Not the only Nazi ideologue...

The template of the mentally disturbed gunman doesn't fit. Seeing himself as a spearhead, heralding a new rise to power, the murderer of Hanau placed himself squarely in the Nazi tradition, says Stefan Buchen in his analysis

By Stefan Buchen

"On the 30th of January, the die was cast in Germany. And I don't think that the adversaries who laughed back then are still laughing now." This is what Adolf Hitler said, or rather screamed out, in the summer of 1933 to an enthusiastic crowd of tens of thousands of Germans. His facial expression was particularly grim. Nothing was capable of whipping him and Joseph Goebbels into a righteous rage like the thought of someone making fun of them. Truth be told, very few Germans actually did so.

Hitler and Goebbels had managed to make National Socialism a deadly serious business. This set the psychological stage for their political rise and consolidation of power once in office. In other words: without eliminating laughter and humour as ethical checks on outrageous behaviour, the Nazis could not have risen to power in the first place.

On 20 February 2020, a video posted by Tobias Rathjen could be called up on the Internet. The night before, the 43-year-old with a background in business administration shot nine people of non-German descent in Hanau and then killed his mother and himself. In his video message, presented in a factual and thoughtful tone, Rathjen says:

Heralding a new rise to power

"There's a famous quote that I'd like to paraphrase here: 'I don't think that the people who laughed back then are still laughing now.' I would like to alter it a bit by saying: I don't think that people who are laughing today will still be laughing tomorrow." 

It is perfectly clear to whom the murderer of Hanau is referring. Just as unambiguous is the historical role the assassin assumes. He sees himself as a spearhead, heralding a new rise to power. His is the path by which civil war will be unleashed and democracy shot to pieces. The perpetrator can neither rule out nor prevent that some people will laugh at him and his claims upon hearing his message. But he is sure that their laughter will soon stick in their throats.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (left) during a vigil in Hanau following the attack by Tobias Rathjen (photo: Reuters)
Trauer und Bestürzung nach dem Attentat von Hanau: Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier sagte in Hanau, der "brutale Terroranschlag" in der hessischen Stadt mache "fassungslos, traurig und zornig". Er rief dazu auf, der Sprache der Gewalt Einhalt zu gebieten, die gleichsam den Weg für solche Taten bereite. "Wir lassen uns nicht einschüchtern. Wir stehen zusammen gegen rechten Terror."

The media described the statements made by the murderer of ten people as "confused" and "grotesque". In his messages Rathjen also speaks of being under surveillance by a powerful secret service, of foreign powers "interfering" in his thought processes from afar, and of a female doctoral student with short blond hair and a large bust. He was quickly classified as "obviously mentally ill" and "a lone perpetrator".

But like-minded individuals, of whom there seem to be a growing number in Germany, understood his message perfectly. We can be quite sure of that. It is a Nazi message. In this ideological milieu, Tobias Rathjen has now joined the honoured ranks of those who fell before him in the name of the cause.

In his written manifesto, the murderer says that "the existence of certain ethnic groups is a fundamental error." By this he means an error of evolution that must be actively corrected. "A complete expulsion of these people" would not solve the problem, though. This would only "pass it on" to future generations.

Islam, the enemy

Tobias Rathjen complains that we have "ethnic groups, races and cultures in our midst that are destructive in every respect". He warns of the "degeneration" of the German people and openly proclaims that the "inner enemy" must be "eliminated".  At one point the assassin pinpoints this enemy as "Islam". Not everyone in possession of a German passport is "purebred and worthy", he contends.

"I came to the initial conclusion that, when I come into this world, these people should not be there at all," said the assassin. They should be "instinctively rejected". Ultimately, the world of white people, of Germans, "my own people... from which the best and the brightest emerge and develop", must carry the war to the countries of those unworthy of living, in order to lead a campaign of annihilation there. In this passage, Rathjen says:

"Therefore, I have said that the following peoples must be completely exterminated: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the entire Saudi peninsula, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmekistan [sic], Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines."

Notably, "Israel" is not missing from this list. This would be "the first rough cleansing", according to the killer. The "finer purge" would come afterwards and target "the remaining African states, South and Central America, the Caribbean." Tobias Rathjen sees himself and the Germans in alliance with Donald Trump's America.

German Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer (CSU) (photo: Getty Images/S. Gallup)
Gefahr durch Nachahmungstaten: Nach dem Anschlag von Hanau wird zum Schutz der Bevölkerung in ganz Deutschland die Polizeipräsenz erhöht. Bundesinnenminister Horst Seehofer kündigte an, dass "sensible Einrichtungen" wie insbesondere Moscheen verstärkt überwacht würden, zudem solle die Präsenz an Bahnhöfen, Flughäfen und im grenznahen Raum erhöht werden.

The 43-year-old was not content with merely heralding the destruction he describes. Survivors and eyewitnesses of the bloodbath in Hanau report that the murderer shot his victims in the head in cold blood. He did it in such a way as to set an example, with icy matter-of-factness. After reading through his manifestos, we can only conclude that he believed himself to be carrying out the people's will. The doubt Tobias Rathjen expressed as to whether the German people would in the end really belong to a "victorious species" also resonated in Nazi propaganda.

Propaganda for the deed

When the German Attorney General speaks of "the deed", he means it in criminal terms. But we must not forget that the murderer's kindred spirits associate the term "deed" with a completely different connotation. For them, it is about propaganda for the deed that will shape politics by encouraging imitators and bringing society a little closer to the state of affairs that these detestable anti-democrats so ardently yearn for.

It would be fatal to see only a "confused", "grotesque" and "sick" person here. Politicians are right in their tireless appeals to learn from the past and take its lessons to heart. Central milestones in history – such as the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp 75 years ago – are justifiably seen as occasions for contemplating what has gone before.

And yet we also have to acknowledge that a rapidly growing minority evidently rejects this humane consensus of moral shock and reflection. These people have "learnt" quite different lessons from the past. They believe that a lot of what occurred back then was right and can serve as an example for the present. "Truth sets you free", says the murderer of Hanau at the end of his video message, in a brazen and unmistakable reference to the cynical slogan the Germans put above the entrance to Auschwitz.

Stefan Buchen

© 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

The author works as a television journalist for the ARD political magazine "Panorama".