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Saturday, 27 April, 2002, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Erfurt prompts German soul-searching
Sign reading 'why' among flowers for dead
People are struggling to come to terms with the attack
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By Angus Roxburgh
Erfurt, Germany

Only the people of Dunblane in Scotland, perhaps, might fully understand the mood that has settled on the medieval city of Erfurt, a day after a crazed gunman ran amok in one of its best schools.

Most people are speechless and uncomprehending, stunned by the violence that stabbed into their lives so suddenly and without warning.

If you look at society, it's no wonder that there's growing violence in the schools

Child psychologist Peter Fauser
It is a town partly old and pretty, partly Soviet-style and ugly. The Gutenberg school belongs to the former category - a fine turn-of-the-century building with a good academic record.

Its staff has been decimated, roughly a quarter of the teachers gunned down by a young man who came to school on Friday with one intention - to kill as many teachers as possible.

Two children also died in the wild attack, as well as a police officer who arrived on the scene.

'Calm boy'

More details have emerged about the killer and his last, vengeful day on Earth.

Robert Steinhaeuser (pic from Thueringer Allgemeine)
Steinhaeuser had a grudge and wanted revenge
Nineteen-year old Robert Steinhaeuser left home that morning dressed in black and armed with a pistol, a pump-action shotgun, and ammunition.

He apparently used his mobile phone to send a text message to a friend, warning him not to go to school.

No one would have guessed what was in his mind. He was a "calm" boy, according to neighbours, with nothing unusual about him.

But he had failed his Abitur (the school leaving certificate exam) last year. He was due to re-sit the exams but had been expelled in recent months for truancy and falsifying doctor's notes.

Now he had a grudge, and wanted revenge.

Regrets and doubts

He had the means to carry it out. Steinhaeuser was a member of two gun clubs and was a trained marksman. He had permits for weapons that are only given to those considered safe with them after months of training.

Schools have to be better equipped, the state of the schools goes hand in hand with aggression

German police union deputy head Rainer Wendt
At 1100 (0900 GMT) on Friday he struck, with deadly accuracy. Forty shots rang out. Thirteen killed teachers, most of them shot through the head.

Now the hand-wringing, the regrets and the doubts have begun. Could anything have been done to stop Steinhauser? Should his evident mental instability have been spotted? Did the gun clubs do all they could to vet him? And where does one go from here?

"We can't turn our schools into fortresses," said Otto Schily, Germany's Interior Minister.

Bernard Vogel, the Prime Minister of Thuringia, of which Erfurt is the capital, concurred: "We can't have airport-style security at our schools, nor would we want to."

Violent society

Ironically, Germany's parliament had been debating tougher gun-control laws on the very day Steinhaeuser struck. But there are already millions of legally held and illegal weapons in Germany.

And just as Dunblane sparked a debate about the state of British society, so Germans are now wondering whether their society has simply become too violent.

Rainer Wendt, deputy head of Germany's police union, says violence has become commonplace in schools. "Schools have to be better equipped," he said. "The state of the schools goes hand in hand with aggression."

Peter Fauser, a child psychologist, spoke of the "general rise of violence all around", and added: "If you look at society, it's no wonder that there's growing violence in the schools."

And no wonder, too, that the street where Steinhaeuser lived with his mother is cordoned off by police - lest others take revenge into their own hands.

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh
"The whole of Germany is numbed with shock"
Jochen Siemens, Frankfurter Rundschau
"We do have very tight gun laws"
See also:

27 Apr 02 | Europe
School slaughter stuns Germany
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Germany
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