(CN) — A far-right extremist killed nine people at or near two hookah bars in the German city of Hanau Wednesday night, and killed himself and his mother, German officials said.
The shooting left Europe in shock as it again found itself dealing with far-right terrorism at a time of rising xenophobia that has come to roil European politics and bring to power far-right parties.
“Racism is a poison that exists in our society,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in televised remarks Thursday. “This is a very sad day for Germany; we have great empathy for everyone.”
She offered her condolences and pledged that German institutions will “do our utmost to counter these incidents.”
“We understand the perpetrator had far-right motives, xenophobic motives,” the chancellor said.
Federal German prosecutors said the attacker left a video and letter expressing far-right views. German media identified the 43-year-old suspect as Tobias Rathjen. He was not on the radar of police, German media reported.
Six people were wounded in the attacks. The suspected attacker’s body was found in his home along with the body of his 72-year-old mother, officials said. He killed his mother before the shooting spree.
The attack in Hanau, near Frankfurt, was the latest in a string of attacks by far-right extremists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.
The previous deadly far-right attack in Germany occurred last October when Stephan Balliet, a 27-year-old German, killed two people in a synagogue in the city of Halle during Yom Kippur. Investigators found nine pounds of explosives in his car. Last June, politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Merkel’s party who expressed support for immigrants, was assassinated outside his home by a suspected far-right extremist.
On Thursday, German officials in Hanau letter, he said they found a letter of confession the killer left in which he expressed outrage over the influx of immigrants to Germany.
Anger over immigration has grown in Europe since 2015 when hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers, many of them fleeing the civil war in Syria, sought refuge in Europe.
The Hanau rampage took place in a part of the city where immigrants and Muslims live. Details about the victims were not immediately available, though officials said five Turkish nationals were among those killed.
Turkey condemned the attack and called on Germany to fully investigate. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, said it was a “racist attack” and added that racism was a “collective cancer.”
Abdassamad El Yazidi, the general secretary of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, denounced the shooting as an “attack on democracy” and called on German authorities to do more to protect immigrants and Muslims.
There was an outpouring of grief and horror across Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron said he felt “immense sadness” and that he stood “with Chancellor Merkel in this fight for our values and the protection of our democracies.”
Players for German football teams scheduled to play Europa League games planned to wear black ribbons in commemoration of the dead. Carnival celebrations in Munich were canceled Thursday and an evening vigil was to be held in Hanau, a city that was flattened by bombardment in World War II and that serves as an industrial hub known for working precious metals.
Germany has been accused of not taking far-right extremism as seriously as it should and the mass shooting prompted soul-searching in the country and new calls for the state to fight radicalization on the right.
Cem Özdemir, a co-leader of Germany’s Greens party who has Turkish origins, said it was time for Germany to recognize it has a problem with far-right terrorism. Özdemir has been threatened by neo-Nazi groups.
“We have to talk about radical right-wing terror,” he said. “In the past, how serious was the fight against right-wing networks and structures in this country?”
He called for “draining the right swamp” both “online and offline” and using the full force of the law to do that.
Authorities have begun ramping up efforts to counter far-right extremists and announced in November plans to have hundreds of more police officers tackling the problem. Last week, German police raided far-right groups and arrested a dozen people who allegedly were planning attacks on immigrants. German authorities also are seeking to root out far-right sympathizers within its military and police ranks.
Racist right-wing violence is common in Germany, with authorities reporting about 1,000 such incidents a year. The spraying of swastikas on Jewish tombstones and other racist acts are common too.
Yan St.-Pierre, an expert on terrorism based in Germany, told Deutsche Welle, a German public broadcaster, that the suspect in Wednesday’s attacks appeared to be an adherent to a conspiracy theory that has gained widespread support in far-right circles that claim governments are planning to replace white populations with foreigners. Far-right extremists behind mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand, also espoused these views, known as the “great replacement.”
St.-Pierre said exponents believe that “to avert this great replacement people will need to stand up and resist by any means necessary.”
“This is the idea that authorities cannot be trusted with the defense of the so-called homeland,” he said.
St.-Pierre said a growing number of Germans are joining far-right militias and showing willingness to act violently.
The massacre was shaking German politics too. A far-right party, the Alternative for Germany, has become the country’s largest opposition party and is accused of stoking racism with its harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Germany’s largest party, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and a sister Bavarian party, is deeply divided over how to handle the political pressure coming from the Alternative for Germany, which has succeeded in siphoning off many voters from Merkel’s traditional conservative party.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defense minister and chairwoman of Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said the tragedy in Hanau was further proof that her party should not go into coalition with the Alternative for Germany, which is known by its German initials AfD. Some within the party feel that the Christian Democrats have strayed too far to the left and need to consider working with the AfD to retain power.
Earlier this month, Kramp-Karrenbauer announced she was stepping down as party chairwoman and would not seek to become Merkel’s successor as chancellor after a row blew up within her party when regional Christian Democrats in Thuringia cooperated with AfD members to keep a left-wing candidate from becoming the Thuringian president.
“How important it is to hold this firewall [against the AfD] can be seen on a day like today,” she said, according to Bild, a German newspaper. She charged that the AfD tolerates far-right extremists and “Nazis” within its ranks.
Konstantin von Notz, a Green member in the Bundestag, also attacked the far-right party. He linked the AfD’s use of “agitation against migrants” and “anti-Semitic narratives” to the massacre in Hanau.
“This poisoned social climate is the breeding ground for right-wing terrorist structures,” he said.
AfD leaders hit back, saying their critics were seeking to use the massacre for political ends. Jörg Meuthen, the party’s chairman, said the attack was “the delusional act of a madman.” He said it should not be called either “right-wing or left-wing terror.”
Beatrix von Storch, an AfD Bundestag member, said her “thoughts and compassion” were with the victims and their loved ones. But she called Rathjen a “psychotic gunman.”
“This act of madness fills us with anger and loathing,” she said.
Matthias Hauer, a Christian Democrat in the Bundestag and opponent to the AfD, called the AfD “intellectual arsonists” for denying that what happened in Hanau was far-right terrorism.
“The seeds of AfD are growing,” he said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)