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CRIME

‘They’re shooting at us!’: Inside the Halle synagogue targeted by gunman

American Rebecca Blady was hoping to spend a day in retreat from the outside world, turning to fasting and worship at Yom Kippur in eastern German city Halle. Then everything changed.

'They're shooting at us!': Inside the Halle synagogue targeted by gunman
The synagogue in Halle (Saale). Photo: DPA

She and her husband Jeremy, two Jewish orthodox community leaders who recently moved to Germany, had eagerly agreed to celebrate in the “shul” or synagogue there, which rarely has enough worshippers to fill its space on high holidays.

In the event, they ended up being survivors and witnesses of a day of extrordinary violence.

With the pair came around twenty young practising Jews from the US, Germany
and Israel to “bring some extra energy to the prayers,” she told AFP, adding that she also brought with her sacred objects and photocopies of religious texts and songs.

READ ALSO: 'It doesn't change my feeling about Germany': Jewish community fearful but defiant after Halle attack

To reach the temple, she had to make her way through the spartan blocks of flats characteristic of the city in the former communist East.

“We had incredible prayers, full of beautiful songs and even dance, until we suddenly heard a loud bang outside,” Blady said.

Besieged

“We were in the middle of the services, in particular the part where we were reading the Torah” when they heard the attacker.

“It sounded like it could have been a gunshot, maybe an explosion. We really had no idea.”

Some of the congregation ran to the display screens connected to the outdoor security cameras.

After a few moments of silence, the sounds of blasts came again.

Over anxious minutes — police say between around 12:03 and 12:11 pm, when the first officers arrived — the man outside tried to force the door with explosives and a shotgun.

He was later identified as a 27-year-old German, who filmed his attempt to
storm the synagogue — opening the video with an antisemitic diatribe.

Many in Halle stand front of the Holocaust memorial during a solidarity rally on Thursday. Photo: DPA

“Go somewhere away from the windows, where you can be safe, because they're shooting at us!”, the watchers said.

The roughly 50 people gathered inside fled upstairs where it seemed safer, or into a back room of the building.

Most didn't even have phones on them to contact the outside world, leaving them to wait silently while imagining the worst.

“It was a very scary thing… just a chilling experience,” Blady said.

READ ALSO: German gunman planned 'massacre' in Halle terror attack

But after 20 minutes, the group were reached by police, who decided to lock down the synagogue, keeping the worshippers inside under police protection.

Outside lay the body of a female passer-by shot by the attacker, who had
then fled to a nearby kebab shop and killed another man.

Prayers

Blady decided to keep her group's mind off the threatening circumstances with prayer, keeping them going for two full hours.

Only at five pm were the congregation evacuated to a nearby hospital.

They “prayed neilah here to end the day with extra fervour and heard the sound of the shofar” (a religious instrument made from a ram's horn), as well as breaking their fast, Blady said.

After that, they were brought to safety in a hotel under police watch.

“God counted us all there, one by one, as deserving of life,” Blady said.

“This kind of news, it's not new and it's not unique to Germany any more… it can happen now, anywhere in the world.”

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CRIME

Who was involved in the alleged plot to ‘overthrow German democracy’?

There are a litany of strange characters thought to be behind a planned coup in Germany, including a former far-right politician, high-ranking military men and a minor aristocrat with a love of conspiracy theories. Here's what you need to know.

Who was involved in the alleged plot to 'overthrow German democracy'?

On Wednesday, the shocking news emerged that police had arrested 25 people in connection with a suspected plot to overthrow the German government.

Those arrested are accused of having formed “a terrorist group by the end of November 2021 at the latest, which had set itself the goal of overcoming the existing state order in Germany and replacing it with their own kind of state”, prosecutors said in a statement. 

They added that the suspects had allegedly planned to storm parliament with a small group of armed militants and take control of the government by force. But who exactly are the accused?

Well, if this all sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, there are some familiar characters you need to know about.

Here’s a rundown of who they are.

The Reichsbürger movement

Known as far-right extremists who hanker after a bygone era, the Reichsbürger movement is nothing new in Germany – though its members have become increasingly volatile in recent years.

Since the 1980s, the group has been a ramshackle coalition of neo-Nazis, gun enthusiasts and conspiracy theorists who ultimately question the legitimacy of the Federal Republic of Germany and refuse to follow its laws. Instead, these so-called Reichbürger (citizens of the empire) tend to believe in the continued existence of the Third Reich and often claim that modern-day Germany has become nothing more than an American vassal state in the post-war order.

Though this kind of thought has been on the fringes of German society for decades, the Reichbürger have recently been amassing support and appear to have been emboldened by the rise of other far-right groups. Its estimated number of followers has doubled from 10,000 to 20,000 since 2017 alone, with around 2,000 deemed to be potentially violent. Indeed, recent years have seen increasingly brutal clashes between members of the group and the German authorities. 

One such incident in 2014 saw a former Mr. Germany beauty pageant winner open fire on the police when they tried to evict him from his property as a result of unpaid debts. Another incident led to the death of a police officer, who was shot in Bavaria while trying to confiscate firearms from a radicalised follower of the group. 

Alongside the alleged plot to overthrow the German government, other acts of terrorism have also been pinned on the group – or those associated with them. Most recently, they include a suspected plot to kidnap Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD), along with planned attacks on asylum seekers, Jewish people and other minorities.

READ ALSO: What is Germany’s extremist Reichsbürger movement?

Heinrich XIII, Prince of Preuss

Heinrich XIII

The arrested the arrested Heinrich XIII Prince Reuss German police sits in a police car in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Boris Roessler

The 71-year-old “prince“, arrested in Frankfurt’s West End on Wednesday morning, has been described as the ringleader of the group. He pictured himself as head of the new revolutionary government if the envisioned coup went according to plan.

A descent of the the House of Reuß that ruled parts of Thuringia for about 800 years, family members had distanced themselves from him due to his outspoken far-right conspiracy theories.

In a notorious speech given at a business summit in Zurich in 2019, Heinrich XIII had referenced the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the 20th century world order had been engineered by the Rothschild dynasty and the freemasons. He also complained that his own dynasty had been “disposessed” after the first world war. 

“Ever since Germany surrendered, it has never been sovereign again,” he told listeners. “It has only been made an administrative structure of the allies.”

Rüdiger von Pescatore

Described by prosecutors as the terrorist group’s military arm, Von Pescatore was already a paratrooper commander and then part of the Special Forces Command. He was allegedly dismissed from the military after selling former East German weapons which had fallen out of use.

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann

Birgit Malsack-Winkemann

Alleged plotter Birgit Malsack-Winkemann (AfD) speaks in parliament in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Bernd von Jutrczenka

The lawyer-by-training had been a member of the far-right Alternative for Germany ever since it was founded in 2013 as a party against the Euro currency. A member of Bundestag between 2017 and 2021, she grew increasingly vocal against immigration and espoused conspiracy theories from the extremist group QANon.

Who else is believed to be involved? 

So far, prosecutors have mentioned a number of others who could have been involved in the alleged plot. One is a Russian woman called Vitalia B., who is accused of having tried to facilitate contact between the plotters and the Russian government in order to discuss a “new political order” in Germany.

Former – and current – soldiers are also believed to be among the members of the terror group, and they are also thought to have recruited members of the police force. One of the men arrested on Wednesday was an active member of the KSK special forces – the elite wing of the German military. 

In addition to 23 arrests in Germany on Wednesday, two people were arrested in Austria and Italy. Prosecutors say they have identified a further 27 people in connection with the plot, so expect more details to emerge soon. 

READ ALSO: Germany busts far-right cell planning attack on parliament

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