Don't conflate Europe's racial terror with the rise of hard-right parties

Fears that far-right extremism is linked entirely to the continent's rapidly growing fringe political movements with nativist agendas are misplaced

HANAU, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 21: People gather in front of the Arena Bar + Cafe to commemorate the victims of the recent shooting on February 21, 2020 in Hanau, Germany. A total of 11 people are confirmed dead after an attacker reportedly shot nine people dead starting around 10pm on February 19 in two different shisha bars in Hanau. Police later discovered the suspected shooter and another person dead in the suspect's apartment. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images)
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The right-wing extremist who carried out a killing spree targeting shisha cafes in southern Germany last week was driven by a desire to "cleanse" his homeland. By the standards of the 24-page manifesto that Tobias Rathjen, 43, left behind, the death of a 35-year-old pregnant woman would mark a grim double victory. The woman was among eight victims in the town of Hanau, near Frankfurt, who died when Rathjen started his attack.

From the headlines of the past few days, there is evidence to suggest that ideologically driven acts of terror are gaining pace around Europe. So much so that there are many questioning just how isolated the extremists are. Is there a groundswell of wider social and political support for "manifestos" from the killers? Is there a hinterland among the new hard-right parties on the rise in European parliaments with a symbiotic relationship with neo-fascists?

These questions are pressing most obviously in Germany, where the Hanau attack has been condemned by state leaders and ordinary citizens alike.

Politics in Europe’s largest country has been upended in recent months by events originating in the town of Erfurt on the border of the old East and West Germany, where local resident Bjorn Hocke is the regional leader of the AfD, a resurgent hard-right party capturing up to 20 per cent in nationwide polls.

epa08220165 Neo-Nazi march during a protest in Dresden, Germany, 15 February 2020. The thousands of victims of the bombing of Dresden during World War II are commemorated annually on 13 February. Right-wing extremists held a rally to remember the victims of the bombing as several counter demonstrations took place.  EPA/FILIP SINGER
German government officials have warned that far-right extremism was the biggest terror threat facing the country. EPA

It has posted billboards that make plain its programmatic prejudice. One version states simply: ”Stop Islamisation." In Germany, the idea of preserving Germans from other identities is something sacred in the public square – and the AfD revels in its post-Nazi taboo bursting.

Even in the digital-era, giant posters serve a proxy purpose. One group of activists erected a full-scale display outside Mr Hocke‘s farmhouse home of Berlin’s Holocaust memorial. A tonsorially-challenged opponent also funded his own banner sending up the idea that skinheads – a synonym for neo-Nazis – could be electorally viable. Adverts for a shaven-headed salon owner running for Germany’s Liberal Party said he had excelled in history class, unlike all other skinheads.

Mr Hocke emerged as a power-broker on the national stage when his party topped the poll in last year's state election and then backed a Liberal candidate for the provincial leadership. The outcry was far-reaching.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses the press ending the second day special European Council summit in Brussels on February 21, 2020. Time was called on the summit after two days and a night of talks that failed to narrow stubborn differences between a handful of wealthy "frugal" states and a larger group wanting more money to meet big European ambitions on top of covering a budget shortfall left by Brexit. / AFP / kenzo tribouillard
The party and the centrist political movement led by Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel have lost some of their appeal. AFP

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the woman who had taken over leadership of the centre-right Christian Democratic Party – and was thus the heir apparent to Chancellor Angela Merkel – resigned. Mrs Merkel herself issued warnings about the march of right-wing politics. Now following the Hanau tragedy, the interior minister Horst Seehofer warned that far-right extremism was the biggest terror threat facing the country.

Germany has a particular history but there are other European countries going through similar traumas. The threat seen in Hanau has been seen from Finland to Christchurch, New Zealand, where almost a year ago at least 50 people were gunned down while offering Friday prayers in two mosques. In the nexus between the political arena and the violent fringe, what happens in Germany will determine how this threat is contained or marginalised; not just in one country but around northern Europe and further afield.

The immediate headlines following the Hanau attack used shisha cafes as shorthand for Muslims. In fact the five-month pregnant victim, Mercedes Kierpacz, was of mixed Roma, Polish and German background. The Rathjen "manifesto" concentrated on racial purity, not religious issues.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 23: Armed police guard Al Noor mosque after it was officially reopened following last weeks attack, on March 23, 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand. 50 people were killed, and dozens were injured in Christchurch on Friday, March 15 when a gunman opened fire at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. The attack is the worst mass shooting in New Zealand's history.  (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Armed police guard Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in the aftermath of the March 23 terror attack. Getty Images

Thousands of people rallied in city squares in the area and around Germany at the end of last week, with many carrying banners crying "Nazis out" and "never again". The AfD carried much of the blame – but therein lies a problem. It is fair to resist the rise of hard-right parties with nativist agendas – their policies are obviously discriminatory – but there is a danger in losing the focus on the extremists themselves.

Politics is changing in the West. Political parties are confronted by demands to address the base demands of voters who are aggrieved and seeking a new departures. In Germany, a party that has unpalatable policies has fed off the failure of the political centre-ground to adapt. By contrast in Britain, the Conservative Party has changed its political stripes and, so far, smothered a challenge from the right. In France, the very traditional right-wing National Front was kept at bay by a maverick centrist president.

Keeping the purist killers marginalised and ineffective is a whole different challenge – one that is more suited to the realms of counter-extremism and criminal justice. It might be tempting to fuse the trends; after all, allegations that the new right acts as a seedbed have the ring of truth but they spur wider divisions. It is more useful to remain discriminating between the threats.

Assailants and killers occupy a dedicated fringe, and thwarting attacks remains a primary task for the security forces. But just as important is the need for political leaders to do a better job at resisting the onslaught that is crushing the political centre.

At the end of the day, the fight against extremism is interlinked but it is not one and the same.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National