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One year after the Hanau massacre, victims’ families fight for justice

Although it was eclipsed by the pandemic, last February’s mass shooting revealed Germany’s failure to confront the racism in its midst

Maxim Edwards
19 February 2021, 12.44pm
Detail from a mural in remembrance of the Hanau massacre, beneath the Friedensbrücke in Frankfurt am Main
Maxim Edwards

On 19 February last year, Tobias Rathjen walked down a street in the centre of Hanau, a town in Germany close to the city of Frankfurt am Main, and shot Kaloyan Velkov dead. The 43-year-old then approached the Midnight Shisha Bar, where he murdered Fatih Saraçoğlu and Sedat Gürbüz.

Afterwards, Rathjen drove to the nearby suburb of Kesselstadt, evading a local, Vili-Viorel Păun, who had tried to block him with his car. When he confronted Rathjen in a parking lot in the nondescript suburb, Păun too was shot dead. The killer then entered the nearby Arena Bar and Cafe, where he murdered Ferhat Unvar, Mercedes Kierpacz, Gökhan Gültekin, Nesar Hashemi and Hamza Kurtović.

This was Germany’s worst mass shooting in decades. That same month, members of a far-right group were arrested on suspicion of planning attacks on mosques across the country. Less than six months after a gunman had murdered two people at a synagogue in Halle, in eastern Germany, Hanau struck a chord in a country that prides itself on how well it has dealt with its fascist past.

Then came COVID-19. Subsequent events fell like snow, effacing the violence. In a world so heavy with injustice, what was another?

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

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As my own life was constrained to a few blocks of Berlin, calls not to forget could be seen on the concrete. “Hanau was not a one-off case,” read stencils beneath railway arches as trains thundered overhead. “Hanau showed the depth of Islamophobia,” lamented a poster at the Turkish grocery. The victims’ nine unmasked faces, printed and pasted to walls by local activists, urged passers-by to #SayTheirNames. Some did. But many could not pronounce them: the nine victims at Hanau that night were mostly Germans of Middle Eastern and Balkan descent.

A year on, these victims’ loved ones are fighting against forgetting. Their fight matters, because they fear another Hanau – sometime, someplace, in a country where racist terror is among the most violent in Europe. Can they succeed?

The builders of a new Germany

Over 70% of Hanau was destroyed by Allied bombs during the Second World War. It was mostly rebuilt in concrete, a Frankfurt suburb, an engine of West Germany’s economic miracle. That miracle needed muscle. As Max Frisch wrote, the German state wanted workers, but it received human beings instead: people from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and the Middle East. Today, Hanau’s diversity is typical for many towns along the Main and the Rhine; it is a diversity that some resent.

A monument to the Brothers Grimm on the market square is one of the few signs of pre-war Hanau, as is the old town hall behind it. Both are bedecked with banners reading “The victims were not foreign,” and those masters of the Gothic now look down on candles and photos of the people killed on 19 February 2020.

Since the massacre, Hanauers have discussed whether or not the monument should be “cleaned”, as designs for a more permanent memorial are considered. In the town’s cemetery, the bodies of Kurtović, Hashemi, and Ünvar lie in recent graves, framed by a number of benches, which suggest that, a year on, their absence still has an audience.

Compounding their grief is the fact that they will not get justice in court: the shooter turned the gun on himself

Germany’s fight against forgetting has been meticulous. But the mourning families of Hanau do not simply want remembrance – they want action. In a converted shop a few streets away from the Midnight Shisha bar where Rathjen opened fire, they meet as members of the 19 February Initiative. Rented by left-wing activists not long after the massacre, it has taken on an air of permanence. A neon light reading #saytheirnames shines above it.

These parents and siblings refuse to be treated as two-dimensional victims of media caricature, calling for recognition as citizens, making concrete demands of a state they insist has failed them.

