German Authorities Suspect neo-Nazi Terror Group Was Behind Politician's Assassination

Far-right sympathizer has confessed to the murder of Walter Luebcke, but investigators think he may be covering up for accomplices in an underground group

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The memorial service for Walter Luebcke at the St. Martin Church in Kassel, Germany, June 13, 2019.
The memorial service for Walter Luebcke at the St. Martin Church in Kassel, Germany, June 13, 2019.Credit: Swen Pfoertner/Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

German authorities suspect that a neo-Nazi terror cell is behind the politically-motivated murder of a senior politician from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party in early June.

The main suspect, Stephan Ernst is a far-right sympathizer, and has confessed to the murder – but said he acted alone. Now the authorities are investigating whether he is trying to cover up further accomplices and are examining whether Ernst belonged to the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a German neo-Nazi terror group.

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The NSU operated for years under the radar, murdering eight Turks, a Greek man and a German policewoman from 2000 to 2007. Beate Zschäpe, the main defendant for the NSU in trials for the murders and its only remaining well-known member still alive, was sentenced to life in prison in 2018.

Walter Luebcke, who served as president of the Kassel regional council in central Germany, was found shot in the head from close range near his house on June 2. Luebcke was famous for his fight for the rights of refugees in Germany. As a result, he was the target of threats and invective from the far-right. 

Ernst, 45, was arrested after DNA evidence linked him to the scene of the crime. German media reported that Ernst was in contact with the far-right NPD party, as well as the neo-Nazi group Combat 18. During questioning, Ernst said that Luebcke was a “provocative figure” for the extreme right in Germany because of his positions on refugees. Der Spiegel magazine reported that Ernst said the motive for the murder was based partly on things Luebcke said in a municipal council meeting in 2015 when he announced he planned on establishing a new absorption center for refugees. During the meeting, Luebcke reportedly said: “One has to stand up for values here. And those who don’t do so can leave this country any time, if they don’t like it. That’s the freedom of every German.”

Ernst’s criminal record includes convictions for violent attacks on migrants and left-wing activists, including the stabbing of an immigrant in 1992 and an attempt to attack a refugee shelter.

Increase in Germans who identify with far-right

This week an indictment was filed in Germany against an extreme right-wing terror organization from the city of Chemnitz which operated under the name "Revolution Chemnitz." Its members are accused of planning terror attacks. Several of the group's members have been involved in attacks on migrants and asylum seekers. According to the Die Tageszeitung German daily, 195 people have been murdered as a result of extreme right-wing violence since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

On Thursday Germany's Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution published updated data on far-right activity in the country, noting that there are about 24,000 right-wing activists currently active.

According to data from the German Federal Ministry of the Interior, there has been a rise of 20 percent in anti-Semitic crimes in the country. Extreme right-wing activists in Germany committed 90 percent of the 1,800 incidents that took place in 2018. 

The Luebcke murder brings up many questions surrounding political polarization in Germany and the helplessness of the authorities to prevent extreme right activities. Despite the fact that Luebcke received explicit threats on his life, he did not receive security. After his murder, it was reported that other politicians were receiving similar threats.

In 2017 Andreas Holsten, the mayor of the western town of Altena and a member of Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, was stabbed. Holsten was reportedly confronted by a man over his welcoming stance on refugees. In 2015 Henrietta Recker, then a candidate for Cologne's mayorship, was stabbed during her election campaign due to her stance on refugees.

Such attacks allude to Germany's dark history of the 1970's when the Baader–Meinhof Gang or the Red Army Faction, engaged in a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and other crimes as a scare tactic. At its peak, the West German far-left militant group kidnapped and murdered industrial leader and former Nazi Party member Hanns Martin Schleyer.

A week ago, Germany's Foreign Minister Haiku Maas published an op-ed in the Bild newspaper, admitting that Germany has a "terrorist problem." "Eighty years after the start of World War II, politicians are once again victims of extreme right-wing terrorism because of their faith, because of their commitment to our country," he wrote. "Many still close their eyes to the fact that Germany has a terror problem," he added.

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