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.”
Seemingly devoted to making our country into the Divided States of America, the President who smeared and offended Muslims and Latinos is now doing the same for Jews. Speaking in the Oval Office, Donald Trump accused Jews who vote for Democrats of having “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”With those nine evil words, he deployed a vague but potent trope about Jewish patriotism. Accusations of “disloyalty” were flung at Jews in Nazi Germany and have been used to smear Jews around the world. Trump wasn’t specific about the loyalty Jewish Democrats were violating.
- To Israel?
- To Judaism?
- To America?
- To Trump?
He subsequently explained to reporters Wednesday that he had meant that those who support Democrats are disloyal to “Jewish people” and to Israel. He did not explain why he should be considered a proper judge of Jewish Americans’ obligations.The uproar over Trump’s remarks drew press attention away from rising evidence that the US is headed for an economic meltdown. The economy has been his main claim to presidential success. On the very day he shouted-out to anti-Semites, Trump also admitted that more tax cuts are being considered as a way to halt the slide into recession.Confusing and outrageous statements are key to Trump’s style of attention-seeking, which he refined over decades of manipulating the tabloid press in New York City. Back then he would make outrageous statements about
- his own wealth,
- plant stories about the famous women pursuing him for romance, and
- jump into controversies like the attack on a jogger in Central Park, which he exploited with signed advertisements calling for New York state to reinstate the death penalty.In the jogger case, Trump wasn’t so bold as to say the youngsters arrested for the crime should be executed, but the implication was obvious. (It should be noted that they were eventually exonerated of the crime.) The wording meant that Trump could exploit the dangerous anger people felt about the attack, but in an indirect way.By the time he began his 2016 campaign for president, Trump had perfected his method of attaching escape-hatch-caveats to inflammatory words about groups of people. So it was that he said that a few “good people” were among the immigrants from Mexico whom he described as rapists and people bringing drugs.With his “lack of knowledge” and “great disloyalty” smear, Trump again picked up his favorite playthings — dangerous words — and threw them around recklessly. Those who identify with neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” during the awful white nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville would find in Trump’s comment confirmation that he is with them. He expressed a similar sentiment during the Charlottesville crisis when he noted there were “very fine people” among those who carried torches and shouted the Nazi slogan “blood and soil”Trump’s comments are of a piece with the white identity strategy he seems to be employing in his bid for reelection. With his brutal approach to immigration, references to “shithole” countries in Africa, and his consistent attacks on black and brown members of Congress — like his recent, and repeated, public disparagement of Muslim-American Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — Trump plays on white anxieties about a future when they are no longer part of a racial or ethnic majority.The big problem with Trump’s callous and destructive abuse of his office is that it requires regular renewal, intensification and amplification. Renewal comes when he simply repeats an ugly claim to remind us where he stands. Intensification comes when he raises the stakes to make sure he gets the attention he wants. Amplification comes when he adds a new group — in this case American Jews — to his hit parade of hatred. With three techniques he keeps drawing attention to himself, and away from serious problems.It’s difficult to say where all this will lead. The only certainty is that Trump will continue along this line. Proof came less than 24 hours after his Oval Office disgrace when he retweeted a notorious conspiracy theorist’s claim that Israelis regard Trump as “the second coming of God.”Jews do not believe in a concept like the “second coming,” but conservative evangelicals who largely support Trump do. The statement exploits their religious and emotional attachment to Israel in the crudest possible way. Of course, Trump endorsed it.
14. “In my opinion, you vote for a Democrat, you’re being very disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel. And only weak people would say anything other than that.”Yes, Trump is doubling down on his very controversial “dual loyalty” claims here. But he’s also revealing what he believes to be the worst trait in a person: Being “weak.”15. “I think that if you vote for a Democrat, you’re very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people.”He never, ever backs down. No matter what. He believes it to be a sign of, wait for it, weakness... 24. “We’re building tremendous numbers of miles of wall right now in different locations. It all comes together likes a beautiful puzzle.”As of July, 46.7 miles of the border wall had been built. So, lot of puzzle pieces still out there... 28. “There are many, many things in play. People are talking about videos. People are talking about lots of different things. But we do have a way of bringing what we already have, because we have many, many — as you know, we have many, many people that are unable to buy guns right now. Many people are unable to buy guns.”Trump regularly talks in circles. But when he talks about guns and the way forward on gun control(or not) he takes it to a whole other level.29. “And you know, we can’t let that slope go so easy that we’re talking about background checks, then all of a sudden we’re talking about, ‘Let’s take everybody’s gun away.'”This is a favorite argument of the NRA but bears very little connection to reality. Making sure everyone who buys a gun has to submit to a background check isn’t even on the same planet as the government coming to peoples’ houses and demanding they turn their guns over. Ridiculous... 32. “I went to the hospitals. It was totally falsely reported. There were beautiful, beautiful, very sad, you know, horrible moments. But there were beautiful moments, in the sense that these people — the families and also the people that were so badly injured that I was with — they love our country.”This is Trump on his hospital visit to victims of mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas. Very beautiful. Also sad. And horrible. But also beautiful.33. “So when I went to Dayton, and when I went to El Paso, and I went into those hospitals, the love for me — and me, maybe, as a representative of the country — but for me — and my love for them was unparalleled.”So, the big takeaway from Trump’s visits to mass shooting victims was that they really loved him. Like, a lot.34. “The doctors were coming out of the operating rooms. There were hundreds and hundreds of people all over the floor. You couldn’t even walk on it.”So, according to the President, doctors stopped operating on patients in order to come out and meet him? OK! Very legal and very cool!