HANAU, Germany — A German gunman driven by racism and diffuse conspiracy theories opened fire on two bars frequented by immigrants late Wednesday, killing nine people and shocking a nation where violent crimes targeting minorities have spiked against the backdrop of a resurgent far right.
Politicians scrambled to express their sorrow and horror at the attack, which security officials said on Thursday was carried out by a 43-year-old German who appeared to have been driven by ethnic hatred.
The shooting in Hanau, 15 miles east of Frankfurt, was the most violent in a growing string of attacks targeting ethnic minorities, or Germans who openly support them, in a country roiled by bitter debates over immigration in recent years. All nine of those killed in the bars had immigrant backgrounds, Peter Frank, Germany’s federal prosecutor, said.
“Everything is being done to clarify the background of these horrible murders to the last detail,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters in Berlin. “But at present there is much evidence that the perpetrator acted out of right-wing extremist, racist motives. Out of hatred against people of other origins, other beliefs or other outward appearances.”
“Racism is a poison,” Ms. Merkel said. “Hatred is a poison.”
The suspect and his mother, neither of whom were officially identified, were both found shot dead in his home early Thursday, said Peter Beuth, the interior minister for the central state of Hesse.
Germany has some of the world’s strictest gun laws and last year moved to tighten them further, including requiring background checks, after a spike in shootings by right-wing extremists in the past year.
The local authorities in Hanau said the gunman had been in possession of a valid gun license for marksmanship. The license was issued to Tobias Rathjen, said an official from Main-Kinzig, the district that includes Hanau, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to disclose the information.
Terrorism experts and several German media outlets identified the shooter as Tobias R., whose photos matched the images of a man who posted a nearly two-minute screed on the YouTube page of a Tobias Rathjen, which has since been taken down.
Speaking in accented English, he addressed Americans, citing various conspiracy theories and calling on them to “Fight now.”
Mr. Frank, whose office took over the investigation into the shooting in Hanau, a city of about 95,000 people, did not name the suspect, but said that racist materials found on the attacker’s website pointed to a far-right motive for the crime.
“On the home page of the suspected attacker were posted video messages and a sort of manifesto that, in addition to confused thoughts and abstruse conspiracy theories, displayed deeply racist convictions,” Mr. Frank said.
This latest shooting adds to an expanding number of far-right attacks in a political environment that has grown more aggressive, especially since the Alternative for Germany party became the first far-right party to enter Germany’s national Parliament since World War II.
In June, a conservative politician whose name had appeared on a neo-Nazi hit list circulated online was fatally shot in the head in what officials believe was the country’s first far-right political assassination since the Nazi era.
Less than six months later, a right-wing gunman killed two Germans — a passer-by and a customer at a kebab shop — after a failed attempt to storm a synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur.
Last week, the authorities broke up a suspected far-right terrorist network, arresting 12 people, including a member of the police force.
In the past three decades, the German population has grown increasingly diverse, leading to bitter dispute over who qualifies as German and who is still considered a “foreigner” in a country where roughly a quarter of the nearly 82 million inhabitants are immigrants or descendants of immigrants.
That debate became especially inflamed after Ms. Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open Germany’s borders to more than a million asylum seekers, many from wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The conflict over the country’s cultural identity spilled into the streets in the eastern city of Chemnitz in August 2018, when Germans flashing Nazi salutes and shouting “Foreigners out!” clashed with others chanting “Refugees welcome.”
The rioting followed the fatal stabbing of a 35-year-old German. A year later, a Syrian asylum seeker was convicted of manslaughter in the killing.
Kemal Kocak, a cashier at a convenience store next to the Arena Cafe & Bar, the second to be attacked, said that he had arrived at the scene soon after the shootings and found a “catastrophe.”
“Afghani, Bosnian, Pole, two Turks, a Roma,” said Mr. Kocak, who said he had known virtually all of the victims.
In front of state lawmakers, who gathered to hold a moment of silence for the victims before canceling their planned session, Mr. Beuth declared: “I condemn this act in sharpest terms,” adding: “It is an attack on our free and democratic society.”
Flags on public buildings across the state were ordered lowered to half-staff. A school and several day care centers in the area remained closed on Thursday, the city’s mayor said on Facebook.
Both of the bars attacked, the Midnight and the Arena, were popular with young people from the city’s tight-knit Kurdish and Turkish communities. Turkish officials said that five of the victims were citizens of Turkey.
One young man who spoke in Turkish from his hospital bed to TRT television said that he had been in a group of about a dozen friends who had just ordered, when they heard several shots ring out.
“Than I saw the man coming inside,” said the victim, identified only as Muhammed B. “He came to the other side and killed them all. Than he came to our side and shot anyone he saw from the head.”
The police had cordoned off the block around the Midnight Bar, which faces a pedestrian area with gaming parlors, kebab restaurants and small hotels. Fluorescent paint markings could be seen on the sidewalk, seemingly made by police officers securing evidence.
Small groups of residents talked among themselves, but life in the neighborhood was already returning to normal. A gaming parlor several doors down from the shooting scene was already full of patrons.
Tarek Al Wazir, the economy minister for the state of Hesse, drew comparisons to Anders Brevik, who went on a rampage in Norway in 2011 that killed 77 people, and the attacker in Halle, saying that he believed the gunman appeared to have been self-radicalized.
“We know this from Islamic terrorism, that people radicalize over the internet” via videos and in chat groups, he told the German news outlet N-TV.
The first attack took place at around 10 p.m. at the Midnight, a hookah bar — sometimes referred to as a shisha bar, named for the water pipes that are smoked on the premises — that was popular with young people from the local Kurdish and Turkish community.
Shortly afterward, residents in Hanau started posting warnings on social media with the license plate number of a car urging people to remain inside their homes.
German media cited witnesses who reported seeing a vehicle fleeing from the scene, and the police later said they were searching for “a dark car” in connection with the attack.
The police said they were called to a different neighborhood in the city, and local media reported that more shots had been fired at the Arena Bar by a gunman who then fled the scene. At least nine people were killed at the two bars, another remained in serious condition and five others were injured, Mr. Frank said.
“There were bodies lying on the ground,” said Mr. Kocak, the cashier, who added that most of the victims were men. “There was blood everywhere.”
The area around the home where the suspect’s body was found remained cordoned off on Thursday. A neighbor said Mr. Rathjen had grown up in the white rowhouse with his parents.
“He seemed nice, but very shy, even a bit awkward,” said Andrea Lischeid, 53. “When I greeted him, he would greet back, but he’d quickly look away.”
Claus Kaminsky, the mayor of Hanau, where several hundred U.S. troops and their families were stationed until 2008, called for a vigil to be held in honor of the victims later Thursday.
“It is one of the most bitter hours in our peacetime history,” he said. “We will do everything humanly possible to defend our shared solidarity. We will not allow it to be destroyed.”
Jack Ewing reported from Hanau, and Melissa Eddy from Berlin. Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Hanau and Tiffany May and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong.