Two years ago, on Feb. 19, 2020, the lives of nine people, all from minority ethnic or religious communities, were over within 10 minutes. None of those people who were shot in bars, kiosks or in their cars that night expected that someone they didn't know would take their life for no reason.
A newspaper with a large circulation was still speculating on the night of the crime, first suspecting Russians and then possible extortionists who might be behind the right-wing terrorist attack. Reference to a possible criminal element increased, especially due to the reputation of the area of the city where the attacks took place.
All of this was reminiscent of the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU) investigations and the media coverage of the murders they committed. There, too, the perpetrators were suspected to be from the same communities as the victims. It was assumed that people from the German majority culture were not capable of such acts, only "foreigners."
When the speculation ended and it became clear that a right-wing extremist had killed all these people for racist reasons, some tried to divert attention from the problem of violent neo-Nazis, racists and Islamophobes in Germany.
Days after the attack, there was another incident of arson near a shisha bar and a kebab shop in the town of Döbeln. Shots were fired at a shisha bar in Stuttgart and at a house in Heilbronn where the secretary-general of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) was staying, as reported in national media.
Islamophobia as a motivation for racist violent crime was still not a welcome explanation, especially in publications that had been using it as a sales aid for years.
Now there were concerns about the "instrumentalization" of the victims, all the more so when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan offered his condolences to the victims, spoke of a "vile attack" and warned about growing racism and Islamophobia.
There was a circulated, controversial publication regarding the issue. There was talk of the perpetrator's mental illness, as he claimed to have received secret messages and put forth fantasies about child abuse on secret military bases. Many were reluctant to talk about his racist ideas.
Yes, it's true: Tobias Rathjen was obviously severely mentally disturbed and this disturbance influenced his decision-making process. But he didn't attack any supposed eavesdropping devices or military vehicles of any fabricated secret powers. Rather, he killed nine people solely because he felt they belonged to "destructive" races and cultures that he believed should be "completely annihilated." Among the victims were Jews and Muslims.
A key indication that Rathjen's racist hatred was not just a random by-product of paranoid schizophrenia is his father's attitude. He had already attracted attention years before the killings through racist statements and querulous submissions to the authorities with conspiracy ideological content.
Even after the attack, he publicly agitated against immigrants and took the view that not his son but an international conspiracy was behind the Hanau murders. He also called for the removal of memorials for the victims.
In addition to the media, the authorities also had to field criticism and uncomfortable questions. Relatives of the victims were treated insensitively. Police officers and pastors laughed in front of the relatives in the information center. The bereaved were left in the dark about the whereabouts of the bodies of the deceased for days and were unable to say goodbye.
There are also questions such as whether, if one had looked more closely, these attacks could have been prevented, or if at least the number of victims could have been reduced. Why did apparently delusional submissions by the perpetrator to the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office a few months before the crime not result in a closer look? Why did calls to the emergency number go unanswered? Why, on the evening of the attack, of all days, were both an escape route and an emergency exit in the bar blocked due to official regulation?
Many of those affected are yet to get satisfactory answers to these questions and may not be able to find them anymore. Sometimes there is no such thing as a "satisfactory" answer in these situations. Nevertheless, it should not go unmentioned that there have also been comforting reactions to the bloody deed that give hope.
The Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, who was in office at the time, and other high-ranking political leaders, as well as well-known associations and social actors, described the attack for what it was right from the start. They also expressed their solidarity with the victims and their families.
In the weeks after the attack, the threat of racism and right-wing extremism moved from being a fringe issue to becoming the focus of public attention. Vigilance against the instigators, enablers and enablers of right-wing extremist violence has increased significantly.
Concepts were developed to counteract the private acquisition of weapons by politically extreme or mentally unstable people. Some of these have been implemented, some are still waiting to be realized.
The coronavirus crisis pushed the topic into the background for a short time. However, the right-wing extremist and conspiracy ideological attempts to hijack the displeasure about pandemic-related restrictions quickly made it clear that the threat has not diminished.
At the same time, there are encouraging signals from politics and society that racism in general and Islamophobia in particular are no longer dismissed as marginal phenomena.
Nancy Faeser, the federal minister of the Interior and Community, described Islam as "part of cultural life for decades." She wants to make Germany a "good integration country" and wants to further develop the Islam Conference into a real forum for dialogue, instead of allowing it to exist as a platform for self-promotion for anti-Muslim racists, as has been the case up to now.
An anti-racist climate in Germany needs new instruments, more vigilance and more sensitization against racism. Above all, we must not allow ourselves to be divided as a society. The lesson from Hanau must be to make the country more inclusive, plural and empathetic.