On Feb. 23, close to 10,000 people marched in the German town of Hanau, a suburb of Frankfurt. They carried signs with messages like “Love for all, hate for no one.” The march, while large, was just one way that Germany has reacted to a mass shooting in Hanau four days earlier, when a lone gunman killed nine people of foreign background in the city’s bars.
The killer’s anti-immigrant rampage has shocked a nation that set a model in the late 20th century in how to deal with a racist past. Yet it also may be reviving a spirit of national reflection over how Germany defines its identity and values. Citizens should “show what Germany actually stands for ... what our democracy and our freedom are here,” one German student of Afghan origin told a reporter for Deutsche Welle.
The killings were widely viewed as a dangerous escalation of violent right-wing extremism. Last year a gunman tried to attack a synagogue while another killed a politician who supported immigration. In addition, the rise of an anti-immigrant party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has roiled politics and weakened the country’s traditional parties.
The Hanau shootings have pushed top leaders into action. Security for mosques is being beefed up. Some politicians are calling for tighter gun control. Others seek to toughen rules covering online hate speech. “If we don’t learn lessons, it’ll happen again and again,” said Green politician Cem Özdemir.
After the killings, Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the “poison” of racist hatred in Germany, a statement perhaps aimed at trying to distance her center-right Christian Democrats from any political dealings with AfD.
Yet the most compelling reactions have been local attempts, like the mass march in Hanau, to embrace Germany’s large immigrant community. At one funeral for a victim of the shooting, for example, a clergyman told the crowd, “If we hate from the start, we cannot love.”
Many Germans realize such killings are not done in isolation and have many causes. This leads them to work together to heal the country’s racist rifts. Those who want to divide German society will not succeed, said Hanau Mayor Claus Kaminsky at the march, “because we are more and we will prevent that.” The “love for all” signs in the crowd are a good start.