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John Riceburg: Terrorism, made in Germany

When you hear the words "terrorism" and "Germany" in the same sentence, what do you think of? The counterculture chic of the RAF? Or an Islamist in long robes? Modern terrorism in Germany has a much more boring look.

Image for John Riceburg: Terrorism, made in Germany
NSU explosion in Zwickau 2011. Photo by André Karwath (Wikimedia Commons)

When you hear the words “terrorism” and “Germany” in the same sentence, what do you think of? Probably the RAF, right? The Red Army Faction or the Baader-Meinhof Gang worked its way into the popular imagination by combining deadly attacks with sexy 1970s counterculture chic.

But the RAF’s last action was a while back: 1993. They haven’t been a threat for two decades. And even if the news is full of warnings about Islamic terrorism, religious fundamentalists don’t really seemed poised to take the RAF’s place in popular German imagination.

No, terrorism in today’s Germany is represented by Kim H., a 39-year-old tax inspector from Escheburg, a village in Schleswig-Holstein. He was unhappy about the idea of refugees moving into the house next door. So in February, he tried to set the house on fire. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

Kim H. is not an isolated case. Since the beginning of the year, there have been 61 cases of arson against refugees all over Germany. And it hasn’t just been empty buildings going up in flames: 40 of the houses had people living in them. It’s a miracle that no one has died.

Kim H. is one of only three people that have been caught. Is it possible that right-wing terrorists, not just simply “concerned” citizens, are behind the fires, as Spiegel International asks? “The people who are committing these acts to a large extent don’t belong to the right-wing extremist scene” said Maren Brandenburger, head of the internal secret service (Verfassungsschutz) in Lower Saxony. 

But why is Kim H. not considered a terrorist? Because he’s a state functionary? Or just too boring? 

Using violence to create fear for political ends – what else is the definition of terrorism? If a Muslim from Esceburg had tried to set a fire in a neighbour’s house because he didn’t want Christians living next to him, would anyone have hesitated to use the t-word? But the tax inspector was never accused of terrorism. He was sentenced to probation.

There is no legal definition of “terrorism” – it’s always in the eye of the beholder. Nonetheless, it can be shocking how authorities turn a blind eye to the right-wing violence of Germany’s besorgte Bürger.

Germany’s head spook, Hans-Georg Maaßen, defended his agency: “Without the good work of the secret services in the last 10 years, there would have been terrorist attacks in Germany.” The problem is, of course, that there were terrorist attacks: The Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (NSU) murdered nine immigrants and one policewoman. Did Maaßen forget? Or, as is more likely, that he automatically downgrades political violence by right-wing Germans?

What we do know is that terrorism in Germany, despite our mental associations, is seldom the product of men in the groovy bellbottom-like Islamic robes – it’s more likely to be the Spießer and Kleinbürger wearing sandals with socks who read the BILD tabloid and suffer from absurdly neurotic fears about asylum seekers. (“It won’t be safe to walk the streets at night!”)

Of course there are Islamic terrorists, and they are dangerous, but the statistics speak for themselves: ISIS hasn’t set fire to a single building in Germany. Not once. And while the police organized huge operations against suspected Jihadis in Bremen this March, they don’t seem particularly interested in real terrorists as long as they have German-sounding last names.

Is this just because they’re boring? This is the Banality of Evil.