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Germany Admits to Far-Right Problem    02/22 09:54

   BERLIN (AP) -- As Germany's president expressed his sympathy and shock 
during a candlelight vigil for nine people killed by an immigrant-hating 
gunman, a woman called out from the crowd, demanding action, not words. 

   But the country's leaders are struggling to figure out how to counter a 
recent rise in right-wing hate, 75 years after the Nazis were driven from power.

   The shooting rampage Wednesday that began at a hookah bar in the Frankfurt 
suburb of Hanau was Germany's third deadly far-right attack in a matter of 
months and came at a time when the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has become 
the country's first political party in decades to establish itself as a 
significant force on the extreme right.

   In the wake of the latest spasm of violence, Chancellor Angela Merkel 
denounced the "poison" of racism and hatred in Germany, and other politicians 
similarly condemned the shootings.

   The rampage followed October's anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Halle 
and the slaying in June of a regional politician who supported Merkel's 
welcoming policy toward migrants. But Germany's top security official, Interior 
Minister Horst Seehofer, said the trend goes back further, noting a 2016 attack 
on a Munich mall against migrants and a years-long cross-country killing spree 
against foreigners by a group calling itself the National Socialist Underground.

   "Since the NSU and the rampage in Munich through today, an extreme-right 
trail of blood has run through our country," he said. 

   Extremism is no new phenomenon in modern-day Germany, where the Red Army 
Faction and other radical-left groups waged a campaign of kidnappings and 
killings from the 1970s through the '90s, and where some of the key Sept. 11 
plotters lived and schemed before heading to the U.S. to attend flight school 
ahead of the 2001 attacks. 

   Germany has strict laws prohibiting any glorification of the Nazis, with 
bans on symbols like the swastika and gestures like the stiff-armed salute, and 
denial of the Holocaust is illegal.

   But security officials have frequently been accused of being "blind in the 
right eye," for intentionally or inadvertently overlooking some far-right 
activity. 

   That was said to be the case with the NSU, which was able to kill 10 people, 
primarily immigrants, between 2000 and 2007 in attacks written off by 
investigators as organized crime. It was only after two NSU members died in 
2011 in a botched robbery that the group's activities were uncovered. 

   Mehmet Gurcan Daimaguler, an attorney who represented victims' families at 
the trial of an NSU member, said German authorities need to give more than "lip 
service" to fighting racism.

   "We haven't really begun yet a real fight against neo-Nazis, and one of the 
reasons, for me, clearly is the victims," he said. "The victims of Nazis are 
not members of the German middle class, but Muslims, migrants, LGBT people, 
immigrants. As long as the victim pool, so to say, was limited to minorities, 
it was not considered a real threat for society."

   Seehofer said that has changed, noting increased resources are being devoted 
to fighting far-right crime, including the addition of hundreds of new federal 
investigators and domestic intelligence agents. In addition, stricter laws have 
been passed, and the Cabinet approved a bill just this week, before the Hanau 
attacks, to crack down on hate speech and online extremism. 

   Under the bill, which is awaiting passage in parliament, internet companies 
would have to report a wide range of hate speech to police, and retweeting such 
material to a wide audience, or explicitly condoning it publicly, could be 
subject to prosecution.

   "We are not blind in any eye," Seehofer said. 

   Still, with national elections coming next year, politicians are grappling 
with strategies to confront AfD and blunt its appeal to disgruntled voters. 

   The AfD does not espouse violence, but many are accusing the party of 
producing a climate where right-wing extremism can flourish. The 7-year-old 
party now has members in all 16 state parliaments and is the largest opposition 
party nationally, though with less than 13 percent of the vote in the last 
election. 

   "One cannot see this crime in isolation," said Norbert Roettgen, one of 
several members of Merkel's party hoping to succeed her as chancellor when her 
term ends next year. "We need to fight the poison that is being dragged into 
our society by the AfD and others."

   Alexander Gauland, an AfD leader, accused Roettgen and others of trying to 
exploit the Hanau violence for political advantage. "Everything that we know is 
that it was a totally crazy person," Gauland said. 

   The gunman, 43-year-old Tobias Rathjen, posted rambling writings and videos 
online ahead of the attacks, advocating genocide and espousing theories about 
mind control. 

   Gauland, who once got in trouble for downplaying the Nazi era as a speck of 
"bird poop" in German history, said Rathjen had probably never heard any of his 
speeches, and he rejected any connection between the bloodshed and his party's 
anti-migrant platform, as did several other AfD leaders.

   But Seehofer said the power of words cannot be discounted.

   "I can't deny that a statement that Nazism is a speck of bird poop in 
history provides this fertile soil," Seehofer said. "There are also many other 
remarks that, in my view, mess up heads, and something bad comes from messed-up 
heads far too often." 

   Holger Muench, head of the BKA, Germany's equivalent to the FBI, said the 
threat from mentally disturbed people has grown in recent years, as they latch 
on to ideas often found online and turn violent.

   "The fact that there are mentally ill people in society, that is unchanged 
for the most part," he said. "But the fact that there are mentally ill people 
with a world view that makes them a risk to serious acts of violence, that is 
changing."

   No evidence has emerged to link Rathjen to the AfD. But people in Hanau were 
quick to suggest at least an indirect connection.

   Dieter Hog watched as the police descended upon Rathjen's house after the 
shootings and said he didn't know his neighbor or what might have motivated 
him. "But it might be the seed of Mr. Hoecke," he said, referring to Bjoern 
Hoecke, an AfD leader who called Berlin's memorial to the victims of the Nazi 
Holocaust a "monument of shame."

   And Hatice Nazerzadeh, the woman who yelled at German President Frank-Walter 
Steinmeier during the candlelight vigil, said that with the party's ascent, 
attacks are becoming common. Parts of AfD are already under close scrutiny by 
Germany's domestic intelligence agency, but she said more should be done. 

   "The core problem is the AfD," said Nazerzadeh, whose cousin was shot in the 
head by Rathjen and killed. "As long as the AfD is legal, racism is legal." 


(KR)

 
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