When a mass shooting happens, and the perpetrator has left a manifesto or text that could give insight into his motive, worldview and state of mind, one of the first go-to rules for the media is: do not circulate the content. Don’t reproduce it uncritically or at all; don’t skim it and publish your take without waiting for the analysis of experts in the field.
And yet, so many German media outlets broke all of those rules last month when a 29-year-old former Jehovah’s Witness entered a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in Hamburg and shot and killed 8 people, including himself. Journalists quickly found a book he had written which was then readily available on Amazon, and which he had advertised on the day of the murders on his LinkedIn page.
In this age of clickbait, headlines like “crazy Devil manifesto” made the rounds quickly, with some non-specialists in the field of right-wing Christian violence weighing in quickly, seemingly having only skimmed the book, but offering hot takes nonetheless.
Mass shootings do happen in Germany, though they’re rare compared to the US. Still, last year, a man opened fire in a lecture at Heidelberg University—and it wasn’t the only mass shooting in recent German history:
“In 2020, the nation saw two high-profile shootings, one that killed six people and another that took nine lives. In the most recent shooting involving a site of worship, a far-right extremist attempted to force his way into a synagogue in Halle on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur in 2019. After failing to gain entry, he shot two people to death nearby.”
Media interest in the phenomenon usually spikes immediately following a mass shooting, before quickly moving on to the next shiny object. This has happened in the Hamburg case as well—but careful analysis of a mass shooter’s manifesto takes time and should be left to experts, as Kathleen Belew, professor and expert on White supremacist terror and violence at Northwestern University, warned after the Buffalo shooting in the US:
“For whoever needs this today: ‘manifesto’ is a genre of writing and does not connote credibility, quality, etc. A bad novel is still a novel. A manifesto is a document that seeks to make a political case via ideological explanation, often for an act of violence. (1) In events like the Buffalo shooting, the manifesto is critically important to experts in determining motive, connection with other acts of violence, and context. (2) However, the manifesto in this case (as in many acts of white power violence) is designed to radicalize others. SO PLEASE DON’T POST/SHARE IT. (3) The people who spend their lives thinking about this rhetoric have the manifesto and are dealing with decoding it.”
And yet, many German media outlets did just that in the wake of the Hamburg shooting, trying to satisfy the demands of a perpetual, 24/7 news cycle—even though analysis, particularly in cases of right-wing violence, can be slow and requires care. Psychologist and expert on conspiracy ideologies Pia Lamberty warns RD when asked about the difficulties of reporting on mass shootings:
“Analyzing the motivation for mass shootings or terrorist attacks is complex and takes time. A superficial analysis of the manifesto is not enough. However, social interest often wanes very quickly, which is why in-depth analyses no longer receive media attention. But many questions can only be answered after some time, some never: What role did ideology play in the act, what was the relationship between mental illness and ideology for the act itself.”
And what can be gained from analyzing the manifesto of a mass shooter? While there are different genres of shooters’ declarations, they give some insight into the perpetrator’s worldview and influences, enabling experts to identify patterns of thought and ideology, an important step in finding a sociological answer to the question of the motivation behind the outburst of deadly violence.
I took the time to read the several hundred pages-long book written by the Hamburg shooter, and will offer a meta-analysis instead of direct quotes or anything that would circulate even portions of the manuscript. The book reads like a mixture of free-association Bible exegesis and the scribblings of an excited freshman fired up after an introductory lecture on theology and eschatology.
The text seeks to explain God’s nature and the way the world works using diagrams, wildly convoluted interpretations of Bible verses, and a half-baked theory about the “hierarchy” of God, Jesus, angels and Satan. Apart from revealing the world’s gears and the hidden secrets of God and Jesus, the manifesto praises Trump, DeSantis and Putin as those doing God’s work, and sees God’s will in Trump’s nominations to the Supreme Court.
While it’s important not to stigmatize mental illness even further, the book does give the impression of someone in crisis. Coherence is not to be expected, but the lack of coherence can give trained professionals an indication of the murderer’s state of mind. Ultimately the shooter’s sanity is something for trained psychologists to assess, though mental illness can’t be blamed for the adoption of a far-right worldview. It can, however, play a role in sending someone further down the right-wing rabbit hole.
Because of the shooter’s background as a Jehovah’s Witness, questions have arisen as to whether and how his worldview has been influenced by their theology and beliefs. One can indeed detect some echoes in the book, particularly in his patriarchal perspective and his fervent belief in idealized, traditional gender roles.
Dawn Ying, who grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in the U.S. and has since left the denomination, explained to RD how, in her experience, strict patriarchal hierarchy was an elemental part of JW community life:
“It’s honestly very, very similar to any other fundamentalist/conservative Christian group. Pain in childbirth is our punishment for Eve’s sin. Women are the weaker vessel. Women in abusive marriages are taught that it’s likely their fault for not being submissive enough or meeting the man’s needs. While women are allowed to work outside the home, in cases where the husband earns enough money, women are often encouraged to give up their jobs so they can ‘pioneer,’ and spend most of their time out in ‘field service’ going door to door and ‘witnessing’ to others.
