Main defendant Stephan Ernst (left) awaits verdict at the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, Germany, in the case of the murder of Walter Lübcke, on January 28 2021
Stephan Ernst (left) awaiting the verdict at the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt, Germany, on Thursday © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

A German neo-Nazi has been sentenced to life in prison for the murder of regional official Walter Lübcke — the first rightwing assassination of a politician in Germany’s postwar history.

Stephan Ernst, an extremist who had long been known to the authorities, shot Lübcke, an official from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, on the terrace of his house near the west German city of Kassel in June 2019.

The dead man had been targeted by rightwing extremists for defending Ms Merkel’s liberal immigration policies during the 2015-16 refugee crisis.

Passing the sentence in the Higher Regional Court in Frankfurt on Thursday, the judge emphasised the severity of Ernst’s crime, in comments that suggested he will have to serve a minimum of 15 years.

The Lübcke murder shocked Germany and highlighted the danger posed by far-right extremists who are prepared to use violence against a system they claim is endangering the survival of the German Volk.

In February 2020 an extremist killed nine people with immigrant roots in the western city of Hanau, before turning the gun on his mother and himself. In 2019 a white supremacist tried to stage a massacre of Jewish worshippers celebrating Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, in a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle. Deterred by a heavy wooden door, he shot dead two people on the street outside and in a nearby kebab shop. He was sentenced to life for the murders last month.

Germany is also still wrestling with the legacy of the National Socialist Underground, a neo-Nazi cell whose bloody campaign of killings, bombings and arson attacks claimed the lives of 10 people between 2000 and 2007. 

Welcoming the court’s decision, Armin Laschet, the CDU’s newly elected leader, said: “We will not let our country be destroyed by rightwing terrorists and spiritual arsonists.” He said the verdict served as a warning, adding “we are all responsible for vehemently countering hatred and incitement in our everyday lives — on a daily basis”.

Authorities in Germany long stood accused of turning a blind eye to rightwing violence and instead focusing on the threat from Islamist terrorism, a threat that has markedly diminished in recent years. After the Hanau killings, interior minister Horst Seehofer acknowledged that rightwing extremism was “the greatest menace in our country”.

The court in Frankfurt also handed down an 18-month suspended sentence to an acquaintance of Ernst, identified by the court only as Markus H, for violating Germany’s gun laws. 

Prosecutors had accused him of helping Ernst commit the murder, of radicalising him and offering him mental support, and called for a prison sentence of nine years and eight months. In addition, Ernst had told the court that H was with him at the scene on the night of the murder. But the judge acquitted H of complicity. 

Ernst was acquitted of an additional charge of attempted murder. Prosecutors had accused him of attacking an Iraqi asylum seeker, Ahmed I, in January 2016 with a knife.

This story was corrected to reflect that the Hanau attack took place in 2020, not 2019.

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