10 Murders, 3 Nazis, and Germany’s Moment of Reckoning
German authorities looked the other way as a right-wing terrorist cell went on a seven-year killing spree. Now they won’t look in the mirror.
MUNICH, Germany – One clear November day in 2011, in the town of Eisenach, two bank robbers, cornered by police, set their getaway van on fire and killed themselves inside it, going out in a blaze of fire and gunshots. It made for a sensational breaking news day, and that might have been the end of it, if not for a disturbing DVD that was distributed to several major media outlets in the days that followed.
The DVD contained a short film collage made using footage from the animated series, The Pink Panther. In it, the cartoon cat protagonist joins a group called the National Socialist Underground, or NSU, whose members “serve the fatherland.” He goes on what the narrator calls a “tour of Germany”; slowly, it emerges that this “tour” consists of visiting various murder scenes. Clips of the Pink Panther, playing over his trademark theme music, are spliced together with grisly photos of men, all ethnic minorities, who had been murdered in Germany between 2000 and 2007.
The film was a confession — or rather, a boast — of responsibility for what would come to be known as the NSU murders, the most horrific string of racist killings in Germany’s postwar history. Ten people (including, it would later emerge, a German policewoman) had been murdered systematically, over the course of seven years, as part of a plot by a group of neo-Nazi serial killers to target ethnic minorities in Germany. Until the DVD came out, German authorities had utterly failed to connect the dots.
Earlier this month, a Munich court marked the 353rd day in an epic four-year trial of some of those involved. Prosecutors are charging one woman believed to be at the core of the plot, and four men who they say abetted her crimes. With five different defendants, hundreds of witnesses to examine, and numerous motion-making attorneys on all sides, the trial’s proceedings have dragged on endlessly. A verdict, however, may finally be in sight. The court seems poised to end the evidence phase of the trial soon, allowing the closing arguments to begin.
Regardless of the verdict, however, the trial shows little promise of delivering any moral resolution. The question on everyone’s mind remains unacknowledged and unaddressed by the court: How did German authorities fail to notice that a group of neo-Nazis was killing ethnic minorities, practically under their noses? The answer — according a growing body of evidence deemed inadmissible to the trial — is that they should have noticed. Or even, that they did — but looked away.
There are plenty of explanations for what went wrong, ranging from bureaucratic rivalries between government agencies, to intelligence agents going too far to protect their informants, to outright institutionalized racism in German law enforcement. But victims’ families say that more than five years of soul-searching have yet to produce satisfying answers, or any real accountability from the German state itself. Despite a 1,300-page investigation into the killings published by the Bundestag in 2013 and a public apology from Angela Merkel in 2012, some say they still haven’t received an explanation as to why authorities behaved the way they did. Nor have they seen a single one of the hundreds of authorities involved in the case face criminal charges.
Now those families believe their last resort for justice is failing them, too. Among those standing trial in the Munich courtroom sits not one government employee, not one police officer, not one intelligence agent — not even an informant. When attorneys for the victims’ families try to introduce evidence that could implicate German authorities, prosecutors object and the judges tend to forbid it.
Germany’s struggle to reckon with the state’s role in the NSU killings has new relevance following the arrival of more than 1 million asylum-seekers to Germany since 2015. Their presence has been met with a wave of hundreds of attacks. Now, near the Saxon city of Dresden, authorities are grappling with a series of assaults on refugees that some are calling “the new NSU.” Evidence suggests that authorities not only failed to intervene in time to prevent these attacks, allegedly carried out by a right-wing cell known as the Freital Group, but that police officers may have even intervened to allow them to continue.
As German authorities prepare to confront a new groundswell of xenophobic violence, precedent doesn’t bode well. They still haven’t come to terms with the last one.
To systematically execute a series of murders and bombings in modern-day Germany is difficult. Without funds to buy and build weapons, to travel to stake out the locations and identify victims, and to live for many years in hiding, it is impossible. And so, before they became killers, two of the founding members of the NSU became bank robbers. In October 1999, the pair robbed two banks in Chemnitz, getting away with more than 68,000 deutschemarks — about $39,000 at the time. Less than a year later, they would commit their first murder.
Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos, and Beate Zschäpe — the trio that formed the core of the NSU — were born in 1970s East Germany in the town of Jena. They came of age during the region’s transition from socialism to capitalism. Mundlos was the son of a math professor and served as an army recruit. Böhnhardt was the son of a teacher and an engineer. Zschäpe was born to a Romanian father — a foreigner — whom she reportedly never met. Her mother studied dentistry.
Apart from Mundlos’ military stint, the three were reportedly unemployed during much of their young adulthood, which wasn’t uncommon in former East Germany after reunification. Idle teenagers spent their days at protests and their nights at fights between left-wing punks and right-wing skinheads in darkened streets and tram stations. Some were quick to turn against Jews or recently arrived immigrants from places like Turkey and Vietnam.
