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One night in early November, several explosives detonated in front of the ground-floor windows of a pale pink multi-family dwelling in the Saxony town of Freital. The building is on a busy road and surrounded by gas stations and supermarkets. On the second floor lives a German family, with refugees lodged below them. The explosions were so violent that the windows shattered and parts of the walls surrounding them crumbled. Shards of glass flew through the rooms inside all the way to the occupants' beds. It was a wonder that only one person was injured, a refugee from Syria.

Police investigators identified Timo S. as one of the perpetrators. He is a bus driver without a police record and had never before been identified by the authorities as a right-wing radical. Until that point, he was an upstanding citizen from the center of society. That, at least, is how he was described by the state prosecutors responsible for the case. But as reporting conducted by ZEIT ONLINE has revealed, that image isn't accurate -- not in this case and not in in several other cases involving attacks on refugee shelters carried out last year.

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Who sets fire to refugee hostels?

Who sets fire to refugee hostels?

There were 279 attacks with incendiary devices, explosives or rocks in 2015. We looked into the backgrounds of the suspects.

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The normal-citizen theory

The normal-citizen theory

German government has warned that suspects are increasingly people without criminal records from the center of society and not neo-Nazis.

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But is that true?

But is that true?

We took a closer look at three cases from last year.

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Antifa Hamburg
Case 1: Freital

Case 1: Freital

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What do you think?

Wrong. State prosecutors considered Timo S. to be a "blank sheet of paper."

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Yes, how couldn't they have?

Wrong. According to investigators, they were "young people who in a drunken state came up with a fateful idea."

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Yes, how couldn't they have?

Wrong. State prosecutors "don't want to make a judgment."

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Refugee hostels were attacked 279 times in Germany in 2015. This number refers to assaults in which people were or could have been injured but does not include incidents involving graffiti, the distribution of propaganda or taunting. In the attacks, the hostels were pelted with stones, fireworks and incendiaries; they were shot at with pellet guns and pistols; they were attacked with explosive devices and even flooded with water.

A team of journalists from ZEIT ONLINE spent the last six weeks looking into all 279 violent attacks on refugee hostels and conducted more detailed reporting into 65 incidents in which investigators were able to identify the perpetrators.
In the first half of the year, there were still fewer than 20 attacks per month. By October, the number had risen to 38. In December there were 53 and in January of this year, there were 73. Just recently, another refugee shelter burned to the ground, this time in Bautzen. Hooting onlookers impeded attempts to extinguish the blaze.


Who are the perpetrators? And why can't security authorities prevent the crimes, or at least find those responsible?

Last fall, the political debate focusing on anti-refugee violence sought to explain the paucity of convictions by claiming that most of the incidents involved a new kind of perpetrator: previously upstanding citizens from the center of society, first-time offenders with no police records who had never before attracted the attention of the police or Germany’s domestic intelligence services. That, according to the narrative, is why they couldn't have been monitored prior to committing their attacks and thus why those attacks could not have been foreseen.

This view comes from statistics compiled by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). Even experts within the BKA were taken off guard by the rapid increase in the number of attacks on asylum hostels in Germany. In 2015, the office counted 1,029 crimes committed against refugee facilities, ranging from swastikas daubed on walls to attacks using explosive devices. In 2014, it was just 199. In a classified situation report from fall 2015, criminal justice officials noted an increasing number of perpetrators who had never before attracted police attention. The BKA referred to them as "impassioned lone criminals," who "had no ideological connection to right-wing structures." Since then, the number has grown. In the situation report from January 2016, which ZEIT ONLINE has obtained, it says that police and intelligence officers had no information about 47 percent of the suspects prior to the crimes they committed. In the situation report from last fall, that was true of 31 percent of the suspects.

Ermittelte Täter und ihre politische Gesinnung

Angriffe auf Flüchtlingsheime im Jahr 2015

  1. 1 Alle Angriffe 2015
  2. 2 Fälle in denen Tatverdächtige ermittelt wurden
  3. 3 Klarer extrem rechter Täterhintergrund
  4. 4 Keine rechte Motivation erkennbar

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, see those numbers as proof that radicalization has seeped into the center of German society. "It is alarming that the violence has crept into the middle of society in some cases," he told Spiegel. At a February conference in Berlin, Maassen warned of the "great danger" when "violent tendencies permeate the mainstream."

Many media outlets, including ZEIT ONLINE, adopted this theory of a societal mainstream that had become violent. The same cases are repeatedly used as proof: the firefighter Dirk D. from the small town of Altena in North Rhine-Westphalia who set fire to the roof beams of a neighboring house just hours after refugees had moved in; and tax inspector Kim M. from Escheburg near Hamburg who threw canisters of paint thinner into an unoccupied shelter followed by lit matches. Two model citizens who became arsonists out of fear of having refugees in their neighborhood.

But are cases like these really typical?

Research conducted by ZEIT ONLINE shows that the theory about a new kind of perpetrator isn't entirely accurate. Very often, the violence is perpetrated by people who had cultivated right-wing extremist ideas prior to their crime. Many of them are not part of neo-Nazi organizations. They are not bomber-jacket-wearing skinheads, members of the NPD or active participants in far-right paramilitary groups. But they adhere to a racist, xenophobic and extremist ideology and feel as though that ideology requires them to take action. It is not a new societal center that is hunting down the refugees. It is much more common for individuals and small groups to become radicalized independently of right-wing extremist organizations. Concealed and carried forward by the aggressive public debate, they immerse themselves in hate and ultimately turn to violence. They want to spread fear and terror -- and accept that deaths may result.

Is it possible to identify the perpetrators’ political attitudes?

Only very few of them are not neo-Nazis. The perpetrators include some serial arsonists and mental patients, and there are indeed some model citizens like the tax inspector from Escheburg. But for the majority of the suspects whose identities are known to ZEIT ONLINE, there are indications that they adhere to right-wing ideology or have contacts within the extremist scene, even though they are listed in the statistics as upstanding citizens.

The BKA theory is grounded in data supplied by law enforcement and domestic intelligence services. Those who do not appear in that data -- because they have never been documented or because their information was deleted in conformance with data protection rules -- are considered untainted. That is not the fault of BKA, the agency can only count cases reported to them by state law enforcement agencies and via court convictions. They register crimes and punishments, not political attitudes, making it a preposterous basis for the conclusion that none of these perpetrators are right-wing extremists.

Nevertheless, many police officers and state prosecutors seem to have adopted this view. German states don’t appear eager to be frequently listed in statistics relating to right-wing extremist violence. That seems like the only likely explanation for how the April 2015 arson attack on a planned asylum hostel in the town of Tröglitz in Saxony-Anhalt was not classified as a right-wing motivated crime, instead being shunted into the category "other."

State prosecutors are responsible for investigating the perpetrators' backgrounds and must collect evidence pointing toward or away from right-wing attitudes. For a long time now, there’s been a consensus that right-wing violence should be identified as such and punished to the full extent of the law. Saxony-Anhalt Interior Minister Holger Stahlknecht, himself a former public prosecutor, says, for example, that German criminal law does not provide clear guidance when it comes to politically motivated crimes, "but the motives behind a crime must, of course, play a significant role in sentencing."