A 28-year-old German right-wing extremist went on trial Tuesday for a Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue that is considered one of the worst antisemitic assaults in the country’s post-war history, telling the court he saw Jews as a threat to the white race.
Stephan Balliet is alleged to have posted an antisemitic screed before carrying out the October 9 attack in the eastern German city of Halle. He broadcast the shooting live on a popular gaming site.
Pleas are not entered in the German system but Balliet did not deny the crime as his trial opened, telling the court he first decided to turn to violence in 2015 when Germany opened its doors to more than 1 million migrants, primarily from Muslim countries.
Asked by the presiding judge how that experience prompted him to attack Jews four years later, he told the court that “Jews are the main cause of white genocide, and want to establish a new world order,” NTV news reported.
Balliet is alleged to have repeatedly tried, but failed, to force his way into the synagogue with 52 worshipers inside. Prosecutors allege he then shot and killed a 40-year-old woman in the street outside and a 20-year-old man at a nearby kebab shop as an “appropriate target” with immigrant roots.
He apologized to the court for killing the woman passing by, saying it had been an automatic reaction when he saw her.
“I didn't want to kill whites,” he said, according to NTV.
The trial comes at a time when antisemitic crimes have reached their highest level since Germany started tracking such acts in 2001, amid an overall increase in right-wing extremist crime.
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Balliet is charged with 13 crimes including murder and attempted murder, along with bodily harm, incitement and other charges. Forty-three victims and relatives have joined the trial as co-plaintiffs, as allowed under German law.
The start of the Magdeburg state court trial was delayed for two hours due to the intense interest from dozens of national and international reporters and others who lined up for hours in front of the court building to get through security.
One of the co-plaintiffs, Christina Feist, who was in the synagogue on the day of the attack, urged the German media not to allow Balliet to use the trial to spread his racist theories.
“I beg of you all, don't only report about the perpetrator, don't only report about his perspective,” she said, according to the dpa news agency. “Do not give him the platform he wants.”
The suspect, all clad in black, with a blue face mask and shaved head, was taken to the court room by special forces with bullet-proof vests and covered faces. Balliet was handcuffed and his feet were shackled, dpa reported.
Igor Matviyets, a member of Halle’s Jewish community, who stood vigil with dozens of others outside the court building, said he worried the assault would be considered a crime against Jews only and not as an attack on the entire society.
“That is something I’m trying to fight against,” Matviyets told The Associated Press. “Because everyone could become a target of far-right crime, of far-right terrorists.”
During his attack, Balliet was armed with eight firearms, several explosive devices, a helmet and a protective vest, according to the indictment. Prosecutors have said the weapons were apparently homemade.
Following the attack, the suspect fled the city, wounding another two people in a small town near Halle where he abandoned his car and stole a taxi. Balliet was arrested about 1½ hours after the attack as he got out of the taxi, which had been in an accident.
The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Joseph Schuster, called the attack “one of the worst antisemitic incidents of the last years in Germany.”
“The suffering of the people in the Halle synagogue on Yom Kippur remains inconceivable,” Schuster said in a statement. “It was a miracle that they could evade this massacre.”
As the suspect tried to break into the synagogue, terrified worshippers inside were able to watch him through a surveillance camera.
Schuster demanded that the court looks into all aspects of the attack, and continues to investigate whether the suspect had any support from others.
He lauded the German government for making the fight against far-right crimes one of its top priorities in recent months and said that while the sense of security among Jews in Germany had taken a hard hit after the attack, it was now “almost back at the level before the attack, though additional security measures have partially led to restrictions in community life,” dpa reported.
German authorities vowed to step up measures against far-right extremism following the killing of a regional politician by a suspected neo-Nazi, the attack on the Halle synagogue and the fatal shooting of nine people of immigrant background in Hanau over the past year.
A lawyer for the co-plaintiffs, Juri Goldstein, said the trial was also about trying to find out how somebody could develop so much hatred “for people that he doesn’t know at all.”