There are NEVER to be any women in leadership positions. Women cannot even carry the microphones in the Kingdom Hall, or help with the sound system (I wanted to be a microphone carrier when I was little and was crushed when told girls couldn’t do that)… Growing up, it was taught and understood that married women did not hold control over their own bodies… Women are ‘lesser’—and that belief and feeling permeates everything the JW’s teach and believe and do.”
Religion scholar Bradley Onishi agrees, noting, “There are theological echoes there with Jesus and God being distinct and sometimes in disagreement, that rings of JW beliefs.”
The motives for mass shootings aren’t always clear—often they’re complex and muddled. However, certain characteristics can be found in most mass shootings. The Hamburg shooter shares a common trait with others: his misogyny runs deep throughout the manifesto, including his firm belief in patriarchal hierarchy. These beliefs are not exclusively confined to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course—the misogynist narratives the Hamburg shooter uses are staples in far-right, violent spaces, like the frame that bemoans the alleged moral decay of modern womankind.
The Hamburg shooter, like many adherents of far-right beliefs, derives the legitimacy for his contempt for women from God. According to him, men are spiritually and hierarchically superior to women, while it’s the job of women to bear children and to obey men. This strict patriarchal orientation and traditionalist gender hierarchy can also be found among Jehovah’s Witnesses, just like among classic complementarians and other right-wing Christian and theologically conservative denominations.
Many of his claims are also in accordance with a number of broader right-wing Christian beliefs: he condemns abortion as murder, rails against sex work and is explicitly anti-LGBTQ. At times the shooter’s beliefs contain other distant echoes of the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses—in the rejection of the Trinity or End Times beliefs—but other times his theology diverges sharply from Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as his belief that Hitler got the idea of a “1000-year Reich” from Jesus, and that, therefore, the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany was in accordance with divine will. (Jehovah’s Witnesses were in fact persecuted and sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany.)
While a lot of his manifesto reads like the unique ramblings of a distressed mind, there is another trait the Hamburg shooter shares with other far-right mass shooters: antisemitism. In his manifesto he spreads the classic Christian antisemitic myth that Jews were guilty of the murder of God—also known as deicide. He then moves on to claim that this was intentional on the part of Jesus as his brutal execution was necessary to save humanity. Another deeply antisemitic conspiracy myth he spreads (which I will not reproduce in detail here) portrays Russia as an instrument of God and Ukraine as the subject of God’s punishment.
The interpretation of wars as a sign of approaching End Times is common in Christian fundamentalist circles, which are often conspiracy-believing, and is also found in far-right online spaces. But the Hamburg shooter believed that humanity was already living in the “1000-year Reich,” at whose end he saw not an apocalypse, but the perfection of humankind. Ben Lorber, senior research analyst at Political Research Associates* explains how this ties together various right-wing themes, like antisemitism, glorification of violence, hyper-nationalism and apocalypticism:
“Other far-right themes shine through in his writing. Claims that war has a ‘purifying effect,’ adoration of God as ‘a power being through and through,’ and admiration of ancient Spartan warriors, finds echoes in far-right [social media] ideologues like Bronze Age Pervert. The writer’s belief that God works to restore strong national borders and sovereignty, and opposes processes of globalization for the chaos, lawlessness and assorted sin they supposedly bring, is another hallmark of a nationalist worldview, while his exaltation of male patriarchal dominance and vilification of LGBTQ people dovetails smoothly with far-right traditionalism on the rise the world over.
His attempts to label Hitler as the ‘human executive of Jesus Christ,’ with Nazified Berlin as the ‘center of the new 1,000-year Reich under Jesus Christ,’ offers yet another clue that his apocalyptic worldview cashes out in the direction of ultranationalism. His statement that the ‘persecution of the Jews during the Nazi era was an act of heaven’ points, of course, to a deeply antisemitic worldview, even if the rampant antisemitic conspiracism that motivated many mass shooters is not present in this manifesto.”
Lorber further deciphers how belief in End Times theology can go hand in hand with conspiracist thinking to justify violence, and why the Hamburg shooter is yet another example of this:
“To the apocalyptic religious conspiracist, every political event is interpreted through the lens of paranoid conspiracy, and every detail of human history is retroactively summoned as proof that the divine hand is at work behind the scenes, and the End Times are right around the corner. This charges the violent acts of the conspiracist with an urgent fervor—the stakes could not be higher, so any moral consideration is tossed out the window in light of the messianic certainty.
