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Germany fears far-right violence after pro-refugee politician killed and others threatened

Family members attend the memorial service for slain German politician Walter Lübcke at St. Martin Church in Kassel, Germany, on June 13. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

BERLIN — Concerns over right-wing extremist violence mounted in Germany this week, after a string of death threats against several politicians that support allowing refugees into the country.

The threats came only days after Walter Luebcke, a regional politician and member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party, was fatally shot at point-blank range in what investigators described as an “execution.” One suspect with ties to the far-right has been taken into custody.

Since the 2015 influx of refugees in the country, other German politicians have been targeted for their pro-migrant stances, including independent Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker and conservative Altena Mayor Andreas Hollstein, both of whom were stabbed but survived. Reker and Hollstein were reportedly among the politicians who recently received new threats.

The incidents have shocked a country that had hoped to have overcome the worst of the tensions triggered by a flood of refugees four years ago. Authorities have recorded hundreds of attacks against asylum centers across the country, while the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party surged in the polls, becoming the biggest opposition party in the current parliament.

As refugee arrivals have plummeted, however, German public discourse had largely moved on to focus on other issues, including climate change and more mundane debates such as motorway speed limits.

Sunday’s revelation that a far-right suspect may be behind regional council leader Luebcke’s death raised new concerns that the fears over refugees coming to Germany may have given a permanent boost to the country’s far-right extremists.

“Almost everywhere in Europe, the threat posed by right-wing extremists is now considered to be equal to the threat posed by Islamists,” said Peter Neumann, the founding director of London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization. After years of being primarily focused on Islamist terrorism, authorities are only now really starting to adapt to a changed threat assessment, Neumann said.

Last week, officials revealed that there were almost 500 outstanding arrest warrants for right-wing German extremists. Official documents list more than 12,000 potentially violent right-wing extremists in the country — a number that has significantly increased in recent years.

Right-wing extremism had long posed a threat, Neumann said, but the rise of far-right populism has made it a more urgent concern in recent years, despite the drop in refugee arrivals. “Right-wing populist parties have normalized the rhetoric used by potential extremists. By continuously framing immigration as an urgent and existential threat, populist parties’ rhetoric is destined to be interpreted as a justification for violence by some individuals,” said Neumann, who urged the far-right AfD to reconsider its rhetoric amid the surge in threats.

The AfD has condemned violent far-right attacks, but continues to rail against migrants.

When Hollstein, the mayor of Altena, was stabbed in 2017, his assailant referred to a common theme among far-right populists. “I myself am hungry and thirsty,” he said, accusing the mayor of “bringing more refugees.”

The attacker who seriously injured local politician Reker of Cologne two years earlier also testified that he wanted to send a message against her pro-refugee policies, according to German prosecutors at the time. (Reker, who remained hospitalized for weeks, was elected mayor of Cologne one day after the attack.)

The most recent case of suspected far-right violence against a politician, Luebcke, triggered comparisons with the far-right National Socialist Underground (NSU) neo-Nazi terrorist trio that mostly killed migrants in Germany between 2000 and 2007. Initially, authorities suspected migrants themselves to be behind those murders, which resulted in accusations that German officials had turned a blind eye on the far-right.

Public trust in German authorities’ handling of far-right cases was stretched last year, when then-domestic intelligence chief, Hans-Georg Maassen, questioned the authenticity of a video that appeared to show far-right groups attacking refugees in the eastern German city of Chemnitz last summer.

The video — whose authenticity was subsequently confirmed by analysts — had been cited by Merkel. Questioning its authenticity was seen by her allies as an effort to undermine the chancellor’s authority. Maassen’s statements caused an uproar. Some accused him of playing into the hands of the far-right, and he was dismissed.

In the case of Luebcke, in the town of Kassel, it took almost two weeks for authorities to publicly discuss a possible far-right motive, even though his allies had almost immediately pointed out his pro-immigration stance as a possible factor.

“The Luebcke case could reveal whether this country has really learned from the NSU murder series,” Josef Schuster, the head of the Central Council of Jews in German, told the German Press Agency.

German authorities needed to increase their surveillance activities online to keep tabs on individuals who may not be officially members of neo-Nazi groups but susceptible to their ideology, extremism researcher Neumann said.

Germany is not the only country with right-wing extremist attacks against migrants, politicians or human rights workers. Days ahead of Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union, pro-refugee British Member of Parliament Jo Cox was killed by a far-right extremist in her constituency in June 2016.

In January, the liberal mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was fatally stabbed by a supporter of the right-wing national government, which Adamowicz had frequently criticized. It remains unclear whether the attack had a political motive.

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