The Guardian view on Germany’s far right: a clear and present danger

Photograph: Martin Meissner/AP

Until relatively recently, the threat posed by homegrown white supremacists was perhaps underestimated by western security forces, which focused resources disproportionately on Islamist extremism. Horrors such as Christchurch, Charlottesville and the Finsbury Park mosque attack changed that. In Britain, since 2018, MI5 has taken the lead in investigating the most serious suspected far-right plots, which police say now form the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the country. In America, it has been estimated that 71% of extremist-related fatalities between 2008 and 2017 were committed by far-right sympathisers or white supremacists.

The phenomenon is global, but right now Germany finds itself in the eye of the storm. Last week, police made 12 arrests as part of an investigation into an extreme-right group suspected of planning attacks on asylum seekers and Muslims. Federal prosecutors said those detained, who came from six different states, harboured hopes of sparking a “civil-war type situation” in the country. It is not clear whether the man named on Thursday as Tobias Rathjen had similar aspirations. But it is evident that racism underlay his murderous spree in the town of Hanau, near Frankfurt. In a text uploaded before the killings, and later taken offline, Rathjen apparently called for the “annihilation” of ethnic minorities in the country. Nine people died during his late-night assaults on two shisha bars, some of them of Turkish origin. Rathjen later took his own life, after murdering his 72-year-old mother in their apartment.

This grisly rampage comes at the most delicate of junctures for German politics.After serving for 15 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has announced her intention to step down before the next federal elections. A full-blown crisis of succession is now under way in her party, the CDU. It is partly driven by the question of how it should deal with the far-right nationalists of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), now the third-biggest force in the German parliament. Earlier this month, Mrs Merkel’s preferred successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, resigned as party chair when CDU politicians in the eastern state of Thuringia broke a taboo in joining forces with the AfD to elect the state’s premier.

The politics of the former East Germany is rarely replicated in the west. But as Mrs Merkel’s party languishes at historic lows in national polls, a growing lobby is calling for an abandonment of her centrist style and a far tougher approach on immigration. Among the four candidates to have declared their desire to succeed Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer, the early frontrunner is the veteran businessman, Friedrich Merz, who fiercely criticised Mrs Merkel’s decision to open German borders to Syrian refugees in 2015. Mr Merz has made clear his desire to court the AfD vote – which includes an estimated 1 million former CDU supporters. Ominously, he has also spoken of the need for the CDU to have the “courage to contradict, to be controversial” and to “speak plainly” again.

The extent to which a resurgence of nationalism has fuelled and legitimised far-right extremism and lethal race hate is one of the key questions of our age. It is also a complicated one. Somewhat like Ukip, the AfD began life as a primarily Eurosceptic party. But since the migration crisis of 2015 it has morphed into a broader movement, substantial elements of which are ostentatiously dedicated to fuelling Islamophobia and racism. Earlier this week one of the party’s most notorious senior figures, Bjorn Hocke, attended a rally in Dresden held by Pegida, a far-right movement which opposes the “Islamisation” of Germany.

As the fallout from the 2008 crash has led to extreme polarisation in western democracies, Germany has remained a relative oasis of stability. Mrs Merkel’s imminent departure from the stage means that a period of political turbulence is inevitable. But as the most successful party of the postwar era in Germany ponders its future direction, the shocking events in Hanau should give considerable pause for thought to those who would try to tame, accommodate or imitate the far right. The cordon sanitaire isolating the AfD and its equivalents elsewhere needs to remain firmly in place.