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Neo-Nazi murder trial takes surprising turns

December 7, 2020

Last year's murder of politician Walter Lübcke shocked Germany, as it provided evidence of Nazi terrorist networks. But the defendant's contradictory confessions have been frustrating for judges and observers.

Black and white photo of Walter Lübcke
German politician Walter Lübcke was shot outside his home in 2019Image: AFP/S. Pförtner

One of Germany's most momentous and confusing murder trials is entering its final phase in Frankfurt, with the court little closer to answering some of its key questions.

Since June 2020, a 47-year-old neo-Nazi named Stephan E. has been on trial accused of murdering Walter Lübcke, a local conservative governor in the city of Kassel.

The trial has been emotionally grueling: Lübcke's widow and sons have frequently appeared in the courtroom, occasionally asking the suspect questions hoping to find out more about the victim's final moments.

The defendant initially confessed to killing the well-respected politician. He had, he said, staked out Lübcke's home on the night of June 1, 2019, saw the 65-year-old sitting on his front porch illuminated by his iPad, approached him from behind, and shot him in the head. The shot was apparently drowned by the noise of a nearby folk festival.

Stephan E standing in the courtroom with his defense lawyers
Stephan E. has offered several contradictory confessionsImage: Ronald Wittek/AP Photo/picture alliance

The motive also seems obvious: Lübcke had been one of the most hated public figures for Germany's far-right circles since a town hall meeting in Lohfelden in October 2015, where, during Germany's refugee influx that fall, he had made an appearance to explain why a new refugee home was being opened in the area.

A widely circulated video from the meeting showed the politician saying that anyone who didn't agree with the values of the German constitution was welcome to leave the country.

That clip was shared by far-right social media accounts, attracting outrage and several death threats. Stephan E. himself, who was at the meeting and is believed to have heckled the governor, later told police that Lübcke's speech had preoccupied him for years.

Walter Lübcke's house cordoned off by police in 2019
Walter Lübcke was shot and killed at his home in the small town of IsthaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pförtner

Contradictory confessions

But so many other details of the crime remain unclear, even after 35 trial days, much to the frustration of the court, politicians, and researchers, who were all hoping for more light to be shed on a Nazi terrorist network that has plagued Germany for decades.

The biggest mystery remains the role played by co-defendant Markus H., a fellow neo-Nazi charged with accessory to Lübcke's murder.

Stephan E. has created much of the confusion himself by making a variety of different confessions. The first came in late June 2019, 10 days after his arrest, when he admitted not only to the murder but to planning it himself, and for years posting several anonymous comments online inciting violence.

A few months later, the defendant appeared to change his mind: In January this year, he issued a new confession that heavily implicated Markus H., accusing his co-defendant not only of pushing him ideologically but declaring that the other man had actually fired the deadly shot accidentally during a struggle with the politician.

Markus H. denies even being at the scene of the crime, and there is no other evidence that he was there — whereas a tiny flake of Stephan E.'s skin was found near Lübcke's body, providing DNA proof of his presence.

What is clear that Markus H. was a politically active neo-Nazi who had been close to the main defendant for several years, and may have played a major part in radicalizing him.

Much is also known about Markus H.'s past: He bought and sold guns legally, is believed to have practiced shooting with Stephan E., and has been known to domestic intelligence as a potentially violent extremist for several years.

Markus H. also moved in the same circles as the National Socialist Underground (NSU) — a group that committed a string of murders, bombings, and robberies in the 2000s.

Markus H. weating a hoodie and a mask entering the courtroom, hands cuffed behind his back
There is much confusion over role of Markus H. in the killing of Walter LübckeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Lohnes

Swapping out the defense lawyer

Then, early in the trial this summer, came the next twist: Stephan E. fell out with his attorney Frank Hannig and accused him of inventing the murder accusation against Markus H.

Hannig, a co-founder of the far-right PEGIDA movement, was then sacked by the presiding judge in July and is now himself under investigation for inciting false testimony.

Now, in Stephan E.'s latest version of events, Markus H. was at the scene but Stephan E. pulled the trigger when Lübcke confronted them.

The confusion over Markus H.'s involvement has had consequences: Much to the anger of Lübcke's family, and perhaps the judges themselves, the court felt forced to release him from custody in early October. Though he remains a defendant for aiding and abetting and is obliged to appear in court for every session, the prosecution case linking him to the murder has become increasingly thin.

Walter Lübcke's widow and her sons entering the courtroom
Lübcke's widow and sons have frequently appeared in court as co-plaintiffsImage: Ronald Wittek/AP Photo/picture alliance

Refugee stabbing

Meanwhile, Stephan E.'s own long violent past has come to light. For decades, he was in and out of a variety of far-right organizations and has been convicted for a string of attacks against immigrants.

The police investigation brought new evidence to light, and yet another charge: Stephan E. is now also on trial for the attempted murder of Iraqi refugee Ahmed I., who was stabbed in the back by an unknown cyclist in the town of Lohfelden, where Stephan E. lived, in January 2016. Stephan E. denies the charge.

Security services under scrutiny

Meanwhile, the bigger questions for Germany remain opaque. The local state parliament in Hesse has already announced an inquiry into how much the security services — especially the local domestic intelligence agency, the Verfassungsschutz— knew about Stephan E. and Markus H. before Lübcke's murder.

Crucial to this will be whether the Hesse Verfassungsschutz possessed intelligence that might have prevented Lübcke's murder. The Welt am Sonntag newspaper has reported that Stephan E.'s name has indeed appeared in searches of Verfassungsschutz files about theNSU.

And then there is the even larger issue, which this trial cannot hope to address: Whether far-right sympathizers within Germany's security forces are still — deliberately or not — protecting criminal neo-Nazi organizations, either by tipping them off or misdirecting investigations, or simply neglecting to investigate them.

As for Stephan E. — for his part, he has shown remorse and broken into tears in court, and asked to be allowed to join a de-radicalization program.

Though the presiding judge Thomas Sagebiel has signaled he is hoping to pronounce a verdict soon, the court announced on Monday that he would be questioning the defendant yet again this week. Those following the trial will be wondering what version of events the defendant comes up with this time.

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.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight