As white supremacist Brenton Tarrant was jailed for life this week for a gunning down 51 people at two New Zealand mosques, a German court was trying the man who allegedly sought to emulate him.
Stephan Balliet is accused of seeking to kill worshippers in a synagogue in the eastern German city of Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in an attack that is part of an alarming rise in extreme rightwing violence shaking the country.
In documents discovered on Mr Balliet’s computers and studied by investigators, he made clear he saw Tarrant as his role model.
“He said Christchurch was a wake-up call,” Marcel Lippert of the BKA, Germany’s federal criminal police, told the court on Wednesday. “It was the point where he decided to take up arms himself.”
The trial, held in the eastern city of Magdeburg, has shone a light on some of the darkest corners of the internet, where men such as Tarrant are glamorised as heroes and an army of would-be copycats stands ready to continue his “struggle”.
Mr Balliet, a loner who barely left his bedroom, spent hours in an online space described by BKA investigator Fabius Damm as a “hodgepodge of conspiracy theories, misogyny and anti-Semitism” strewn with sexualised anime cat-girls, swastikas and videos of Wehrmacht soldiers giving Hitler salutes.
The 28-year-old stands accused of two counts of murder and nine of attempted murder. Prosecutors say he was only prevented from breaking into the synagogue and staging a massacre by a heavy wooden door, and instead killed a woman in the street outside and a man in a nearby kebab shop. He has confessed to both killings.
His spree is part of an upsurge in rightwing violence that has alarmed Germany’s civil society and political elite. In Frankfurt, a man is on trial for killing the regional official Walter Lübcke in June 2019, in what was the first far-right assassination of a German politician since the Nazi era. In February last year an extremist killed nine people with immigrant roots in the western city of Hanau, before turning the gun on his mother and himself.
Many of the attackers, such as Lübcke’s suspected killer, were neo-Nazis long known to the authorities. But Mr Balliet is in a different category — a lone wolf, who hatched his plan in secret and was on nobody’s radar. Police have still been unable to establish whether anyone else knew of his intentions.
Mr Balliet had no partner, no friends and was never a member of a political party. According to police investigators testifying at the trial this week, his life revolved around the anonymous forums and imageboards that have become an echo chamber for rightwing fanatics across the globe.
Investigators have struggled to reconstruct what he posted on those forums: when accessing the internet he used “onion routing”, which bounces traffic across numerous servers, to conceal his real identity. He also installed a programme that automatically erased most of the files on his computer on the day of the attack: 13 per cent of its hard disk was already deleted by the time police entered his flat and he has refused to give them passwords to the encrypted files that remain.
What they did unearth were images of violence, neo-Nazi symbols and the hate-filled “manifesto” he posted online just before the attack. They also found he had spent hours playing first-person shooter games, such as Counter-Strike, and using “World of Guns”, a 3D firearms simulator.
One of the trial’s most chilling moments came when the 36-minute self-filmed video of his assault, which he livestreamed on the internet, was shown in court. In it he denied the Holocaust and railed against feminism and “mass immigration”. Looking at the camera, he said: “The root of all these problems is the Jew.”
But in the same video, after he failed to get past the synagogue door and his self-made weapons repeatedly jammed, Mr Balliet called himself a “total loser”, telling his online audience: “Sorry guys.” In court he said he was “upset” to discover that the man he shot dead in the kebab shop was an ethnic German. “I shot white people. I didn’t want to do that,” he said.
The court has tried to assemble the pieces of Mr Balliet’s life and explore his motivations, but it has been hard. Family members, including his mother Claudia, who taught ethics, German and general knowledge at a local primary school, have refused to testify.
On Wednesday, Antje Wernicke, headteacher of the school, took the stand. She said Ms Balliet had frequently expressed concern about her son, a college dropout who lived with her in a tiny flat and never worked. He spent so long on the English-language internet that he began to talk to her only in English.
At one point, Ms Balliet told Ms Wernicke her son had found a new hobby — welding. Ms Wernicke said she did not think anything of it until TV reports last year detailed how he had built most of the weapons used in the attack himself.
But Mr Balliet’s behaviour was beginning to ring alarm bells with his mother. Not long before the Yom Kippur attack, she told a colleague that “she was really worried something terrible was going to happen”, Ms Wernicke said.
The headmistress is still incredulous, telling the court: “I’m appalled that the son of an ethics teacher could do such a thing.”