WAS THE RECENT KILLING OF A GERMAN POLITICIAN A NEO-NAZI MURDER PLOT?
On June 2nd, shortly after midnight, the lifeless body of government regional council member Walter Lübcke was found at his home in Wolfhagen, Germany. He’d been shot in the head at close range. Police ruled out suicide when no weapons were found at the scene. A murder investigation was opened.
Lübcke had been the head of the regional council of the district of Kassel. Shortly after the news of his death, suspicions about a possible political motive emerged as Lübcke had angered people when he supported the re-housing of refugees in his municipal district in 2015.
On October 14th 2015, at a citizen’s assembly discussing the planned refugee housing, Lübcke was yelled at by some attendants from the right-wing KAGIDA (Kassel Against the Islamisation of Europe) group. He replied, saying that they should be willing to help those in need. When this didn’t quell the heckling, he said that “people not sharing these values can leave the country [at] any time”.
A video of this event was widely shared on far-right blogs. At a PEGIDA demonstration five days later, the author and populist provocateur Akif Pirinçci alluded to the video in a speech, saying “apparently, the fear and respect the powerful have of their own people has completely evaporated”. This was celebrated by loud chants of “Resistance!” from the crowd. Randomly, this episode resurfaced again earlier this year before Lübcke’s murder, when at least two far-right blogs and a far-right former MP started talking about it again.
After arresting and releasing one man in relation to the killing of Lübcke, police went on to arrest 45-year old Stephan Ernst on June 16th 2019. His DNA was found at the crime scene, making him the prime suspect in the murder case. The report of his arrest hardened suspicions of a political motive as he is a known neo-Nazi.
In 1993, 26 years before he allegedly murdered Lübcke, the then 20-year-old Stephan Ernst was arrested for attempting to bomb the home of a refugee in the town of Hohenstein-Steckenrodt. Ernst had placed a pipe bomb on a car parked in front of the home and set the car on fire. The occupants were able to extinguish the fire before the bomb went off. At that point, Ernst had already been arrested several times, including for a racially motivated stabbing at a railway station the year before. Over the years, he’d be arrested and prosecuted several times again for various other offences.
Ernst had been known by name to local anti-fascist activists since the early 2000s. According to the anti-fascist research network Exif Recherche, he was part of the inner circle of notorious neo-Nazi activists Michel Friedrich and Mike Sawallich. Friedrich, a known football hooligan, founded the neo-Nazi group “Sturm 18 Cassel” and later established another group named “Hardcore Crew Cassel” (HCC), which owned a clubhouse and resembled a Hell’s Angels biker gang in its aesthetics (although it wasn’t an official motorcycle club). According to local anti-fascist groups, Friedrich was a member of the “Oidoxie Streetfighting Crew”.
After the far-right street organisation “Blood and Honour” was outlawed in Germany in 2000, along with its militant wing “Combat 18”, similar groups with aliases began to emerge. Stephan Ernst would end up involved with these groups, specifically “Oidoxie Streetfighting Crew” (SFC). This group was formed in the city of Dortmund by Marko Gottschalk, the singer of a neo-Nazi band called “Oidoxie”. SFC was considered the official German chapter of Combat 18, just with a different name.
The group had members in the city of Kassel, where Stephan Ernst was active in the neo-Nazi scene at that time. Between 2006 and 2007, Marko Gottschalk travelled to Kassel at least three times to play concerts.
At a hearing surrounding the murder spree of the far-right terror network “National Socialist Underground” (NSU), a police informant active in the group stated that the concept of “leaderless resistance” was a key element of the strategy of the SFC. The group was also well connected internationally, especially to the infamous Belgian Blood and Honour chapter "Bloed - Bodem - Eer -Treuw" (Blood, Soil, Honor, Loyalty).
In 2006, Belgian authorities raided the private residences and military barracks of the group’s members, many of whom were active soldiers. They discovered stockpiles of over 200 weapons, including military weapons, ammunition, explosives, and a backpack bomb. Michel Friedrich himself also had access to firearms and, according to “Autonome Antifa Freiburg”, a local anti-fascist group, he had even attempted to organise sales of handguns and 9mm ammunition.
In 2012, a new group, primarily consisting of members of the SFC, was established under the name “Combat 18 Germany”. This group was well organised from the beginning, with written club rules and a monthly membership fee of 15 Euros. A total of 90 individuals made payments to the bank account associated with the group. The accounts owner was Stanley Röske, a known neo-Nazi from Kassel, and an acquaintance of Stephan Ernst. In 2017, twelve Combat 18 members were apprehended when they returned from a shooting range in Czechia, attempting to smuggle ammunition into Germany.
Mike Sawallich, who, according to Exif Recherche, also belonged to the friendship circle Stephan Ernst had been part of, was a leading figure of the "Freier Widerstand Kassel" (Free Resistance Kassel), a now defunct group. He was also vice president of the local youth wing of the far-right NPD party. Until at least 2015, Sawallich remained active in the scene and attended the KAGIDA demonstrations.
In 2009, Ernst, along with several others, attacked a union rally in the city of Dortmund, an infamous breeding ground of the West-German Neo-Nazi scene. He was arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to 7 months probation. The group he was with then were part of the "Autonome Nationalisten" movement (Autonomous Nationalists, AN).
From the early 2000s onwards, this scene attempted to revamp the public image of young neo-Nazis in Germany by appropriating elements of left-wing and Antifa codes and culture. This included anti-capitalist slogans, a focus on anti-imperialism and anti-zionism, as well as a characteristic "Black Bloc" aesthetic.
To evade the wave of criminalisation against far-right activism at the time, AN groups emphasised their independence from official parties and clubs, although with limited success, as many AN groups were banned regardless. However, the AN concept transformed the style and appeal of neo-Nazi ideology in Germany into a more contemporary image.
German authorities are saying that Ernst had been on their radar for several years before the alleged murder. However, the German Left party had inquired about Ernst as recently as 2015, when investigating the neo-Nazi scene in the state of Hesse. According to its chairwoman Janine Wissler, the inquiry did not yield any information from the German interior intelligence agency, Verfassungsschutz.
Stephan Ernst, via Exif
Recently, Stephan Ernst had been active in a local shooting club, where he was an advisor on archery. As a member of such a club, he could have had access to .22 ammunition, which was reportedly the calibre used in the murder of Lübcke. The club has since deleted any mention of him from its website.
Other than the information collated here, little more is known about the alleged perpetrator in the Lübcke murder. Whether he acted alone or as part of a network, and whether he might have been in involved in other murders, is still unclear. The murder spree of the NSU and the abysmal performance of police authorities in preventing and investigating it is very much looming over this case, and has many worried about an adequate inquiry into this murder.
In the aftermath of the NSU murders, the various Combat 18 affiliated groups had repeatedly been suspected to be connected to the NSU, although such a connection has never conclusively proven.
Walter Lübcke leaves behind a wife and two adult children. He was buried on Sunday in his hometown of Istha.
Follow Matthias Meeta on Twitter: @m_e_e_t_a
Header image by Sean Gallup