Guns seized in Marburg, Germany, on Aug. 17
Max Hoppenstedt, Simon Hurtz and Daniel Mützel

MUNICH On Oct. 5, German doctor Alexander Haase* opened his web browser and dropped merchandise he wanted to purchase into a checkout basket. He paid 590,99 euros — money that went into a Hungarian bank account. A few weeks later, an inconspicuous brown package arrived by DHL delivery. He opened it. There was a revolver inside.

Haase has no firearms license.

The gun and bullets were delivered to his workplace, a medical office. He voluntarily revealed his name, address, email, phone number as well as IP-address, not knowing that all this information was stored in a large database that ended up with journalists. A couple of months later, these journalists rang Haase's doorbell to ask him why he had purchased a firearm on a website called "Migrantenschreck" ("Migrants-terror").

Last year, hundreds of people in Germany purchased weapons from the website, according to a database this newspaper and technology magazine Motherboard have access to. The orders originated from 12 countries. "Easy, fast and discreet — that's our motto," promised Migrantenschreck. While the transactions might be easy and fast, they are far from discreet. Both public prosecution departments and Federal Offices for the Protection of the Constitution have gotten hold of the client data.

The website's success shows how easy it is to make a lot of money by the rabble-rousing of right-wing extremists, how receptive the "middle-of-society" is to such purchases, and how difficult it is for authorities to clampdown on it. It takes months to build a case against sellers and customers.

For months, Haase had no idea that authorities had already linked him to the website. One winter evening, two journalists stood outside the door of his medical practice. The visitors wanted to know if Haase felt he needed to protect himself from refugees.

Migrantenshreck screenshot

Haase, a tall, stocky man appears to be good-natured as he offered his visitors a cup of coffee. "I don't have a problem with my need for security," he said. He's just interested in weapons. A patient told him he could buy a gun on Darknet or on the Migrantenschreck website. Haase said he feels no grudge against refugees.

Haase opened the box he received from the website to show his visitors the black revolver. He would neither shoot Germans nor refugees, he said. When shown martial product videos that are displayed on the website, he shook his head in disgust.

"Crude," he said. But at the same time he added: "Obviously, people from other countries have different ideas of how to behave in society. Uncontrolled immigration is a problem."

Haase didn't seem aggressive. Instead, he appeared insecure. He offered perspective when he felt his remarks crossed a line. He felt a "duty to help," he said. He had no idea that he was breaking the law. And yet, he does have reason to worry. Migrantenschreck shipped products that were legal in Hungary but not in Germany, where they require a permit.

SZ.de and Vice-linked website Motherboard spoke to a dozen clients of Migrantenschreck since the start of the year: men and women, young and old, professionals and graduates. They included a former policeman who ordered a replacement for his service weapon, a single mother who wants to protect her baby from refugees even though she has never had a bad experience with them.

Haase said he purchased the weapon not because of, but despite of, the website's name. Others attribute their purchase to the migrant crisis. A car mechanic from Berlin warned of the "invasion of migrants' and a "civil war." He said he "wouldn't want to kill any refugees. It's just about teaching them a lesson."

Tale of two men

Journalists came to know about these buyers because of two men — one, a petty crook, and the other, an idealist. Mario Rönsch ran "Anonymous.Kollektiv," a Facebook page that engaged in propaganda against Muslims, refugees and politicians. The page, which had almost 2 million "likes' on the social network, also advertised the illegal weapons store.

Anonymousnews.ru, the successor to Anonymous.Kollektiv, reaches hundreds of thousands of readers. Migrantenschreck shipped weapons worth hundreds of thousands of euros to buyers from the page.

Frank Schreiber* was the opposite of Rönsch. He was not interested in money and power, and worked anonymously. Without Schreiber, investigators wouldn't have anything to hold on to against Migrantenschreck. Schreiber arduously documented each and every step in Rönch's criminal career. Thousands of documents are on Schreiber's hard disk, which contains 37 gigabytes of meticulously organized material on Rönsch.

Rönsch made one big mistake that Schreiber latched on to. "Suddenly this document comes up and I can't believe my eyes," Schreiber said, recalling one night in October when he got his hands on the data of hundreds of Migrantenschreck's customers. The majority of entries correspond to real weapon purchases. Almost all the people who Motherboard and SZ.de paid a visit to bought something on Migrantenschreck.

The website said it offered fair prices for weaponry but it wasn't true. Migrantenschreck sold weapons for more than double the price it purchased them from Hungarian producer Keserű Művek. By the end of January, the store had a turnover of 150,000 euros, according to Zeit Online.

Migrantenschreck has since disappeared from the Internet. Rönsch, who had operated the arms trade from Budapest, now posts pictures from holidays on the Black Sea Coast on Facebook.


*Names and details of the order have been modified.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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