They go through the evidence themselves on laptops and phones, incessantly. They ask why the emergency exit at one of the crime scenes was locked on the night of the massacre. They ask why Rathjen was able to renew a firearms license in 2019, how he had been able to purchase a pistol online, and whether the domestic security services were aware of his weapons training in Slovakia that same summer. They ask how such a man, who days before the attack warned Americans on YouTube that they were controlled by “secret societies”, could have seemingly slipped through the cracks of police watchlists.

Compounding their frustration and grief is the fact that they will not get justice in court: after his atrocities, the shooter fled home and turned the gun on his 72-year-old mother, then himself.

A history of violence

The massacre was one of a string of far-right attacks in Hessen, the state in which Hanau sits, including the murder of the pro-migrant CDU politician Walter Lübcke in June 2019 and the attempted murder of an Eritrean man that July. Just months after Rathjen’s spree, prominent left-wing female politicians received death threats sent from police computers. These events contributed to a significant surge in violence by Germany’s right-wing extremists, increasing numbers of whom own firearms.

The victims’ families see Germany’s tabloid media as a further hurdle. “It was terrible,” summarized Seda Artal, organizer for the 19 February Initiative. “I think the first headline I read was ‘Shisha murders’” – a possible play on the “Döner murders,” the press epithet for a string of racist killings in the 2000s. “They first assumed it was foreigners against foreigners, criminal gangs or clans. They always spoke about the background of the victims in a way that suggested they weren’t fully German,” she remarked.

Chancellor Angela Merkel interrupted an election campaign to be in Hanau; a far cry from her predecessor Helmut Kohl’s dismissal of “condolence tourism” after xenophobic arson attacks in the early 1990s. While politicians may have learned to strike the right tone, mistrust of the German authorities after such tragedies endures.

Victims’ graves at the central cemetery in Hanau
Victims’ graves at the central cemetery in Hanau
Maxim Edwards

Some parents accuse the police of incompetence and disrespect on the night of the massacre, with protracted confusion adding to their grief. “A lot of things weren’t handled cleanly that night, from the delay in identifying the victims to the nature of their autopsies,” said Ferdi Ilkhan, who recalled that it fell to his organization, the Institute for Tolerance and Civil Courage, to step in as unofficial middlemen between citizens and the authorities.

“Many people with a migration background don’t trust the state, and that lack of trust has lasted even for the third generation. Can you blame them? I’m a German citizen! I went to school here, but I always had the feeling that I always had to give 120% more in order to get ahead.”

“You have to give twice as much, otherwise you’ll have no chance,” Ferhat Ünvar’s mother, Serpil Temiz, remembers telling him one day before school. Of Kurdish immigrant background, she describes her family’s burden with disarming candor: “I never decided to be born a Kurd. Nobody can decide how they want to be born. But somebody can decide to take their life on that basis. And that isn’t normal. That is what we have to explain.”

Failed by the system

Like all the victims’ parents, Temiz now hopes for a new apartment, as promised by the local authorities – a task complicated by the pandemic. Their homes are too close to the scenes of the tragedy and to its violent architect. Temiz says that while she had lived in Kesselstadt for 24 years, just meters away from Rathjen, she had barely seen or known the reclusive man who would take her son’s life.

At the time of writing, only one family – that of Vili-Viorel Păun – has been able to move apartments. They did so the month after the massacre, though they say without financial assistance from the state.

“We had too much trust in the system here,” Niculescu Păun sighs. He recalls that when he told his wife he could hear gunfire, on 19 February last year, she was skeptical. “Nico, we’re in Germany,” Iulia told him. The Păuns went to bed, puzzled but untroubled; perhaps their son was with friends? At the time, Vili Viorel Păun was lying dead in his car in a nearby parking lot.

The radio at Niculescu’s workplace the next day crackled with news of a racist attack with nine fatalities. Vili had still not responded; Păun headed to the police station to report his son missing. His son’s car license plate matched something in their database. An officer handed Păun a glass of water and told him his son had been killed.

My son tried to do good, but Germany doesn’t want to understand that

Sitting outside the 19 February Initiative, Păun shows me a screenshot from his son’s retrieved telephone, which reads: apeluri, “calls” in Romanian. Multiple missed calls from Tata (Dad) are shown in red. Below are Vili’s own missed calls to the police as he followed Rathjen from Hanau’s town center to the Kesselstadt parking lot.

