MAGDEBURG, Germany — A white supremacist who livestreamed his efforts to blast his way into a synagogue in Germany last year on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, failing to cause widespread bloodshed only because he could not breach a heavy wooden door, was sentenced Monday to life in prison.
Two people were killed outside the synagogue in Halle, in eastern Germany, during the attack on Oct. 9, 2019. In convicting the assailant of murder and attempted murder, the presiding judge, Ursula Mertens, said that the attempt to kill the 51 people inside as they observed Yom Kippur had been “despicable, cowardly and inhuman.”
The attacker, Stephan Balliet, a 28-year-old German nationalist, stood motionless as the judge read the sentence. He had confessed to the attack, some of which he had filmed and streamed live over the internet.
Although the streamed assault attracted little attention at the time, downloads of it have since been widely shared among like-minded individuals on the far right, an expert witness told the court.
That was the ultimate goal of the defendant, who had also hoped to use the trial as an opportunity to expound on his hatred for Jews, Muslims, women and others whom he viewed as a threat to himself and to white, German society, the judge said.
One person who was wounded, an immigrant from Tunisia, was targeted “in a cowardly, perfidious way, based on his appearance,” the judge said.
Throughout the five months of the trial, Mertens sought to rein in the defendant, intervening when he made disparaging remarks or denied the Holocaust. In reading the court’s findings, she repeatedly made clear her disdain, pointing out when his victims had been productive members of society who had held down jobs, adding, “unlike the defendant.”
In the video, which was presented as evidence to the court, the attacker could be seen killing a 40-year-old woman who had spoken to him while he tried to storm the synagogue. After failing to achieve his initial target, he went to a nearby kebab shop, where he killed a 20-year-old German man, whom he believed to be a Muslim. In testimony, he told the court he considered himself “a failure,” because he had only succeeded in killing Germans.
The court followed federal prosecutors’ arguments that he should receive the maximum sentence possible for carrying out what one prosecutor, Kai Lohse, called the country’s “most despicable act of anti-Semitism since World War II.” Balliet will not be eligible for parole, guaranteeing that he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
“You showed no indication of remorse. On the contrary, you repeatedly made clear that you wanted to continue your fight,” the judge said, explaining the decision for the severity of the sentence. “Consequently, we have decided that society must be protected from you.”
At a time when Germany is struggling to come to terms with the extent of far-right extremism within the ranks of its own security services and police, the trial revealed how little its highest-level investigators know about the darkest corners of the digital sphere where white terrorists gather and plot violence.
“Luckily, none of the visitors of the synagogue suffered physical injuries,” the judge said, in detailing the reasons for her ruling.
She noted the danger posed to society by the attacker, because of his anti-Semitic, racist and misogynist attitudes, along with the arsenal of weapons he loaded into the car that he drove into the city.
“He put 51 people in danger because he knowingly planned this location and time” to carry out the attack, she said. “Therefore there remains no question about a sentence of life.”
Survivors of the attack, many of them younger Jews who had traveled to Halle to observe Yom Kippur with the local community, were among the 45 co-plaintiffs who took part in the trial. Many used their participation, which allowed them to question witnesses and the defendant, to prevent him from using the proceedings to promote his far-right ideology.(
Much in the same way that dozens of women who were abused by Larry Nassar, a former team doctor for the U.S. national gymnastics team, used his trial in a Michigan court in 2018 to break the silence about sexual abuse, the younger Jews used their opportunity to speak in the courtroom to challenge Germans to confront the threat posed by persistent anti-Semitism and racism.
“None of the hate-filled conspiracies that this man has voiced are new,” Talya Feldman, who survived the attack on the synagogue, said in her closing statement this month. “We’ve heard them all before. And we know where they lead. We know what happens when this propaganda and this speech goes unchecked. Germany knows it. I know it.”
During questioning from the co-plaintiffs, investigators from the Federal Criminal Office acknowledged that they did not understand how international networks of white supremacists operated.
Jessica Wax-Edwards, in a written closing statement by the co-plaintiffs, said: “This trial could have shed light on the global networks of right-wing extremism that continue to operate within Germany. It could have helped us, as a society to formulate a response to extremist violence, a response that goes beyond ‘never again’.”
“It is happening again and again and again and these are not isolated incidents — though they are treated as such,” she added.
They also sought to deflect attention from the gunman, who repeatedly sought to disparage the Holocaust, make racist comments or provoke the co-plaintiffs, as he did in the final moments of the hearing.
After he stood up to be escorted from the courtroom, he lobbed what appeared to be a roll of papers toward the co-plaintiffs and prosecutors seated opposite him. The swift action brought a gasp from those inside the courtroom, as four heavily armed bailiffs tackled him and escorted him out.
Afterward, some of the co-plaintiffs and their lawyers gathered in a park across the street from the courtroom for a rally to show solidarity with one another and the victims. Many expressed frustration that the court had not used the trial to delve deeper into the issues they had sought to raise.
“Even though he was found guilty, today is not a day when anyone can be clapping themselves on the back,” Naomi Henkel-Guembel, who survived the attack on the synagogue, told the rally.
“Least of all, liberal Germans who say or do nothing when they hear anti-Semitic remarks,” she said. “We, as a society, must show courage.”