The writer’s attempts to decipher the precise dates and contours of the End Times by applying Bible prophecy to political events of the modern era such as World Wars, the establishment of the United Nations and the State of Israel, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the COVID-19 pandemic is, of course, a hallmark of apocalyptic Christian conspiratorial thinking. Like other far-right actors, it’s easy to see how this narrative could justify the violence he committed.”
The Hamburg shooter’s god is a brutal and cruel one, and while he seems to grapple with this in the beginning, at the end of the book he has come to terms with it. He doesn’t include open Islamophobia in the manifesto, or the classic “White genocide” or “great replacement” conspiracy theories that we’ve come to expect from far-right shooters’ manifestos, yet his writing shows, once again, that the ways in which far-right ideologies influence mass shooters are manifold.
There doesn’t appear to be any direct connection between the manifesto and the people he targeted during his murderous rampage, but the founding director of the Polarization and Extremism Research & Innovation Lab (PERIL) at the American University, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, reminds us that:
“So many mass shooters (many of whom leave no manifestos at all) are steeped in propaganda or conspiracy theories online or have signs they traffic in antisemitic and racist (Highland Park shooter) or deeply misogynistic (Uvalde shooter) content online, but those online engagements don’t appear linked to the actual targets they choose (parade-goers, elementary school).”
Lorber agrees that the absence of “great replacement” and “White genocide” rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that this manifesto is somehow less nefarious in its violent fantasies than others, but rather as a sign that violent far-right actors often subscribe to a mixture of ideologies and narratives that don’t necessarily require coherence:
“While some far-right mass shooters subscribe to explicitly White nationalist views on racial supremacy and conspiracy theories concerning the ‘great replacement’ of Whites through non-White immigration, this isn’t always the case. Some shooters subscribe, rather, to male supremacist and ‘incel’ ideologies; some to Christian apocalypticism and Manichean narratives of an immanent war between good and evil; some combine all of these; and still others profess a heterogeneous mixture of ideologies and narratives.
In our era of online radicalization, mass shooters may sample from these and other ideologies, all sourced from the far reaches of conspiracism. Antisemitism is typically in the mix for many mass shooters, as ‘the Jews’ offer a convenient foil, representing an immensely powerful, diabolical foe that stands behind the problems the shooter deems in need of correction in the world.”
And while the shooter’s relationship with his former denomination, which he had since left, has still to be examined when it comes to motive, the Hamburg shooter’s book already provides extraordinary insight both into his worldview and state of mind at the time of the massacres. Two assessments for the Hamburg police, one (inexplicably) by an expert on Islamist terrorism, and the other by a psychiatrist, have since stated, according to media reports, that:
“the Hamburg shooter could have acted out of religious motives when committing the crime. … In the book, [he] wrote several times that all known religious groups withheld the actual truth from the faithful.”
The psychiatrist mentions the possibility that the Hamburg shooter had a narcissistic personality disorder, but was likely of sound mind when he committed the murders. Both come, however, to the truly puzzling conclusion, that the Hamburg shooter was not far-right politically, because the manifesto was missing “racism.”
According to their view, while some of his statements could be read as “anti-democratic,” this does not, they believe, amount to a “right wing world view”—a rather disturbing conclusion given the evidence discussed. The Hamburg police might consider another assessment from an expert in Christian terrorism, since the misogyny, right-wing political positions, rampant antisemitism, reverence for far-right political figures including Hitler, conspiracism, violent fantasies and patriarchal religious beliefs were clearly not enough for them to see the Hamburg shooter as a far-right actor.
This is another addition to the list of horrific failures of the Hamburg police who, despite anonymous warnings that the suspect was not only in possession of a licensed weapon, but also seemed mentally unstable and had written a book espousing a disturbing right-wing worldview, still failed to step in to strip him of his weapon. Police visited his home and questioned him, but failed to find the book online—even though he was advertising it boisterously on his website. It is an indictment of the OSINT capabilities of the Hamburg police—the lack of which very likely cost eight people their lives.
The Hamburg shooter’s manifesto, which belongs to a growing body of texts written by mass shooters, shows the complexity of how individual perpetrators can draw influence from varying corners of far-right ideologies. His writing, a reflection of his hate-filled worldview, displays staples of a far-right mindset—conspiracist thinking, deep misogyny, antisemitism, and the belief in a violent, vengeful god who reigns with an iron fist and destroys his enemies.
The book’s theology might be convoluted and nonsensical; the work of a hateful, possibly disturbed mind, but his praise of far-right figures like Trump, Putin and DeSantis is no coincidence. The echoes of the Hamburg shooter’s worldview can be found in far-right online and media spaces around the world—building the groundwork, the imagined legitimacy for horrendous acts such as this, slowly poisoning the very fabric of the society they seek to destroy.
*Political Research Associates is the publisher of Religion Dispatches, though RD maintains editorial independence.