No one had planned to house refugees in Kassel district in western Germany. But then, no one had seen this many refugees arrive all at once, either—at least not since the aftermath of World War II.
“Essentially, we were told we needed to find housing for a thousand people from one day to the next,” Hermann-Josef Klüber, the vice president of the Kassel district government, told me. “All of a sudden, the buses started arriving every hour.”
It was the late summer of 2015, and Chancellor Angela Merkel had made the decision not to close the border to asylum seekers but rather to process their applications in Germany, helping to relieve a desperate situation in countries to the south and east. The choice was made in Berlin, but the work of taking care of the refugees would be carried out at the local level, by city and district officials supported by armies of volunteers.
“Our goal was: No one here will be homeless,” Klüber said when I spoke with him in July. “And winter was not that far away.”
Over 100 employees of the Kassel district government suddenly found themselves pulled away from their normal jobs, drafted into a humanitarian assistance mission that no one had planned for and that required organizing the provision of everything from toothbrushes to interpreters. The effort was joined by 3,500 local volunteers.
The district eventually set up more than 20 refugee centers, with room for more than 14,000 people. At the head of this mission stood an avuncular bear of a man with shaggy gray hair and a mustache. His name was Walter Lübcke.
He was born and raised in the area and was serving as president of the Kassel district government. As the first refugees arrived, he told the local press, “Our common life is based on Christian values. And that’s connected to concern and responsibility and help for people in need.”
Like Merkel, Lübcke was a member of the mainstream conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party. “He was certainly no leftist,” said Renate Mueller, a retired trade unionist who helped organize the volunteer effort. “But I think he stood for basic values, based on Christian conviction. And he acted on what he stood for.”
“He was the kind of guy who would light up a cigarette and stand around smoking with the workers outside the building,” said Kurt Heldmann, a photographer who worked for the district government. “It didn’t matter whether you were the doorman or a government minister. Lübcke was a guy who treated everyone exactly the same.”
Lübcke’s enthusiastic leadership of the local mission to help refugees and his stubborn insistence that they be treated humanely earned him hundreds of death threats and sparked an online campaign by Germany’s extreme right to vilify him—an effort that continued even after he was shot in the head and killed outside his home.
Lübcke’s murder, on June 2, was the first assassination of a politician in Germany by the far right since the end of World War II, and it has shaken the country profoundly. The suspected killer (who gave a confession to police but retracted it, possibly for tactical reasons, when he changed lawyers) turned out to be a well-known neo-Nazi. He has a long record of criminal convictions for racist violence and a file with the domestic intelligence agency that is supposed to track extremists, leading to questions about whether the structures Germany put in place after 1945 to protect its democracy are ready to deal with the now-resurgent far right.
On paper and by reputation, Germany appears well equipped to stamp out any return of radical-right politics. For example, it’s illegal to display Nazi symbols, and the state can ban political parties that are deemed to threaten the “free democratic basic order” guaranteed by the postwar Constitution. A special domestic intelligence agency called the Federal Office of Constitutional Protection is tasked with monitoring extremist activity and can spy on and infiltrate groups it decides are dangerous.
These structures are part of what Germans call militant democracy, a term that political scientist Karl Loewenstein coined in the 1930s. Loewenstein, who fled the Nazis and taught in the United States, argued that fascists would claim the protection of democratic rights and freedoms, passing themselves off as normal political actors even though their real aim was the destruction of democracy. To have any chance of surviving such manipulation, he said, a democracy needs to be willing to act undemocratically in special circumstances, to take away basic rights from those who would abuse them. A democracy that could do so would be a “militant democracy.”
The phrase feels unfamiliar in English, but since 1945, it has had a long and illustrious career in Germany, rendered in Loewenstein’s native language as streitbare Demokratie or wehrhafte Demokratie and used widely in the press and in political discussion to express the idea that democracies can’t just let their enemies operate freely.
The precise implications of the term seem overshadowed today by the way Germans use it. “Militant democracy” is one of those political phrases that nearly everybody thinks is a good thing. When you bring it up with Germans, they tend to start nodding in agreement before you can even finish getting the words out of your mouth, as if to say, “You’re damn right this is a democracy—and it always will be, too!” But besides the prohibitions in the criminal code on the use of explicitly Nazi symbols and the Nazi salute, it isn’t clear that the German state is really using all the tools of militant democracy to monitor and stop extremist violence.