“Why didn’t they pick up?” this mourning father wants to know. With the palm of his hand, he cuts off my other questions about his 23-year-old son, their past in Romania, and their present in Germany. “Call him a Romanian, call him a Roma from Romania, whatever. The main thing is that he was a hero. My son tried to do good, but Germany doesn’t want to understand that. Maybe it’s impossible to give honor to the Ausländer.”

Unequal treatment

In that Kesselstadt parking lot, sickly flowers, a Romanian flag, and an A4 photo first marked the spot where Vili was murdered. A cross inscribed with his name was then erected in late August. Vili now rests in a village cemetery in Romania.

Păun is eager that his son’s heroism be acknowledged, but he feels that only change would be a fitting honor: like Temiz, he is convinced that Germany’s weapons laws are in dire need of reform. Why can weapons be kept freely at home? How could somebody who publicly expressed violent racist views hold a hunting license? And what, in the Rhine and Main conurbation – where the wolves and bears have long since died out, and the few forests teem with tourists – could anybody conceivably hunt?

“They are hunting our children,” says Temiz.

A group of bikers roar past and down a side street as dusk sets in. “All [they] would need is a weapon, and [they] could have killed us all,” remarks Nicolescu.

Armin Kurtović murmurs assent, replaying a grainy CCTV recording of the scene outside the Midnight Shisha Bar. A bright flash surges from the right: gunfire, he tells me, from Rathjen’s first shot. It sets the tenor of his account; he reconstructs the night with forensic efficiency, though his recollections stop at the mortuary doors.

They probably just looked at his name and thought, ‘Arabic’

That night, he had been told that an unidentified young man was fighting for his life in the hospital. He later discovered that it was his son who had been brain dead since 11 p.m. They sent police officers to his house at one o’clock in the morning for identification, thus violating, he says, his right to see his son before he died. The coroner’s note, says Kurtović, described his son as orientalisch südländisch; Hamza had blue eyes and light skin.

“They probably just looked at his name and thought, ‘Arabic’. People ask me if I trust the police. How?”

Kurtović tells me little about his son; in the context, it feels churlish to ask to know more. Such questions from the press, he explains, often seem like ways to probe for a criminal milieu that can somehow be used against the victims. “When four or five brothers, Arabs, Turks, Bosnians, do anything together then it is a ‘criminal clan.’”

“If this had happened in a Bierkeller, things would have been quite different. Nobody would have talked of the ‘Bierkeller Murders,’” continues Kurtović.

Deadly intent

The shooter did not target a Shisha bar at random. To read his 24-page manifesto is a study in conspiratorial extremism. It is rambling, studded with odd illustrations from his life, but cannot be called incoherent – the objects of his hatred are clear. He called for the destruction of scores of “racially inferior” states in Asia and Africa and the mass expulsion of “multiplying” peoples from Europe.

But it is also the work of somebody deeply paranoid, with serious psychological issues. He accused Hollywood of plagiarism and then US President Donald Trump of stealing the slogan “America First.” All this, declared Rathjen, was evidence of an operation to surveil him closely since birth.

If that were true, the victims’ families say, their children might still be alive.

These bizarre claims are perhaps why a preliminary report on the massacre by Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) suggested that the shooter was chiefly motivated by attention, asserting that there was nothing to indicate “typical extreme right-wing radicalization.” These words caused outcry. In March, in response to a negative article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, the BKA clarified their position, stressing in a tweet last March that the shooter’s motives and his acts “clearly” constituted right-wing extremism.

When politicians and the media suggested that widespread xenophobia was to blame for the attack, Jörg Meuthen, co-leader of the right-populist Alternative for Germany party, went on the defensive, decrying the “sordid” attempt to hold his party responsible.

