The Fulda Gap (German: Fulda-Lücke), an area between the Hesse-Thuringian border (the former Inner German border) and Frankfurt am Main, contains two corridors of lowlands through which tanks might have driven in a surprise attack by the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies to gain crossing(s) of the Rhine River. Named for the town of Fulda, the Fulda Gap became seen as strategically important during the Cold War of 1947-1991. The Fulda Gap roughly corresponds to the route along which Napoleon chose to withdraw his armies after defeat (16 – 19 October 1813) at the Battle of Leipzig. Napoleon succeeded in defeating a Bavarian–Austrian army under Wrede in the Battle of Hanau (30 – 31 October 1813) not far from Frankfurt; from there he escaped back to France.
Susan Neiman, Berlin-based director of the Einstein Forum, moral philosopher and the author of Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), talks about what the U.S. can learn from Germany’s post-war reckoning.
BERLIN-—The German man detained after a live-streamed and ultimately botched attack on a synagogue that left two dead in Germany’s east was charged with murder on Thursday after what authorities described as a terror attack.
But as more details about the 27-year-old suspect and his plan emerged, it became clear that Germany had narrowly escaped a far bigger massacre.
Witness accounts, information from authorities and the suspect’s own writings and recorded statements, painted a portrait of a determined extremist who was, by his own admission, ultimately thwarted in his plans for globally broadcast carnage by shoddy preparations.
“What we witnessed yesterday was terror,” General Federal Prosecutor Peter Frank told journalists as he unveiled the charges. The accused, he said, “had intended to cause a massacre.”
The man, identified by a security official on Wednesday as Stephan Balliet from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, tried and failed to enter the locked gate of the synagogue in the city of Halle around midday on Wednesday, according to authorities and witnesses.
He then turned around, shooting dead a passerby and killing a patron at a fast-food restaurant, streaming the entire episode on the Twitch online service using a camera fixed to his helmet.
The live-streaming of the attack showed the suspect wanted to cause a global impact, Mr. Frank said, following the example of recent attackers such as Australian Brenton Tarrant, who allegedly killed 50 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. He was inspired by others and wanted to inspire others, Mr. Frank said.
In written documents that security experts said they believed Mr. Balliet had posted online before the assault, the suspect describes his motivations, his tactics and the makeshift weapons he had built to execute his attack.
In the documents, written in English and seen by The Wall Street Journal, the author uses familiar far-right tropes, expressing hatred of Jews, Muslims and liberals. The bulk of the documents, however, detail plans to attack the Halle synagogue and the various handmade guns and explosives created for the operation.
The author lists three objectives:
- “Prove the viability of improvised weapons,”
- “Increase the moral [sic] of other suppressed Whites by spreading the combat footage,” and
- “Kill as many anti-Whites as possible, jews preferred.”
Florence Keen, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London, said the documents bore similarities to manifestos of other hate-crime perpetrators, including conspiracy theories about alleged threats against whites.
Blyth Crawford, a fellow research fellow at the center, said “the end of the manifesto, detailing his ‘achievements’ and tasks, really exemplifies the ’gamification’ of these kinds of killings.”
The suspect’s reliance on handmade weapons, including two automatic guns and a shotgun, and sketchy planning seems to have played a role in limiting the toll victims.
In a recording of the live-streamed video seen by The Journal, the man can be heard swearing as his guns repeatedly jam and fail to fire. Earlier in the sequence, he expresses surprise at finding the gates of the synagogue locked and frustration after 15 minutes of trying and failing to force his way in.
After the bungled attack, authorities said, the suspect shot dead a woman on the street and drove to a nearby kebab shop where he killed a customer who can be heard on the video crying for his life. The attacker is repeatedly shown aiming at passersby but failing to fire his makeshift guns.
“I will die like the loser I am,” he explains at one point, apologizing to viewers for not causing more casualties.
According to German officials, Mr. Balliet killed a 40-year-old German woman from Halle and a 20-year-old German man from Merseburg, who was identified by the fan club of local soccer team HFC as Kevin S.
After a brief shootout with a police car more than 20 minutes into the attack, the suspect drove off, stopping on the outskirts of the city where he tried to swap his car, and shooting and wounding two people in the process, according to a witness.
Kai Henze, 36, owner of an auto shop, Kai’s Garage, in Landsberg, east of Halle, said he was working when he heard a shot outside. Two minutes later, a man entered, pointing a gun and saying he was a wanted criminal, had just shot two people and needed a car.
“I threw him the keys of a taxi that I had just here for repair. Then he said ‘I know you will call the police now, but please give me 10 minutes,’ and threw two €50 bills on the street for me and then quickly drove away with the taxi.”
Mr. Henze said he then attended to the two victims nearby, a couple around 40, before calling the police. Mr. Balliet was arrested soon after.
Details of the suspect are slowly emerging.
Ursula Siebenhüner, 68, from the village of Ahldorf, said Mr. Balliet lived alone with his mother, a teacher, in the neighboring hamlet of Helbra.
A German official who declined to be named said Mr. Balliet had been among the last Germans to do compulsory military service before it was abolished. He had served six months to the end of March 2011 in Hagenow, where he didn’t stand out in any way.
Holger Stahlknecht, state interior minister of Saxony-Anhalt, said the suspect wasn’t known to German intelligence agencies prior to the attack.
A man described as Mr. Balliet’s father told the Bild tabloid that Mr. Balliet had been a loner with few friends and spent most of his time online. “He was always blaming others for everything,” the man said.
Neither Mr. Balliet’s mother nor his father could be reached for comment.
Mr. Balliet faces two murder charges, nine counts of attempted murder and several charges related to other crimes, the prosecutor said.
While the attacker appeared to have acted on his own, authorities said they were still investigating whether he had support or if anyone had prior knowledge of the attack. The suspect was due to appear in the Federal Court of Justice in Karlsruhe later Thursday.
German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht said the attack had shown that far-right extremism was “one of the biggest threats we are currently facing.”
By JONATHAN STEINBERG
What is the role of personality in shaping history? Shortly before the beginning of the First World War, the German sociologist Max Weber puzzled over this question. He was sure that there was a kind of authority that drew strength from character itself. He called this authority “charismatic,” a type of legitimate political power that rested “on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.” The charismatic leader is not like us. In fact, he is not like anyone. He is sui generis, a mysterious force of nature, a sort of political demiurge.
According to Jonathan Steinberg, Weber may well have had Otto von Bismarck in mind when he defined charismatic authority. In his wonderful Bismarck: A Life (Oxford UP, 2011), Steinberg argues that Bismarck’s successes (and some of his failures) can be largely attributed to the awesome force of his personality. Not “social structures.” Not “historical patterns.” Not “underlying forces.” But charisma pure and simple. Time and again Steinberg finds those around Bismarck attesting to the fact that he just wasn’t like everyone else. He was smarter, wittier, stronger, more willful, more cunning, more temperamental, and in most ways larger than life. And this was the nearly uniform (though not always positive) assessment of the some of the most impressive figures of his day. It’s a compelling case.
And it provokes a question about German political culture, for Bismarck was not the first or the last “genius” to rule some or all of the Reich. Fredrick the Great preceded him, and Hitler followed. What are we to make of that? I’ll leave it to you to decide.Audio Player
Quotes to find:
- Bismark planned to engage in 2 wars with the goal of uniting the country.
- Bismark found antisemitism useful against his Liberal opponents.