The man accused of killing Lübcke is 45-year-old Stephan Ernst. He had been part of the neo-Nazi scene around Kassel for approximately two decades, according to German media. He stabbed a foreigner nearly to death in a train station bathroom in 1992 and set fire to a home for asylum seekers with a pipe bomb in 1993. A regular participant in extremist street marches, he was convicted in 2003 for taking weapons to a demonstration and in 2009 for participating in an attack by about 400 neo-Nazis on a trade unionist rally. If Germany’s militant democracy can’t stop someone like this, one wonders, who can it stop?
For the past 10 years or so, Ernst lived a seemingly quiet life, with a job, a wife, and two kids. But it appears he took his extremist activity online. The Office of Constitutional Protection had a file on him, but after the most recent reports on someone are five years old, data privacy rules prevent officials from accessing the information. In this case, those rules might have proved fatal for Lübcke.
Whatever we eventually learn as the investigation of Ernst proceeds, experts on right-wing extremism have long suspected that the Office of Constitutional Protection isn’t living up to its name. Most notoriously, the office and the country’s other security services failed to stop a series of murders of immigrants from 2000 to 2007 by a terrorist cell called the National Socialist Underground. “There’s been a tendency to underestimate the potential for right-wing terror for a long time,” said Kai Arzheimer, a professor of politics at the University of Mainz who studies right-wing parties.
There has also been a disturbing wave of violence against local officials. There was Henriette Reker, who was seriously wounded in a knife attack during her successful 2015 campaign for mayor of Cologne. There was a small-town mayor in eastern Germany, Markus Nierth, who resigned in 2015 after a neo-Nazi demonstration outside his house. “Papa, I’m afraid of the Nazis,” his young son told him. There was a Social Democratic leader in the town of Bocholt, Thomas Purwin, who stepped down in December 2016 after threats to his family. There was another small-town mayor, Andreas Hollstein, who was stabbed in November 2017 by a man shouting about refugees.
This list could continue: The Association of German Cities says 40 percent of city council members and 20 percent of mayors in Germany reported having received threats. In 2018 more than 1,200 crimes were recorded against local officials.
Not all of these crimes were rooted in right-wing ideology, but Burkhard Jung, the mayor of Leipzig, identified the danger this violence poses to the functioning of the state, asking in Der Tagesspiegel, “What if nobody runs for these positions anymore?” Another mayor, referring to local government employees, said, “My people are afraid every time the door opens.”
The potential also exists for large-scale right-wing terrorist attacks in Germany. The public learned this summer that a terrorist group called Nordkreuz compiled a list of about 25,000 people—mainly left-leaning politicians and officials—with a focus on anyone who expressed support for refugees.
There was some debate about whether the list should be characterized as a death list. Since one draft included the heading “we’ll get you all” and Nordkreuz members had been stockpiling ammunition and ordered body bags and quicklime (which accelerates the decomposition of bodies), the label doesn’t seem an exaggeration.
Perhaps most troubling is that the list was created by police officers, some of whom are suspected of stealing weapons and ammunition from official caches for Nordkreuz to use. It appears that at least some of the addresses and personal information on the list were not publicly available and could have come only from police files. So far, four officers have been arrested in connection with Nordkreuz. In a separate case, 38 members of the police in Hesse state, where Lübcke was killed, were under investigation for involvement in extreme-right activity.
All of this news is bad, but it gets worse, because for the first time since 1945, there is now a strong right-wing party in German politics, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It has the third-largest caucus in the federal Bundestag and is represented in all 16 state parliaments. And in recent state elections in eastern Germany, it made further inroads. The AfD thus achieved something that its postwar extremist precursors never did: It has brought the far right back into everyday political life.
To be sure, the AfD officially condemns violence and rejects the extremist label, and its members and officeholders have sometimes been the target of violence themselves. In fact, according to a count by the Interior Ministry, there have been more cases of vandalism and assault against the AfD this year than against any other party.
