Covid mask row killing sparks fears of radicalisation in Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday expressed revulsion over the "heinous" killing of a petrol station cashier by a customer angry about being asked to wear a mask while buying beer days before the country goes to the polls.

Covid mask row killing sparks fears of radicalisation in Germany
A police officer at the scene of the crime earlier this week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Foto Hosser | Christian Schulz

Ahead of Sunday’s general election, the killing of the 20-year-old student last weekend in the western town of Idar-Oberstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, believed to be the first in Germany linked to the government’s coronavirus rules, stunned the country.

“The German government condemns this targeted killing in the strongest terms,” Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters.

“We mourn the death of this young man who was viciously shot dead.”

READ ALSO: Shock in Germany after cashier shot dead in mask row

Demmer said it was now up to Germany’s independent criminal justice system to prosecute the “heinous” crime but added the government would fight forces
“trying to divide our society and stoke more hatred”, often using social media.

The row started when the cashier told the customer to put on a face mask, as required in all German shops. After a brief argument, the man left.

The suspect returned about an hour and a half later, this time wearing a mask. But as he brought his six-pack of beer to the till, he took off his mask and another argument ensued.

Prosecutors say he then pulled out a revolver and shot the cashier in the head point-blank.

The unnamed suspect, a 49-year-old German man, turned himself in to police the following day.

He was arrested and has confessed to the murder, reportedly telling police he rejected Germany’s coronavirus restrictions.

‘Isolated case’

At the height of the national election campaign, the case sparked shock and outrage across the political spectrum as fears grow that the anti-mask movement is radicalising.

An interior ministry spokesman told reporters Wednesday that the killing seemed to be an “isolated case” and that the movement of opponents to measures
 to contain the coronavirus outbreak had grown smaller as restrictions ease.

However, he acknowledged that “some actors” in the movement appeared to have grown more extremist and potentially violent, with far-right chat rooms playing a growing role in stoking hate.

Tributes to the victim who was shot and killed after asking a customer to wear a mask. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Frey

Media reports found the killer had also been active in such chat rooms.     

Germany’s “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) movement emerged last year as the loudest voice against the government’s coronavirus curbs.

READ ALSO: Germany’s spy agency to monitor Querdenker movement

Its protests have at times drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators, attracting a wide mix of people including vaccine sceptics, neo-Nazis and members of the far-right AfD party.

Health Minister Jens Spahn told reporters as he announced a tightening of rules for people who have opted not to be vaccinated against Covid-19 that the country “must clearly and decisively say no to any kind of pandemic extremism”.

‘Unfortunate’ campaign advert

Germany is in the throes of a fourth wave of the outbreak, although the daily death toll has remained in the double digits as the percentage of vaccinated people has climbed.

The issue has crept into the election campaign, which has turned into a tight race between the Social Democrats, three points up in the polls, and Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

CDU candidate Armin Laschet came in for criticism on Wednesday for a new campaign advert in which he argued that his party should keep the lines of communication open with all segments of society “even those who take a critical stance”.

The campaign video shows a recent scene in which a member of the “Querdenker” mounted the stage with Laschet uninvited and asked a series of pointed questions about Germany’s coronavirus rules, which the candidate calmly tackled.

Der Spiegel news weekly said the Querdenker member was known to belong “to the radical right-wing corona denier scene” and called the advert “unfortunate” and “strange” against the backdrop of the killing in Idar-Oberstein.

By Deborah COLE

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Former Nazi camp guard, 101, gets five-year jail sentence

A German court on Tuesday handed a five-year jail sentence to a 101-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard, the oldest person so far to go on trial for complicity in war crimes during the Holocaust.

Former Nazi camp guard, 101, gets five-year jail sentence

Josef S. was found guilty of being an accessory to murder while working as a prison guard at the Sachsenhausen camp in Oranienburg, north of Berlin, between 1942 and 1945, presiding judge Udo Lechtermann said.

The pensioner, who now lives in Brandenburg state, had pleaded innocent, saying he did “absolutely nothing” and was not aware of the gruesome crimes being carried out at the camp.

“I don’t know why I am here,” he said at the close of his trial on Monday.

But prosecutors said he “knowingly and willingly” participated in the murders of 3,518 prisoners at the camp and called for him to be punished with five years behind bars.

READ ALSO: Trials of aging Nazis a ‘reminder for the present’, says German prosecutor

More than 200,000 people, including Jews, Roma, regime opponents and gay people, were detained at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1936 and 1945.

Tens of thousands of inmates died from forced labour, murder, medical experiments, hunger or disease before the camp was liberated by Soviet troops, according to the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum.

Prosecutors said the man had aided and abetted the “execution by firing squad of Soviet prisoners of war in 1942” and the murder of prisoners “using the poisonous gas Zyklon B”.

He was 21 years old at the time.

Contradictory statements

During the trial, S. made several inconsistent statements about his past, complaining that his head was getting “mixed up”.

At one point, the centenarian said he had worked as an agricultural labourer in Germany for most of World War II, a claim contradicted by several historical documents bearing his name, date and place of birth.

After the war, the man was transferred to a prison camp in Russia before returning to Germany, where he worked as a farmer and a locksmith.

He remained at liberty during the trial, which began in 2021 but has been delayed several times because of his health.

Despite his conviction, he is highly unlikely to be put behind bars, given his age.

His lawyer Stefan Waterkamp told AFP ahead of the verdict that if found guilty, he would appeal.

More than seven decades after World War II, German prosecutors are racing to bring the last surviving Nazi perpetrators to justice.

The 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk, on the basis that he served as part of Hitler’s killing machine, set a legal precedent and paved the way for several of these twilight justice cases.

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.