BENNDORF, Germany (AFP) — With well-kept houses boasting renovated facades, solar-paneled roofs and neat gardens, Benndorf appears to be a peaceful and friendly German village of just over 2,000 residents.
But behind the pleasant veneer is a community still struggling with problems typical in much of ex-communist east Germany, including a brain drain and high unemployment, that the far right is exploiting.
It is here where the suspect in a deadly anti-Semitic attack this week in Halle, some 70 kilometers (40 miles) away, lived with his divorced mother in a neat yellow block of flats.
Stephan Balliet, 27, allegedly sought to storm a synagogue on Yom Kippur and shot two people dead after he failed to get inside the Jewish house of worship. Authorities say he had planned a “massacre.”
In his hometown, Balliet cut an isolated figure who made no contact with fellow residents in his neighborhood.
“I see him when he goes jogging a few times a week. He never says hello to anyone,” said Paul Mueller, who lives nearby.
At the local bowling club and bar, a hub of social life in this small village, no one recalls encountering him.
“He was a loner and never sought out other young people,” said village mayor Mario Zanirato, 73.
The politician hardly knew Balliet, or even his mother, who is a teacher in a neighboring town.
“Both of them stayed away from others,” he said.
Rather than seek out human contact, Balliet spent most of his time behind his computer.
“He is always online,” his father told Bild daily.
The father, who was not named in this report, said he only saw his son occasionally.
“He wasn’t at peace with himself nor with the world, he always blamed others.”
After securing evidence from Balliet’s home, police late Thursday were combing the house of his father in the neighboring village Helbra.
The two-story building that Balliet called home now stands out in the neighborhood. Its entrance has since Wednesday been blocked off by a police cordon, with several police vans parked outside.
For Mayor Zanirato, the delicate social situation in the region had left many young people more open to radical, even extremist thinking.
Unemployment in the village stands at 11 percent — twice that of the national average, and 13 percent are on state aid.
“The rest are mostly retirees. Young people have no prospects,” said Zanirato.
The shuttering of a coal mine in 1990 had put 38,000 people out of work, he said, noting that “many never recovered from that.”
Although Balliet reportedly worked as a broadcast technician, Bild reported he was thwarted from finishing a degree in chemistry due to recurring health problems.
“If you have people who are lost, with no direction, it’s just a short hop away from these ‘brown’ ideas which can constitute an escape for some,” Zanirato said, using the color of Nazi uniforms to refer to far-right ideology.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union has for decades been the main political force there, with the far left as the main opponent.
But in recent years the far-right AfD has seen a surge in support.
It even booked top spot during May’s European elections, with one in four votes (24 percent).
“We need to stay vigilant and not let our guard down,” warned Zanirato, who is proud of his Italian origins.