A hand holds up a phone, showing a screenshot of a user's call record
Niculescu Păun shows a screenshot from his son’s phone
Maxim Edwards

What is clear is that Rathjen was not, indeed, a subject of “typical” right-wing radicalization, at least not compared to the organized neo-Nazi cells which continue to blight Germany. One of these, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), has featured in a high-profile trial for the murder of 10 people across Germany between 2000 and 2007. Throughout the hearings, several plausible accusations of indifference or complicity were leveled at Germany’s law enforcement.

In that light, the warning that “Hanau was not a one-off case” makes sense, given the individualization of lone-wolf right-wing terror compared to acts committed by people of color, culpability for which is then ascribed to their cultures and communities.

Compared to the NSU militants, Rathjen was an Einzeltäter, a lone actor. But when that phrase is used to separate individual radicalization from its enabling social context, experts fear, it becomes dangerously misleading. For the victims’ families, it is a distinction without a difference – however Rathjen was radicalized, it took the indifference, oversight, and disdain of state institutions and society to allow just one person to murder nine. In that, they feel, he was no lone wolf.

People like the Hanau and Halle shooters consider themselves to be part of a global movement

Notably, the Hanau shooter wrote about his appeals to the authorities regarding the “illegal organization” that supposedly surveilled him. According to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, he first made contact in 2002 and sent his final email in November 2019, attempting to file a criminal complaint against the illusory organization. Attorney General Peter Frank reportedly saw no evidence of right-wing extremism or racism in the disturbed messages.

Political scientist Florian Hartleb finds it unusual that Rathjen’s manifesto did not mention other extremists – neither as influences nor inspirations, whether in Christchurch or Utøya.

“There’s too little understanding of this auto-didactic element of extreme right radicalization. He spoke English well; his manifesto refers to US politics, some of it is reminiscent of QAnon. That bigger context, the internationalization of online lone wolf terrorism, is not well-discussed or systematized in the media, and it’s different from the kind of domestic networked terrorism you see in the NSU trials,” explains Hartleb, who recently published a book on lone wolf far-right extremists.

“Since 2011 when the NSU was discovered, the range of perpetrator types has really broadened,” adds the journalist Heike Kleffner. “Lübcke’s murderer had a more classically neo-Nazi background. Then we have a new generation of people like the Hanau and the Halle shooters. I would call them ‘white supremacist warriors’ rather than ‘lone wolves.’ Because they are not so different from the NSU terrorist ideal of being soldiers of an underground network: the difference is that they consider themselves to be part of a global movement.”

A fight for dignity

Last October, Germany’s first nationwide report into right-wing extremism in the security services revealed hundreds of thousands of incidents involving the police and military. The worst-affected state was none other than Hessen.

Last December, the shooter’s father entered the spotlight, demanding that the murder weapon be returned and that his son’s website be unblocked. In March 2017, he appealed to Hanau’s mayoralty that he only be served by “German employees” – views his son likely shared.

In telephone conversations with Kurtović and Păun this month, I heard that little has changed in Hanau since I first met them and the families of the other victims in August 2020. COVID-19, which prevented a return visit, still tears through Germany where it has claimed over 65,000 lives.

Continuing life as normal under lockdown is no easy feat. Rebuilding a life in those circumstances seems nearly impossible. But the support network that the victims have built is key, with regular meetings and continued calls for social justice.

Activists across Germany hope that, despite lockdowns, the many commemorations scheduled for this weekend will be allowed to proceed. “Last year, the planned [six month] commemoration in Hanau was forbidden with reference to the Covid pandemic. At the same time, farmers’ markets stayed open and all of us – still – had to go to work”, noted one flyer distributed by an anti-racist network in Berlin.

“At this point the families are more concerned with economic stability. They are forced to become beggars, in a system which then treats them in a racist way,” concludes Kleffner. “Racism took their loved ones and now institutional racism humiliates them.”

While the country craves a return to normality, the hope is that the victims of Hanau can receive something more – dignity as citizens, rather than simply compassion as victims.

“I was a German until 19 February,” remarks Serpil. “Now I just say that I have a German passport.”

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