On the Halle Synagogue Attacks
Everyone in the AICGS community grieves and condemns the right-radical, anti-Semitic terrorist incident that occurred on Yom Kippur, Wednesday, October 9, 2019, in the city of Halle. By now, the sequence of events and motivations of the killer are clear. Stephen Balliet, immersed in an international right-radical Internet subculture, assembled a (largely) homemade arsenal of weapons, drove to the synagogue in Halle as Yom Kippur services were underway, and tried repeatedly to enter the complex by breaking down a door—all of which he live-streamed. Frustrated by the sturdiness of the door, he shot to death a passerby, Jana L. and then drove to a cafe and killed twenty-year-old Kevin S. In an attempt to flee, the perpetrator shot and wounded two other victims, and led the police on a 50-mile chase until he was subdued and arrested. Two days later, he confessed to the crime and confirmed the right-wing, anti-Semitic motive.
Many aspects of the crime are all-too-familiar. There is the troubled, twenty-seven-year-old perpetrator, who lived socially isolated with his mother and did not have an arrest record. Beyond compulsory military service, little is known about him besides his radical on-line presence. Various documents and “manifestos” show that he was imbued with an anti-feminist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic worldview and was consciously trying to imitate terrorist attacks such as the tragedies in Christchurch, New Zealand and El Paso, Texas. The ease of communication, proliferation of extremist propaganda, and internationalization of the right-radical fringe are once again inescapable take-aways.
Once again, there appears to be some failings from the government and police. Unlike other Jewish institutions across the country, there was no armed police presence at the time in Halle (despite a request) and the response time seems inadequate in light of several minutes when the perpetrator was using explosive devices and guns to try to gain access to the synagogue complex. A massacre of the worshippers was averted due to the ineffective homemade weapons, a security camera system, and a sturdy door. None of the killed and wounded after the failed attack were Jewish. One can only be nervous that one door—and perhaps Germany’s more stringent gun laws—averted much worse.
Finally, this incident shows that the scourge of anti-Semitism and (anti-Muslim) xenophobia is resilient. Too many people (troubled or not) are taken in by conspiracy theories and hate. This attack in Germany is especially unsettling, given the memory of the Nazi past and the substantial efforts that the country has made to come-to-terms with it and to foster a culture of contrition and vigilance to try to make such crimes unthinkable. Nevertheless, German authorities have recorded an increase in violent right-wing extremist crimes compared to years gone by, including those targeting Jewish people, as well as an increase in violent right-radical extremists in recent years. After years of focus on Islamist extremism, German security authorities have been brutally reminded of the threat of right-extremist violence, a threat that Germany must confront more vigorously.
German security authorities have been brutally reminded of the threat of right-extremist violence, a threat that Germany must confront more vigorously.
Perhaps official efforts to instill the culture of contrition (“never again”) and to foster liberal democratic political education are not as effective as they once were. It might be time for a comprehensive rethinking or at least an updating of pedagogical strategies. In light of the international informational flows that helped to radicalize the Halle perpetrator, it might also be time to look into ways to expand such socialization efforts to other countries—as well as developing more effective policy responses to on-line hate speech and violent right-radical organizing.
We ought not forget the response of official Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that there is zero tolerance for such acts. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated: “It must be clear that the state takes responsibility for Jewish life, for the security of Jewish life in Germany. We must protect Jewish life.” Many mainstream politicians placed some blame on the incendiary rhetoric of the right-wing Alternative for Germany. Bavaria’s interior minister even accused the politicians from that party of “intellectual arson.” Moreover, thousands of citizens attended a memorial service for the two victims and have expressed solidarity with the Jewish community. There are many more Germans who condemn such acts of terror than endorse them. But, condemnation also needs to be transformed into actions that check the threat of extremist violence.
Condemnation also needs to be transformed into actions that check the threat of extremist violence.
But, we also cannot overlook what is driving too many Germans to embrace these doctrines of hate and to act on them in murderous ways. AICGS has always tried to provide insight into all aspects of contemporary Germany, including its memory culture and the rise of right-radical parties and movements. It is time to redouble our efforts to understand such issues, especially given the international and transatlantic dimensions so evident today. We will bring together practitioners and academics from both sides of the Atlantic to provide deeper insight into the issue complex surrounding anti-Semitism and right-radicalism through a series of conferences, talks, and publications.
It is all of our duty to make “never again” a continued reality.