A hair’s breadth from a massacre: a closer look at the Synagogue shooting in Germany

27-year-old Stephan B. from Sachsen-Anhalt is now considered to be the perpetrator. The young man had previously not been on the police's radar, but investigators are convinced that he had planned his crime for a long time. EPA-EFE/FILIP SINGER [Filip Singer/ epa]

An alleged right-wing extremist targeted the Synagogue in Halle yesterday (9 October). Although he killed two people and injured several, his failure to open the Synagogue’s door spared the German city of Halle from a massacre. EURACTIV’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel reports.

The city of Halle was in a state of emergency yesterday after an armed 27-year-old killed two people by gunfire and seriously injured others. Helicopters circled over the city, heavily armed police officers were on duty, and residents were asked to stay in their homes.

The perpetrator

At first, the police suspected several perpetrators had been involved in the attacks but 27-year-old Stephan B. from Sachsen-Anhalt is now considered to be the only suspect. The young man had previously not been on the police’s radar, but investigators are convinced that he had planned his crime for a long time.

He used a mobile phone attached to his helmet and live-streamed his actions to Twitch, Amazon’s gaming subsidiary and a well-known streaming platform.

The perpetrator’s inspiration could have been Australian extremist Brenton Tarrant, who shot 51 people in two New Zealand mosques back in March. The Australian also live-streamed his actions by using a camera helmet.

Christchurch Call: EU struggling to get anti-terror measures right

New Zealand and France gathered states and social media organisations around the same table on Wednesday (15 May) to take joint action against terror online. The EU has been negotiating a regulation on preventing the dissemination of terrorist content online for months, but critics find it too restrictive and fear censorship. EURACTIV Germany reports

In Halle, the gunman tried to penetrate the Synagogue in the Paulus district lunchtime, Max Privorozki, the chairman of the Jewish community there, told the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

“We saw through the camera of our Synagogue that a heavily armed perpetrator with a steel helmet and gun tried to shoot our doors open,” Privorozki said, adding that the gunman had also tried to open the Jewish cemetery’s gate next door.

Because of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, 70 to 80 people were in the Synagogue. However, the perpetrator, who apparently wanted to cause a massacre, was unable to enter the place of worship.

But other people fell victim to the 27-year-old. The video he streamed shows what happened when he could not open the door of the Synagogue with his explosives.

A female passerby argued with him and walked on only to be shot in the back, several times.

After not being able to open the door to the Synagogue after several attempts, the attacker got into his car. A few streets down, he killed his second victim in a kebab shop, and injured other passers by.

Once he had committed the crime, he attempted to flee but was quickly caught up in a shooting  match with the police. Although the arrest of a person was then reported by the police force via Twitter, it still requested people to remain indoors.

At first, the police believed that several armed perpetrators were on the run in the attacker’s car. Shots were also fired in the neighbouring town of Landsberg, about 15 kilometres away.

The information then came out that the perpetrator had actually hijacked a taxi while fleeing so that he could be arrested in an accident. But his camera did not record this as he had thrown his mobile phone out of the car.

The motive

Among security circles, it is assumed that the perpetrator targeted the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur, which is often referred to in German as a moment of ‘reconciliation’. In the stream, the perpetrator denied the Holocaust and insulted the “Jews” in poor English.

René Friedrich, who has a bakery near the Synagogue, told the Tagesspiegel that he had been in his car when he saw the perpetrator and his rifle. He also saw the man throw at least two explosive devices over the wall, which landed in the Synagogue. Friedrich then reversed and called the police.

A young man who had been in the kebab shop told the television station ntv what he had seen, describing a man with an assault rifle, mask and helmet who had approached the shop and tried to throw in an explosive device, which bounced off the door frame and exploded at the feet of a woman.

"Anti-Semitism has become louder, more aggressive"

National socialism, only a ‘bird’s shit’ in history as a German right-wing politician indicated lately? Years ago nobody would have dared to say this, believes Sigmount Königsberg. A conversation between him and Sawsan Chebli.

Political reaction

“I am shocked by the brutal attacks in Halle on this day, Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year in Judaism. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims. On this day, we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community,” the outgoing EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted after the attack.

Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer spoke of an anti-Semitic motive. That is because the Federal Prosecutor-General, who had quickly seized the investigation, also had “sufficient evidence to prove a possible right-wing extremist background”. “The most important Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, is a black day today. A heavily-armed perpetrator tried to enter a Synagogue where about 80 people were staying,” Seehofer added.

“I am horrified by this heinous act”, said Saxony-Anhalt’s Prime Minister Rainer Haseloff, who described it as “a cowardly act against the peaceful community living in our country”.

A threat against Jewish institutions?

Since security circles assumed a targeted attack on the Jewish holiday, security measures at several Jewish institutions in Germany were increased immediately after the attack.

Police officers armed with submachine guns have been deployed in front of the Leipzig and Dresden Synagogues to secure the buildings.

In Berlin, where most of the Jewish institutions in Germany are located, security precautions were also tightened. According to a police spokeswoman, security was increased in front of Synagogues, Jewish schools and cemeteries. Police officers were also armed with submachine guns.

Within the police, it was said that officers were already on increased alert after a Syrian had waved a knife in front of the Synagogue in Oranienburger Straße on Friday (4 October). They said that they feared acts of imitation.

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Josef Schuster, criticised the police after the attack.

“The fact that the police did not protect the Synagogue in Halle on a holiday like Yom Kippur is scandalous,” Schuster said. “Such negligence had now been bitterly avenged,” he added.

Only fortune prevented a massacre.

25 years fighting racism and intolerance across Europe

As the Council of Europe’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) marks its 25th anniversary. Maria Pejčinović Burić takes stock of its successes and future priorities.

Subscribe to our newsletters