The Hanau Terrorist Attack: How Race Hate and Conspiracy Theories Are Fueling Global Far-Right Violence.

AuthorCrawford, Blyth

At approximately 10:00 PM on February 19, 2020, Tobias Rathjen began a firearms attack inside the Midnight shisha bar in Hanau--a town within the Main-Kinzig-Kries district of Hesse, Germany-killing three people. From there, he drove around two kilometers to the neighborhood of Kesselstadt, opening fire at the Arena Bar & Cafe, killing five people. He then made the short drive back to his family home on Helmholtzstra[sz]e a few hundred meters away, where he fatally shot his mother before finally committing suicide. (1) In the hours following his attack, it emerged that Rathjen had uploaded various materials online that revealed his far-right sympathies but that also referenced various niche conspiracies not typically associated with the extreme right.

On February 13, 2020, he had created a YouTube account, before uploading a single video entitled "Tobias Rathjen" the following day (2) addressing "citizens of the United States of America" in English, and directly warning them of covert underground military bases used by secretive forces in the torture of young children. (3) On a personal website linked in the video's description, Rathjen had uploaded three subsequent videos in German, of which only two have been fully recovered, as well as a 24-page 'script' also in his native language (4) and interpreted by many as his manifesto, accompanied by two shorter annexes. (5) Within these materials, Rathjen outlined both his perception of "non-German" (non-white) immigration as a threat to the (white) German people and referenced his hostility toward Islam, as well as outlining various conspiracy theories in detail. Most notably, he stated that an unnamed "secret service" had surveilled him since birth and that he was able to observe various atrocities, covertly orchestrated by governments internationally, using the power of his mind via a vaguely defined technique termed "remote viewing." (6) In an attempt to corroborate these outlandish theories, Rathjen also uploaded nine links to outside sources, including supposed victims' testimonies and blog posts by well-known conspiracy theorists. (7) The mixture of English- and German-language resources published on the website and Rathjen's decision to record his initial video in English are indicative of his intentions to reach a global audience and point toward the broader internationalization of far-right terrorism, rather than confining the impacts of his attack to a purely German-speaking audience.

While the attack follows a number of other, seemingly similar incidents in Germany--most notably, the Halle firearms incident allegedly carried out by Stephan Balliet in October 2019, (8) where he allegedly attempted to carry out a mass shooting inside a synagogue--it is one of the deadliest, with nine victims killed in total. (9) In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was determined by authorities to be fueled by "xenophobic motives," (10) and in a statement made following the incident, Chancellor Angela Merkel declared racism and hate a "poison" to society. (11) In line with the motif of previous attacks such as the Christchurch (12) (a) and Baerum (suburb of Oslo) mosque shootings (b) and the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019, (13) all victims, with the exception of Rathjen's mother, were from immigrant backgrounds, with Turkish and Kurdish individuals among the dead. (14)

This article will first briefly consider the profile of Tobias Rathjen, before situating his attack within the broader context of Germany's political climate, which has notably seen its far right buoyed in recent years, both in mainstream political movements as well as by organized violent groups. Given that investigators have stated that Rathjen acted alone, (15) it will next discuss lone-actor terrorism on the far right, which although not being a new phenomenon, gained traction through the philosophy of American Klansman Louis Beam's "Leaderless Resistance." The impact of technological change upon far-right attacks will also be explored, given most recent attacks (including Rathjen's) have included an online dimension, be it the uploading of a video or manifesto, or in some cases livestreaming the attack itself. Moreover, digital spaces are manifestly fueling momentum for far-right attacks, in some instances decreasing the radicalization period of individuals, and in others, inspiring copy-cat attacks and the gamification of terrorist violence.

This article will then provide a detailed examination of the intersection between conspiratorial thought and the far right, which is particularly pertinent in light of Rathjen's clear absorption in a number of conspiracy theories, and will suggest that these attacks can be linked by their adherence to the "Great Replacement" narrative. However, it will then suggest that Rathjen's attack must be somewhat differentiated from this wave given his parallel obsession with more outlandish, less explicitly racist conspiracies. It will conclude by outlining the need for further research into the connection between the nature of conspiracy beliefs--racist or otherwise--and radicalization into violence.