Some of the worst xenophobic violence took place in 1992, when hundreds of protestors rioted outside a shelter that housed immigrants in the northeastern city of Rostock. The rioters threw Molotov cocktails through the windows, setting parts of the building on fire. Frightened residents fled for their lives to the roof while thousands of onlookers gawked. Police charged 40 people for disorderly conduct and violence against police, compiling enough evidence to convict about 20 and to briefly jail just 11 of them. Nearly a decade passed before anyone was convicted for assaulting the immigrants themselves.
Perhaps it was attacks like these that inspired the NSU members-to-be. Four years after the Rostock attack, in 1996, a mannequin was found hanging from a highway overpass in Jena. The dummy wore a sweatshirt with a yellow Star of David and a sign that read “Careful — bomb!” There was no bomb — at least, not this time — but the man charged with inciting hatred for planting the dummy, Uwe Böhnhardt, was just getting started.
On Sept. 9, 2000, Enver Simsek became his first victim. Simsek was a Turkish immigrant who owned a business that distributed flowers to roadside stands around southern Germany. When one of his employees went on holiday, Simsek took over his shift at a flower stand outside Nuremberg, in northern Bavaria. At some point in the day, two men — who we now know were Mundlos and Böhnhardt — shot Simsek multiple times inside his truck. He died two days later from his wounds.
The next attacks came in quick succession. In January 2001, a bomb exploded in a cake box in an Iranian-owned grocery store in the northwestern city of Cologne. No one was killed, but the daughter of the shopkeeper was burned severely when she opened it. In June 2001, another man of Turkish heritage, Abdurrahim Ozudogru, was killed by two bullets to the head in a Nuremberg tailor shop. Later that same month, Suleyman Taskopru, an ethnically Turkish grocer, died after being shot three times in the head in his store in the northern city of Hamburg. Habil Kilic, another grocer of Turkish heritage was murdered in similar fashion two months later in the southern city of Munich.
Mundlos and Böhnhardt then committed two more bank robberies, one of which netted more than 48,000 euros. The killings resumed in February 2004, when Mehmet Turgut was murdered at a döner kebab stand in Rostock. A few months later, a nail bomb exploded in a Turkish neighborhood in Cologne, injuring 22, some seriously.
June 2005 saw back-to-back murders of Ismail Yasar, a Turkish kebab stand owner in Nuremberg and Theodoros Boulgarides, a Greek locksmith in Munich. In April 2006, Mehmet Kubasik, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey was murdered in his Dortmund convenience store; two days later, Halit Yozgat, the son of a Turkish immigrant, was murdered in his internet café in Kassel. Following those attacks, Turkish residents in both cities held public demonstrations to bring attention to the fact that their loved ones were being targeted for their ethnicity and calling on authorities to bring a stop to it. And yet, investigators couldn’t fathom that ethnic Germans could be responsible. In January 2007, the Baden-Württemberg State Office of Criminal Investigations wrote that “Given that killing human beings is considered highly taboo within our cultural space, we can safely assume that the perpetrator is, in terms of his behavioral system, located far outside our local system of values and norms.”
The final attack, in April 2007, was on two German police officers who were sitting in their squad car in a southeastern German town. Mundlos and Böhnhardt sprayed them with bullets, killing one of them, Michele Kiesewetter, and critically injuring the other before making off with their weapons.
The attacks were linked by common threads. Witnesses at multiple crime scenes reported seeing two men fleeing on bicycles. And in all but one of the attacks, some of the bullets were traced back to the same rare gun — a Ceska 83 pistol made in the Czech Republic. And yet, because they occurred in many different jurisdictions over many years, the murders were investigated by different police officers from various departments. None of them made the connection, at least not publicly. Instead, police departments, working separately, began formulating their own — often bizarre — theories of the crimes.
In many cases, police, without any evidence, theorized that the killings were the result of gang warfare or personal vendettas between drug-running Turkish mafias. The bombings were generally treated as organized crime, not terrorism. Nobody investigated the possibility that the murders were being carried out by native Germans with a hatred of immigrants and those of immigrant heritage.
In some cases, police fabricated entire backstories that pegged the NSU’s victims as drug-peddling criminals. In interviews, they demanded that victims’ family members corroborate these scenarios. When family members were unable to do so, authorities told media outlets that the families were stonewalling them out of a “code of silence.” The media bought it, running stories about the murders with headlines like “Turkish mafia strikes again” and derogatorily referring to the attacks as “döner killings” — after the popular Turkish-German shawarma dish.
Last June, I spoke over coffee with the widow of Theodoros Boulgarides, the Greek immigrant who was murdered inside his Munich locksmith shop in 2005. Yvonne Boulgarides described how police lied to her repeatedly, telling her that her husband had habitually driven several hours to Frankfurt to meet prostitutes. Once, they showed her a photo of a blonde woman they claimed was her husband’s secret lover, a photo they pretended to have found in his car. Another time, police “wanted to force me to tell them that I had murdered my husband. Literally they said, ‘just admit that you killed him,’” Boulgarides recalled.
