six months. His brother Gökhan Gültekin was killed in a terrorist attack by a far-right extremist on February 19 in the city of Hanau, in western Germany.

"After two hours, I wake up covered in sweat," he told DW. "It's torture. The perpetrator robbed me of my brother. He robbed me of my sleep. He robbed our family of our existence."

"I miss everything about him. His courage, his power, his way of having fun. His facial expression when he laughed. The way he moved his head. I see all of that when I think about him."

The terrorist went from Hanau center to the district of Kesselstadt, killing nine people in 12 minutes. Then he went home and shot his mother dead, before killing himself.

'We need answers'

The Initiative 19th of February Hanau (Initiative 19. Februar Hanau), a group founded to provide solidarity and demand political action to fight racism, had planned a march on Saturday to follow the path the perpetrator took, however, the procession was canceled last minute due to concerns about rising numbers of coronavirus cases. Organizers went ahead with the planned rally, but attendance was limited to 249 people. The event was also streamed online. Up to 5,000 people had been expected to take part before the cancellation.

"The point of this demonstration is, of course, to remember the victims," Gültekin said. "But it is mainly about putting pressure on the authorities to finally start giving us answers half a year later."

Cetin Gültekin in front of a mural of the victims of Hanau
Gültekin wants authorities to start providing answersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Andreas Arnold

Gökhan was 37 and about to get engaged when he was shot dead. His brother would like to know why the perpetrator's gun license was extended even though he clearly had a psychological illness and publicly espoused far-right ideology.

"If the authorities had done their work properly my brother would still be alive. He would not have managed to kill nine people with a knife," Gültekin said.

Robert Erkan, a mediator and communications trainer who until last week ran Hanau's municipal center for victims of terror, told DW that the victims' relatives were particularly keen to find out what exactly had happened and why.

"They want answers and an admission that certain details may have been overlooked ... It's good for institutions to also admit that they can make mistakes and that there are limits to their possibilities and this has consequences. If everything is presented as being fine, it just leads to more anger and resistance."

Read more: Opinion: Germany is failing in its anti-racism efforts

Hanau residents want protection

'The debate is appalling'

The six-month anniversary has also been overshadowed by a local debate on how the dead should be remembered. Though the city council had unanimously decided to honor the victims posthumously with the Golden Badge of Honor of the City of Hanau, a member of the state parliament, conservative Heiko Kasseckert, has disputed the decision, saying that the badge is awarded to people who have served Hanau in an outstanding way and thus not appropriate for the victims, despite the tragedy.

"The debate is appalling," Erkan said. "It was a cross-party decision. And now people can argue over who should get a badge of honor!"

"Such a debate simply detracts from the real issues. Rebuilding trust is what's important now," he said, adding that this could only happen once the crime had been completely resolved.

After the attack, Erkan helped the victims' relatives organize mourning ceremonies and also provided support with bureaucratic measures or dealings with insurance companies. He also referred people for psychological counseling too.

He said the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown did not help. "From mid-March to the end of May, so much valuable time was wasted ... The institutions were caught up in their own problems, to put it loosely. It's understandable on the one hand, but it didn't help the victims."

Robert Erkan
Erkan led Hanau's center for victims of terror until recentlyImage: Achim Katzberg

In Hanau, sadness mixed with hope

Though life will never be the same again for the friends and family of the victims, local politicians, such as Kasseckert, have said the city has to find some kind of "normality." They do not think it is good to permanently have flowers, candles and pictures remembering the victims on display in the city. 

A debate is ongoing about what could replace such spontaneous displays of commemoration and solidarity. Ferdi Ilkhan is a member of the city's advisory council for foreign nationals and the head of the 19th of February initiative. He told DW he had spoken with many families about what they thought would be appropriate.

"A monument in the center, preferably on the main market square, would be ideal. As a sign of the importance of remembering," Ilkhan said. He added that there should also be a space in the city for videos, documents and objects commemorating the lives of the victims, as well as the night of terror.

candles, flags and messages commemorate the victims of the Hanau terror attack
Spontaneous displays of mourning and commemoration appeared after the attack. The victims' families would like a permanent memorial.Image: AFP/J. McDougall

"There is still a very sad atmosphere in the city," he said. "If you walk through the center, you feel a sense of mourning. And it's not only me." However, he added there was also a sense of solidarity. "There is some hope that something positive will come from the shock and the mourning and that there will be an atmosphere that prevents something like this from happening again."

Ilkhan said that while the initiative's work was currently largely about providing immediate support to the victims' families, it would eventually move towards raising awareness about racism. He plans to present political recommendations developed by Hanau citizens on how to combat racism at a democracy conference later this year.

"Germany has to make a decision: Will it keep following the path its on, which has seen 200 people killed by right-wing extremists since 1990? Or will Hanau mark a change of direction?" He counted off the German cities where far-right terror attacks have taken place in recent years: "Mölln, Solingen, Kassel, Halle…"

"No more cities should come after Hanau," he said.

Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille