The trial of the Halle synagogue shooter – lessons to be learned amid resurgent anti-Semitism in Germany
On the 21st of July, the trial of Halle neo-Nazi terrorist Stephan Balliet began in Magdeburg, Germany. He faces life in prison for the murder of 40-year-old Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., as well as 68 cases of attempted murder and incitement to racial hatred following his attack on Halle’s synagogue last year. Amid growing anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, this was the deadliest anti-Jewish attack in Germany since WWII.
On the 9th of October 2019, Yom Kippur eve, the 28-year-old right-wing extremist drove up to the small-town synagogue, sporting military attire and geared up with explosives and firearms. As just over 50 worshipers gathered in prayer, the attacker started shooting at the building, where a now-memorialized wooden door resisted the shots and helped save the lives of all those inside. Upon failing to enter the synagogue, the attacker started shooting on the street, killing a passer-by and a kebab salesman the shooter assumed to be an immigrant.
Prior to the attack, Balliet published an online manifesto, which detailed his hatred for Jews and his belief in the Great Replacement theory”– a conspiracy myth that claims Jewish elites promote feminism to deter birth rates in predominantly white European countries to replace white males. He also broadcasted the attack live. It was viewed over 2,000 times and archived to right-wing platforms before being taken down by Twitch, a platform owned by Amazon.
Balliet was imprisoned following a police chase, but he attempted to escape this May, climbing an 11-foot fence during a walk through the courtyard. It was only after this incident that he was transferred to a maximum security prison.
Forty-three coplaintiffs, a majority of whom were in the Halle synagogue during the attack, were present at the trial as the terrorist testified about his desire to "commit a massacre", as per the indictment. He showed no remorse.
The Halle attack came amid a pandemic of right-wing extremist attacks globally – notably the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg and on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand – which, as the Halle synagogue attacker himself admitted, served as inspiration.
It also came on the backdrop of resurgent far-right terrorism in Germany. In 2019, Germany’s federal government recorded just over 22 000 right-wing extremist attacks over 2,000 explicitly anti-Semitic attacks, both representing the largest numbers in past years. It was in the same year that a neo-Nazi sympathizer fatally shot centrist politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. In the Germany city of Hanau this February, a right-wing extremist supporting anti-Semitic and racist views killed nine people he believed were foreigners.
Branches of the army and police are currently engulfed in scandals amid uncovered links to extreme right groups. Over 600 soldiers were investigated by Germany’s military counterintelligence. After several far-right incidents were discovered, the KSK, Germany’s elite Special Commando Forces, was disbanded.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution who is tasked with protecting Germany from extremists on right and left, drew attention to an “informal network” of right-wing extremists in strategic areas ranging from the domestic intelligence service, as outlined above, to media. Anti-Semitic messaging was, according to Haldenwang, being subtly infiltrated into public discourse.
Facing the reality of resurgent anti-Jewish hatred, given its history, Germany has put in place strong measures to tackle antisemitism.
Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and a growing list of regional coordinators oversee Germany’s attempts to address the phenomenon. Major Jewish institutions are provided with security; prosecution of hate crimes is well established in the criminal justice system; legislation was recently passed that tightens regulations for online platforms to report and take down illegal hate speech; Holocaust education is well anchored in curricula; numerous exchange programs with Israel exist; and the political establishment has a deeply enshrined culture of speaking out in support of the Jewish community.
Following the attack on the German synagogue, President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel both attended vigils, in Halle and Berlin, and recommitted to increase efforts to address anti-Semitism, particularly regarding the lack of security in smaller communities.
In response to the recent resurgence of right-wing extremism, Germany placed the more extreme branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, and, in a first, banned a series of clubs belonging to the far-right movement Citizens of the Reich.
It’s a matter of perspective whether all this is re-assuring, or all the more alarming in Germany’s feebleness when confronted with the trends outlined earlier. One thing is clear: More needs to be done.
Lessons for moving forward
The terrorist attack in Halle offers many specific policy points of reflection. The streaming of the attack online feeds into ongoing discussions about platforms’ accountability for users’ content. The attacker’s gamer profile points to the violent inclinations of gaming platforms. His declared world views, a signal that more must be done to address the formation and dissemination of conspiracy myths. The now-flimsy wooden synagogue door is a testament to the need for heightened security, even in smaller communities.
Yet beyond these specific points, a recurring theme emerged from testimonies of those who survived Halle: The trial cannot be about this singular incident. Rather, it must raise awareness about deep-rooted anti-Semitism and extremism in many corners of German society. As Commissioner Klein noted in a recent interview, a welcome outcome would be increased discourse about anti-Semitism in German society, and real understanding among civilians and policy-makers alike about the real scope of the challenges faced.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
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