The Hanau Shooter

The profile of the alleged Hanau shooter Rathjen is itself relatively nondescript. He gained a business degree from the University of Bayreuth in 2007, and worked in a number of financial firms in Germany during his career. At 43 years of age, he still lived with both of his parents and was supposedly single throughout his life, indicating an insular figure, potentially at odds with his peers. However, various aspects of his attack and ideology indicate that it is somewhat different from both the German and indeed global landscape of far-right terror. Rathjen adhered not only to traditional far-right racist narratives, but was also obsessed with a number of comparatively niche conspiracies.

While this is likely indicative of an "extremely online" (16) individual, it is also possible that he was affected by mental health problems. The linking of mental health issues and lone-actor terrorism is often contentious, not least because of the fair accusation that if a perpetrator of terrorism is white, they are frequently deemed mentally unwell, negating their agency in a privilege that is rarely extended to terrorists from other racial backgrounds. (17) Yet, the overlap between mental illness and lone-actor terrorism should not be overlooked, as researchers at University College London have shown a strong association between mental illness and lone-actor terrorism in comparison to group-based terror. (18) Accepting the contributing role poor mental health may play in some attacks, this most recent incident exemplifies the interconnected relationship between racial hate and conspiracy theories, demonstrating that an understanding of both remains crucial to understanding this fresh wave of far-right, lone-actor attacks in the normalizing age of social media. By lone-actor terrorism, the authors refer to the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI)'s 2015 working definition of lone-actor terrorism as:

The threat or use of violence by a single perpetrator (or small cell), not acting out of purely personal material reasons, with the aim of influencing a wider audience, and who acts without any direct support in the planning, preparation and execution of the attack, and whose decision to act is not directed by any group or other individuals (although possibly inspired by others). (19)

The Far-Right Landscape in Germany

While it is broadly agreed that the traditional 'organized' far right is at a weak moment in its history, the notion that its ideology of hate has become more normalized within public discourse (20) is difficult to refute, as is demonstrated in the increasingly racist and anti-immigrant rhetoric of political parties worldwide. By far right, the authors refer to Tore Bjorgo and Jacob Aasland Ravndal's comprehensive definition, which encompasses both the 'extreme' and 'radical' right-wing factions. The radical right is deemed to be non-violent, and notably operates within democratic boundaries-and thus refers to political parties with far-right policies--whereas the extreme right believe that democracy should be replaced and that violence against the so-called 'enemies of the people' is justified. (21)

Germany, in particular, has seen an influx in the normalization of far-right ideology, most evidently in the rapid growth of the nationalist political party Alternativ fur Deutschland (AfD). (c) Since its formation in 2013, it is now the largest opposition party in the Bundestag, holding 89 seats, (22) a success that is largely attributed to its challenge to Chancellor Merkel's policy on welcoming a large number of migrants and refugees into the country. It was this policy that the regional politician Walter Liibcke, a member of Merkel's CDU party, had spent years defending when he was fatally shot on his doorstep in June 2019 by a suspected far-right extremist and former campaigner for the AfD. (23)

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2020, the Militarischer Abschirmdienst (Germany's Military Counterintelligence Service) launched investigations into 550 German soldiers for alleged connections to right-wing extremism, with its elite special forces unit described as a particular hotbed. (24) The researcher Daniel Koehler has explored the connection between the far right and the military, showing how in some instances, violent right-wing extremists have attempted to infiltrate the military so as to gain skills and access weapons. (25) The implications of these findings are relevant for all countries facing a growing far-right threat.

This political climate appears to be fertile ground for explicitly violent organizations, as cross-national neo-Nazi groups such as Atomwaffen Division and Combat 18 (26) have found strongholds in Germany, alongside domestic right-wing groups such as Gruppe Freital, Revolution Chemnitz, and Gruppe S. (27) While...

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