But there is a zone where the furthest right elements of the AfD mesh with parts of the neo-Nazi scene. This year the party’s youth organization as well as a far-right faction known as Der Flügel, or the Wing, were placed under observation by the Office of Constitutional Protection. The party’s routine professions of loyalty to Germany’s democracy seem less than credible when viewed in the context of its radical rhetoric, like that of a state-level leader who said the AfD’s goal is to “cause the regime to collapse.” And in an appalling example of what some in the AfD think about the Lübcke assassination, one of the party’s members in the Bavarian parliament refused to observe a moment of silence for Lübcke.
“There is not a direct connection where the AfD is telling people to commit attacks,” said Matthias Quent, a sociologist who studies the radical right. “But they very consciously engage in a form of incitement by promoting the idea of catastrophic scenarios that require a drastic response.” In other words, Lübcke was a traitor (a Volksverräter) for defending refugees and received the punishment traitors deserve.
“Not everyone in the AfD is in favor of violence, but some are, and all of them are willing to take the possibility of violence into the bargain,” said Quent. As Volker Bouffier, the premier of the state of Hesse, put it, “The AfD creates a climate that makes violence as a solution thinkable.”
The debate over the AfD’s role exploded after Lübcke’s assassination. Peter Tauber, a former CDU general secretary, and Michael Brand, a CDU Bundestag member, accused the AfD of complicity in the murder. The AfD’s leadership angrily rejected the claim. In a statement, the party condemned “the repulsive murder of Walter Lübcke” as well as “extremist violence in whatever form.” But important figures in or near the AfD had participated in the online incitement against Lübcke.
One prominent example was Erika Steinbach, for years a leading politician on the right wing of the CDU who now directs an AfD-linked think tank. She twice shared a video from 2015 that showed Lübcke telling neo-Nazi hecklers at a town hall meeting that if they didn’t respect the values of democratic debate, they were free to leave the country.
The encounter between Lübcke and the hecklers was provoked by an extremist group in Kassel that sent its members to the meeting to disrupt it, according to several people who were there. The neo-Nazis then edited the video to make it appear that Lübcke was haranguing the entire crowd, telling anyone who didn’t agree with the refugee policy to get out of the country.
Since the murder investigation hasn’t been completed, it’s impossible to say for sure what role the video had in Lübcke’s killing. But it was undoubtedly a key piece of the incitement campaign. Neo-Nazis created the propaganda and deployed it to provoke violence against an official of the German state. Parts of the country’s political mainstream then shared it—an apparent endorsement.
Right now in Germany, there’s no shortage of people willing to commit that violence. “There are thousands of people like Stephan Ernst,” Quent said. In a 2018 report, the Office of Constitutional Protection said it classifies over 24,000 people in the country as right-wing extremists, 12,000 of whom it considers “violence-oriented.”
But Germany is also a nation where the most popular party in some national polls this summer was the Greens. It is a country where 55 percent of the population participated, in one way or another, in a wave of volunteerism to help refugees. At that town hall meeting where the anti-Lübcke video was made, there were about a dozen neo-Nazis. But local officials said that 220 people signed up that night to help refugees.
Loewenstein argued that fascism could come to power if a violent, opportunistic minority was permitted to “systematically discredit the democratic order and make it unworkable by paralyzing its functions until chaos reigns.” One can imagine how a series of targeted political killings and thousands of acts of violence against local officials could have just that effect. The theory of militant democracy that underpins Germany’s Constitution assumes that the state’s police powers must be deployed to crush this threat, even if it means sacrificing the basic rights of those under suspicion.
But the vast majority of local officials, including those who survived brutal knife attacks, are staying on the job. And when a group of neo-Nazis held a provocative march in Kassel in July, their numbers were dwarfed by thousands of citizens who came out to say, “No, not here.”
Those examples and many others like them are encouraging. But ultimately, the situation leaves an observer of Germany feeling unsettled. The many visible acts of pro-democracy engagement by civil society, in addition to the cool competence and even courage of the majority of the country’s officials, are impressive and admirable.
At the same time, one senses not a coming storm but the possibility of one. With all the bad actors already prepared to take the stage, how would Germany respond to an upheaval more drastic than the arrival of a million refugees—to a massive terrorist attack or a series of high-level political assassinations or a major economic crisis? Would the much-heralded militant democracy, such as it is, withstand the storm?