Jewish survivors of the attack on the Halle synagogue have accused the police of failing to properly investigate the online far-right scene that is believed to have inspired last October’s deadly attack in the eastern German city.
28-year-old Stephan B. is on trialfor attempting to commit what would have been the worst anti-Semitic atrocity in Germany since the Holocaust. Only the perpetrator’s jammed weapons and the synagogue’s locked door prevented a massacre.
He has been charged with the murder of the two people who were killed that day — a passerby Jana L. and kebab shop customer Kevin S.
Some 43 people, all survivors or the relatives of victims, are co-plaintiffs in the trial of the case that shows parallels to crimes perpetrated in Christchurch and other places.
Anger and civic duty
Several witnesses from in and around the synagogue and kebab shop were called on Tuesday and Wednesday, the tenth and eleventh trial days, describing in powerful detail their impressions and fears.
Among them was a retired professor who was in the kebab shop, and who injured his shoulder as he escaped through a back window. He described seeing what he thought was a man in a Halloween costume holding a paintball rifle coming into the shop, and registering a “wild determination” in his expression. He was only alerted to the man’s intentions when another customer shouted a warning. A video of the attack appeared to show Stephan B. attempting to shoot the witness as he fled, though the gun jammed.
Read more: The myth of the lone wolf attacker
The 74-year-old anthropologist said he had decided to become a co-plaintiff in the trial out of a mixture of “anger,” civic duty, and his faith in the principles of equality in the German constitution. “You have earned what this court is likely to decide for you,” he told the defendant, who did not respond.
On Wednesday, the court was also shown a previously unseen second video of the attack that Stephan B. filmed from a bodycam attached to his jacket.
This footage — taken in addition to the helmet-cam view he streamed live during the attack — showed a new angle of him throwing several crude homemade explosives (glass bottles filled with chemicals, with a fuse hanging from the necks) over the walls of the synagogue grounds. It also showed a failed attempt to blow the hinges off a gate, as well as part of the shooting in the kebab shop.
Later in the 45-minute video, Stephan B. could be seen driving away in his car, injured in the neck from a firefight with police. In this sequence, during which he occasionally whimpered in pain, Stephan B. addressed his online “audience” in English, cursing himself and his failed firearms.
“Seems I’m a loser for sure. I want to kill more, but first I need to get away … I failed on so many levels,” he says.
He also appeared to think he would be able to carry out more attacks in future, saying he could “fight” for another one or two days if he had a new car.
For many of the 52 survivors from inside the synagogue, the trial has offered a chance to give a voice to the Jewish community.
Describing her ordeal on Tuesday, co-plaintiff Rebecca Blady said she had drawn strength from her grandmother’s experience during the Holocaust — contrasting her own opportunity to testify about the Halle attack with the fact that her grandmother was never able to speak in a German court.
Blady’s testimony was summarized in a Twitter thread by the activist Valentin Hacken:
Survivor Naomi Henkel-Gümbel used her testimony to address Germany’s continued difficulties with Judaism.
“I would like to feel at home in synagogues,” she said. “But if you knew that you had to equip your home with bulletproof doors and windows, how comfortable would you be to call this place your home? The higher the security the more I have the feeling that there is something wrong in the discourse of the society.”
She had emigrated to Germany, despite misgivings about the country, to train to be a rabbi. “To most Germans even in this court, Jewish life in Germany seems to be something that died out. That is the past,” she said.
The trial so far has left the police sometimes looking ignorant of the dangers of online far-right radicalization, a feature the Halle attack shared with similar attacks in recent years in Christchurch, El Paso, Munich, and Oslo.
The officers were able to secure 3,000 videos, images, and texts from the defendant’s computer, USB sticks, and SD cards — which established, they said, that Stephan B. was steeped in racism, weapons, and violence. But the officers admitted they could not trace any of the people he had been in contact with online.
On the seventh trial day at the end of August, attorneys for the co-plaintiffs became overtly critical as they cross-examined the federal police officers charged with exploring this murky world.
Stephan B. used internet forums known as imageboards to exchange racist, anti-feminist, and anti-Semitic memes. Those forums, like 4chan, Nanochan, and Meguca and others, saw users around the world lionize perpetrators and encourage copycat killings.
Nor could the officer responsible for investigating the gaming platform Steam, which Stephan B. used, say much about it — apparently because she failed to ask the operator, named “Valve,” for additional data.
In an exchange reported by public broadcaster MDR, one co-plaintiffs’ attorney asked the officer whether she had ever been on Steam. “No, I’m not a gamer,” came the reply.
“So the federal police deployed you, who has no idea about Steam, to analyze the information request to Valve?” the attorney asked. “Yes,” the officer replied.
Editor’s note: Deutsche Welle follows the German press code, which stresses the importance of protecting the privacy of suspected criminals or victims and urges us to refrain from revealing full names in such cases.