The police shooting in Hamburg – a sad, sobering tale that briefly had Euro 2024 fearing the worst

Home to Zum Silbersack, a legendary drinking den with a famous jukebox, and not much else, Silberbackstrasse is usually one of the quieter streets in Hamburg’s infamous St Pauli district.

But for a few frightening moments on Sunday, it threatened to become the location of a nation’s worst nightmare.

At 12.30pm, a man dressed in black comes out of the Do Mundo kebab shop on the corner of Silberstrasse and the far better-known Reeperbahn and starts shouting at a large group of German police. They were there to keep an eye on the tens of thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans who were marching around St Pauli before being shepherded onto Hamburg’s U-Bahn metro system for the 10-minute ride to Volkparkstadion, the venue for the Euro 2024 Group D match between Poland and the Netherlands.

Men shouting in the street is par for the course in these parts, but men shouting in the street while holding a small axe and a bottle with an oily rag hanging out of the top is not.

Police clear the area after the incident (Steven Hutchings/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Initially, the police are on one side of a metal barricade, which has been put across the top of the street in order to keep the Dutch tide flowing in one direction, and the man in black is on the other. He then makes a half-hearted attempt to climb over the barriers, while still shouting “dirty fascists” at the crowd of police which is growing by the second.

Deeply agitated, he turns away from the police and starts jogging down the street, away from the Reeperbahn. He is pursued by at least half a dozen cops, one of whom fires a jet of pepper spray in his direction.

With police flanking him from the other side of the street, he is effectively cornered in the middle of the road. He has dropped his axe by now, which turns out to be a roofing axe or shingle hammer, and tries to light what looks a lot like a Molotov cocktail.

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An armed plainclothes police officer fires two warning shots in the air. By now, the man is surrounded by at least half a dozen officers pointing handguns at him.

Then four more shots are heard, the man is on the ground and it is over.

He has been hit in the legs. An officer advances, disarms him and puts him in the recovery position. Within seconds, there are a dozen more police around him, one applying what looks like a tourniquet to his leg.

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The broken bottle and rag are marked with a spray-painted circle (Bodo Marks/picture alliance via Getty Images)

More police are now cordoning off the area. The Dutch “fans walk” is halted and quickly redirected. The vast majority of them have absolutely no idea what has just happened. The first they hear of it is when they get messages from home asking if they are OK.

If you are wondering how I know all this, it is because it was filmed by a video journalist who was standing on that corner watching the Dutch go by. Their footage, combined with another camera crew’s footage from across the street, was published on the X account of a German news outlet an hour later.

That footage was replayed on all German news outlets for the rest of the day.

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Police cordon off the area near the Reeperbahn (Bodo Marks/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The news outlet who first published the video is a relatively new entrant to the market and appears to specialise in reporting crimes committed by “auslanders”, or foreigners. As the man at the centre of this incident was clearly German, online speculation about the motive quickly moved on from him being a disaffected migrant to him being a “left-wing extremist”, the rationale being St Pauli’s left-of-centre politics and his use of the word “fascist”.

The first facts appear at 12.59pm, when Hamburg Police issued a short statement on its X feed, saying that a “major police operation” is under way after “a person threatened officers with a pickaxe and an incendiary device”. It adds that they had used their firearms and “the attacker was injured and is currently receiving medical treatment”.

Bild, the popular German tabloid, was the first to launch a story online with a headline that referred to an axe-wielding maniac running amok.

For a country on high alert, with memories of what can happen when you invite the world to a party that goes horribly wrong, this was exactly what it feared most about Euro 2024. Shots fired, fans running for cover, broken glass, sirens, blood on the road.

But then… nothing. Well, almost nothing.

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The spray-painted circles are still visible, but the world has moved on (Matt Slater/The Athletic)

Wout Weghorst scored a late winner to send the Dutch back to St Pauli in high spirits. Hamburg Police’s spokesperson Sandra Levgun gave a reassuring interview at the crime scene, telling everyone this looked like a lone assailant, with no connection to any terror groups or apparent motive. And social media’s attention moved onto some shaky footage of a fight outside a bar in Gelsenkirchen, where England were playing Serbia later.

By the time it had been confirmed that the attacker was a 39-year-old man from Buchholz in der Nordheide, 20 miles south of Hamburg, the news cycle had turned. And when it was reported that he suffers from schizophrenia and is known to the authorities, the world moved on.

What had briefly got people thinking about the massacre at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when Palestinian militants kidnapped and killed members of the Israeli team, or the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, when one group of Islamists tried to enter the stadium where France were playing Germany in a football friendly while two other groups made coordinated attacks on innocent people around the city, turned out to be just another sad tale about a person who needs help.

This was not, thankfully, another 1996 Atlanta Olympics-style attack, or a 2013 Boston Marathon outrage.

I was in Frankfurt, 300 miles away, when the incident happened and did not arrive on the scene until close to 8pm. The police cordon had been lifted half an hour earlier and a news-gathering crew from German broadcaster ARD was just packing up after a long stint standing on that corner.

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The victorious Dutch fans return to St Pauli (Matt Slater/The Athletic)

Do Mundo was doing a roaring trade but Zum Silbersack was only half full, which actually meant it was half empty compared to every other establishment within a half-mile radius. Zum Silbersack was not showing the England-Serbia game, you see, and was also not pumping out Dutch techno or letting its customers dance on the tables. This put it at a distinct disadvantage compared to almost every other bar.

None of the staff in Do Mundo said they had seen what happened — likewise, those working in all the other nearby bars and fast food joints. Most of them were not open at 12.30, they said, but I was not sure they would have told me much even if they had seen something. There is very much a “what goes on tour, stays on tour” vibe to St Pauli.

A group of Dutch fans offered to recreate the incident for me if I could persuade the ARD crew to turn their camera back on. And the only police who were willing to talk to me were the Dutch officers who were helping their German colleagues that day but were not officially allowed to comment, as they are just guests here.

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The police cordon is removed with passers-by oblivious as to what had taken place hours before (Matt Slater/The Athletic)

That is probably a good place to wrap this up — all of us who have come to Euro 2024 are guests here and the Germans, who are good hosts, are worried about our safety.

This was, in fact, the second police shooting in the tournament’s opening weekend. A 27-year-old from Afghanistan stabbed and killed a compatriot in the east German state of Saxony-Anhalt on Friday, before attacking three others who were watching the Germany-Scotland game at a private party. Unlike Sunday’s attacker, whose injuries are not life-threatening, Friday’s assailant was shot dead.

This was a false alarm, then. It is a sombre story for the individual involved — and those who love him — and a reminder to all of us about the need to take better care of those with serious mental health issues. But this was not an international tragedy or another dark day for sport.

And for that, we should all be grateful.


(Top photo: Bodo Marks/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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