Halle, Germany—On Friday night, several hundred people gathered in front of the Halle synagogue for Shabbat services and to memorialize the two people who were killed last Wednesday when a 27-year-old German neo-Nazi attempted to massacre worshippers celebrating Yom Kippur. Candles and flowers lined the exterior walls of the synagogue, and mourners gently sang, “Shalom chaverim, l’hit-rah-oat, l’hit-rah-oat, shalom” (Peace my friends, until we meet again, shalom).
But the situation at the synagogue felt tense on Friday night, as visitors to Shabbat services were required to register with leaders in the afternoon. Inside the unassuming synagogue, services were attended by state and community leaders and were conducted in German and Russian, as a large number of congregation members were once refugees from the Soviet Union. When Stephan Baillet attempted to storm the Halle synagogue with an arsenal of homemade weapons, a thick, narrow wooden door that is locked from the inside during services was all that protected the more than 50 congregants who were estimated to be inside at the time. The door still bears the bullet holes and markings of Baillet’s mercifully ineffectual attempts to break it down. The door and several security cameras, according to reporting from The Guardian, were added in 2015 after the synagogue received a security assistance grant in the wake of a deadly shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, in 2012.
The attack was livestreamed to the gaming site Twitch and was thwarted only when Baillet’s weapons turned out to be defective. Unable to enter the synagogue, he gunned down a woman passing by and then traveled to a nearby kebab restaurant, where he threw more explosives and again opened fire, killing a man on his lunch break. (These additional targets point to the ways misogyny and Islamophobia are intertwined with anti-Semitism among Europe’s far right.) In a manifesto littered with memes and references to chan culture, he stated that his aim was to kill “as many anti-whites as possible, Jews preferred.”
Halle is part of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, which, along with much of the rest of the former East, has seen a significant rise in far-right sentiment. Far-right political parties like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) have consistently made gains in recent elections, with campaigns that rely heavily on anti-migrant talking points. In the Halle suburb where the shooter lived, the AfD won nearly 27 percent in the 2017 federal election, almost double the national average. Leading figures of the party have been repeatedly accused of Holocaust revisionism as AfD leaders have sought to downplay the horrors of the Nazi era, defending Holocaust deniers and arguing that Germany must reclaim its national pride. The party’s coleader Alexander Gauland referred to the era as a “speck of bird poop” staining Germany’s history, and Björn Höcke, leader of the party’s most extreme faction, referred to Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as a “monument of shame in the heart of the nation’s capital.”
The fact that Halle is in Germany’s former East is significant. As Germany prepares for the 30th anniversary of the reunification of the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall, differences between the former Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic in the east are still deeply felt by many throughout the country. Eastern cities have struggled to adapt economically since reunification in 1990, and many attribute the rise of the far right in the region to a sense of economic stagnation and anger at a perceived abandonment by Berlin politicians.
And because of Halle’s easy connection to the federal region, being only an hour’s train ride from Berlin, it has also served as an important hub for the New Right movement in Germany. Less than a 10-minute walk from the synagogue is perhaps the most infamous address in Halle. Directly across from the Martin Luther University campus, splattered with black and red paint across the windows and facade, is the headquarters of Germany’s Generation Identity—a mediagenic far-right movement that has chapters across Europe. Around the door frame are stickers with the outline of a Roman soldier alongside European monuments and, roughly translated, “Defend Europe: It remains our homeland.”
The group and its headquarters have been largely inactive since Generation Identity was classified as a right-wing extremist organization by German officials in July, effectively outlawing the group’s activities. The classification came after pressure once it was revealed that the Christchurch shooter, who murdered 51 Muslims at a mosque in New Zealand in March, donated $1,000 to the group. But the building still stands as a reminder that of all the places in Germany the group could have chosen to go, it made Halle its home.
According to locals, only a few members are still active. Jonathan Steffens, a 29-year-old resident of Halle I spoke to, said that the town has fought hard against the presence of Generation Identity and that the issue of the far right is more prevalent in the surrounding areas of Saxony-Anhalt. “Here in Halle, because of the university, it’s quite liberal, but where the shooter was from, yeah, I have heard that everyone there is a Nazi.”
Meanwhile, far-right violence has been on the rise throughout the country. Germany’s domestic intelligence agency said the number of anti-Semitic acts of violence rose to 48 last year, from 21 the previous year. Police recorded 1,646 offenses with anti-Semitic motive in 2018, up from 1,200 the year before. In June a local politician from the state of Hesse who supported Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies was assassinated at his home by a right-wing extremist.
On Friday afternoon, I met Rabbi Adam Scheier outside the synagogue. He had flown in from Montreal to attend Shabbat services that evening. “An attack on a synagogue in Germany is not just an attack on a synagogue in Germany. It is an attack on every synagogue across the world. It is an attack on every faith across the world,” he said. “Halle has joined ranks with Poway and Pittsburgh and Christchurch and many other horrible attacks around the world.”
Residents of Halle have been eager to speak out against hate. Banners reading “Halle against hate” and “Against anti-Semitism and hate” flooded the streets outside the synagogue.
Grit and Frieder Weigmann, a couple from Halle, attended the memorial on Friday night. Grit Weigmann owns a quilting shop in the street where the attack happened and said she heard shots from the window before she and her employees ran into her office and locked the door. “I find it a real shame that Halle has a negative image now. It is such a lovely city. And what happened here is so inconceivable.” she said. “But we know that it can happen anywhere.”
“But right now,” she said, pointing to the mass of people holding candles and singing in mourning, “we see a different image of Halle. Yesterday and the day before yesterday and today, people have come out to show support with calm and dignity.” When asked if anti-Semitism or hate is a problem in Germany, she said, “I can’t understand it…. I know there are people with different beliefs, but I don’t understand it.”
“I believe there is a kind of collective egoism in the Western world,” Frieder Weigmann said. “Us and the others. It not only applies to anti-Semitism but also about Muslims, about Israel, about refugees, about foreigners…. We need to share a different understanding of the world.”