BERLIN (AFP) — German Jewish leaders and politicians on Friday accused the far-right AfD party of whipping up hatred that made the deadly anti-Semitic attack in Halle possible, a charge rejected by the party.
As the country searched for answers after the rampage by a suspected neo-Nazi who tried to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle, several critics accused the Alternative for Deutschland party of making aggressive bigotry mainstream.
Felix Klein, the government’s pointman for fighting anti-Semitism, said the AfD, the biggest opposition party in parliament, trafficked in incendiary anti-Jewish sentiment.
He noted that leading figures in the party had called Germany’s culture of Holocaust remembrance and atonement for Nazi crimes into question, just as they criticized Jewish religious rites.
“The AfD has a great number of views that are hostile to Jews,” Klein told public broadcaster ZDF. “For instance, their position that ritual slaughter of animals (for kosher food preparation) should be banned.”
He cited AfD chief Alexander Gauland, who has expressed “pride” for the actions of German soldiers during World War II, and dismissed the Nazi period as a mere “speck of bird poop” in Germany’s history.
Klein’s post was created last year in response to a sharp rise in hate crimes against Jews in Germany, seven decades after the Holocaust.
Suspect Stephan Balliet, 27, is accused of shooting two people dead on the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, after he tried and failed to storm a synagogue filled with at least 50 worshipers.
He admitted to the crime and confessed it was motivated by anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, federal prosecutors said Friday.
The gunman made a 35-minute video, obtained by Agence France-Presse, in which he filmed himself launching into a diatribe against women and Jews and denying the Holocaust before carrying out the attack.
Although Balliet is believed to have committed the assault alone, commentators said he had tapped into a murky pool of extremist ideology readily found online.
Without mentioning the AfD by name, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an outspoken critic of the party, on Thursday condemned xenophobic rhetoric they said had grown increasingly commonplace and dangerous.
The head of Munich’s Jewish community, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, said the attack showed “how quickly the words of political extremists can get turned into action” and accused the AfD of “paving the way for this with its culture of hatred and incitement.”
AfD parliamentary group leader Alice Weidel said critics were “exploiting this horrible crime to defame their political rivals with baseless defamation.”
On Friday party co-president Joerg Meuthen insisted that the AfD was a “pro-Israeli and a pro-Jewish party.”
“We are actively engaged in supporting Jewish life in Germany — for us it is a key part of our identity,” he said.
But Bavarian Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said the AfD had contributed to a slipping of longstanding taboos in German life, offering legitimacy to hatred and bloodshed.
“On the one hand you have these horrible violent criminals, who we need to protect ourselves against, and on the other hand the intellectual arsonists,” said Herrmann, who has come under fire for his own harsh language against asylum-seekers.
In the wake of the Halle attack, Bavarian state Premier Markus Soeder called for the AfD to expel Bjoern Hoecke, a leader of the party’s most radical wing who has called for a “180-degree shift” in Germany’s remembrance culture.
The AfD began as a Euroskeptic outfit in 2013 and has morphed into a nationalist anti-immigration party.
The influx of more than 1 million asylum-seekers 2015-16 contributed to its growth, but its poll numbers have plateaued since then at about 14%.
It is represented in all 16 of Germany’s regional legislatures and has nearly 100 seats in the Bundestag.
Wednesday’s shootings came three months after the shocking assassination-style murder of a pro-immigrant politician Walter Luebcke in the western city of Kassel, allegedly by a known neo-Nazi.
Centrist politicians at the time blamed the AfD for stoking anti-refugee sentiment and raised questions about whether Germany had failed to take seriously a rising threat from right-wing extremists.
© Agence France-Presse