The death threats started in 2015, when Walter Lübcke defended the refugee policy of Chancellor Angela Merkel. A regional politician for her conservative party, he would go to small towns in his district and explain that welcoming those in need was a matter of German and Christian values.
Hateful emails started pouring in. His name appeared on an online neo-Nazi hit list. His private address was published on a far-right blog. A video of him was shared hundreds of thousands of times, along with emojis of guns and gallows and sometimes explicit calls to murder him: Shoot him now, this b******d.
And then someone did.
Far-right militancy is resurgent in Germany, in ways that are new and very old, horrifying a country that prides itself on dealing honestly with its murderous past. Raw and hateful language has become increasingly common online, and politicians are increasingly under threat, with some now requiring protection.
“The murder of Walter Lübcke shocked me like it shocked a lot of people,” the country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said on public television recently, while calling for Germans to hold weekly protests against far-right extremism.
I asked myself what is happening in our country? he said. If you look at how much hatred and harassment there is on the internet a lot of it directed at local politicians, bureaucrats, sport and cultural clubs then I think we need to stand up and say that this is unacceptable.
Hate speech has surged in all corners of Europe and, with it, political violence.
In Britain, the lawmaker Jo Cox died after being shot and stabbed multiple times by a man with far-right sympathies a week before the Brexit referendum in 2016.
In Poland, the liberal mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz, was killed in January after being the target of a relentless and hateful campaign against him on the state-owned broadcaster.
Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, known as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, was set up in the wake of World War II with the explicit aim of preventing the rise of anti-democratic forces like another Nazi party.
But with the arrival of more than one million migrants since 2015, many of them from Muslim countries, the agency has concentrated resources on threats of Islamist terrorism.
Politically, Germany saw a sharp uptick in right-wing fury after the 2015 migration crisis. The far-right Alternative for Germany party shocked the establishment by winning enough votes to take seats in Parliament.
During the past year, support for the party has flattened, and the liberal Greens have recently surged to the top of the polls.
But analysts say that while the Alternative for Germany has not been linked directly to political violence, the party’s noisy presence has contributed to a normalization of violent language that risks legitimizing violence itself.
The party has vowed to hunt Ms. Merkel. Just this month, one local party official identified the Greens as the new enemy, vowing to shoot our way through.
For some politicians, the angry political mood has meant peril. The mayor of the northern city of Altena, Andreas Hollstein, survived a knife attack in 2017.