Late in the evening on June 1, 2019, Walter Lübcke, a local German politician, sat on the terrace outside his house on the outskirts of Kassel when a man crept up on him, aimed a gun at his head and shot him just above his ear.
The man, a neo-Nazi, had crossed paths with the conservative politician before. At the height of the refugee crisis, in 2015, he witnessed Lübcke defend Germany’s open border policy at a town hall meeting. In the intervening four years, a video of Lübcke’s remarks was widely shared in right-wing online forums. By 2019, the politician had become the face of Germany’s refugee policy — and a target.
Lübcke’s murder reignited a fierce debate in Germany, at a time when it is struggling to adapt two of its core post-World War II values to the age of the internet: the fight against hate speech and the importance of civil liberties, such as free speech and privacy.
Berlin’s unprecedented attempt to balance these twin commitments — the Network Enforcement Act, known as NetzDG — elicited howls of protest from free speech crusaders when it was passed in 2017. Critics of the law said its measures, which require social media platforms like Facebook to quickly take down incendiary material or face big fines, could stifle political speech or be used as a model for authoritarian governments to crack down on online dissent.