Her children, too, were asked to corroborate the police’s made-up accounts. “The children were asked whether he was smuggling people into the country, whether he was doing human trafficking,” said Boulgarides. Once, they asked Boulgarides’s daughter whether her father had sexually abused her.
Boulgarides’s family wasn’t the only one harassed by police. “Several police forces failed to take into account and effectively investigate aspects of the murders,” according to a 2016 investigation by Amnesty International into the role of institutional racism in the case. “Instead, they focused their attention on victims’ relatives and members of minority communities, despite the absence of any reasonable grounds for believing that they were involved in the crimes.” The Amnesty investigation concluded that institutional racism within German police departments was widespread and contributed to the mishandling of the NSU.
Police even blamed ethnic minorities for the death of the German policewoman, though they lacked even rudimentary evidence for that theory. State police suspected people of Roma and Sinti descent. As part of their investigation into the incident, police cited a psychologist’s description of one Roma suspect as a “typical member of his ethnos,” noting that “the lie is a central part of his socialization,” according to a 2015 report by lawyers for the families’ victims that was submitted to the U.N.
It was bad enough that German police forces’ bias led them to disparage victims and embarrass their families. But it also had the far more serious consequence of distracting them from finding the real perpetrators.
“Witnesses at almost every crime scene described the alleged murderers as having a more ‘German’ appearance, and provided descriptions which matched the alleged perpetrators Mundlos and Böhnhardt. Nevertheless, these statements were either not pursued at all, or only pursued in a very superficial manner,” according to the 2015 report to the U.N. As late as August 2005, five years into the serial murders, the Bavarian police were still discussing the attacks as the product of immigrant mafias.
While German police bungled the investigation, authorities an ocean away managed to connect some of the dots. In 2007, Germany’s federal police asked the FBI to conduct an analysis of the evidence in the case. Foreign Policy obtained a copy of the FBI memo that resulted, in which U.S. agents observed that nothing had been stolen from any of the crime scenes and that in each case bullets had been fired from the same, rare weapon. The FBI concluded that “the offender is specifically targeting Turkish appearing individuals” and concluded that “the offender identifies ‘targets’ by frequenting areas of Germany that have Turkish populations and looking for people ... who resemble ethnic Turks.”
German authorities, the FBI wrote, should issue a national press release describing the weapon so as to elicit the public’s help in identifying where it came from. “Another media release,” the FBI suggested, “should be generated to highlight the facts of the case to seek to identify anyone who has a grudge against ethnic Turks and who would have been in the various localities at the time of the shootings.”
German police, however, did no such thing. Four more years would pass before Mundlos and Böhnhardt met their fiery end.
“Leads were not pursued because the racist motives of the perpetrators were systematically and impermissibly dismissed,” according to the victim’s lawyers’ report. “Following up on the many witness statements describing Mundlos and Böhnhardt could have stopped the murder series at an earlier stage and could have saved human lives.”
One week after Mundlos and Böhnhardt’s deaths, a department head at the domestic security agency headquarters in Cologne ordered one of his employees to begin shredding files related to an operation by intelligence officials to recruit right-wing informants in Zwickau. The intelligence agency in question told the German newsweekly Der Spiegel at the time that the shredding of the files “was due to the misguided actions of an individual and not the result of an order to destroy the files.” This wasn’t true. We now know it was an order that came from a higher-up at the agency — one that a clerk initially refused to carry out. Raising suspicions even further, two weeks after the initial reports of file-shredding, officials told told Spiegel that the destruction of more files related to the NSU case had in fact been ordered by none other than the German Interior Ministry.
It’s impossible to know what the files contained. The government agencies claim they had nothing to do with the NSU, but the timing of their destruction gives critics as well as the victims’ families reason to suspect otherwise. Could they have contained hints that intelligence agents knew more about, or had informants placed closer to, the NSU than the government claims? The destruction of the files seems to suggest that German authorities weren’t simply passively negligent as a result of institutional racism. They may have deliberately looked the other way.
Böhnhardt, after all, had been convicted for planting fake bombs, selling Nazi CDs and other offenses in the years before he went into hiding. He was a known criminal, one who had once been closely monitored by Germany’s domestic intelligence services. Mundlos and Zschäpe, too, were closely monitored — which makes it hard to explain how the trio managed to evade suspicion by those same intelligence services for so long.
Unlike police, who work directly to prevent and solve specific crimes, Germany’s federal domestic security agency exists to protect the constitution and the republic itself. That means protecting it from threats against German democracy wherever they appear — even when that threat comes from within. The agency, for instance, recently supported a case brought by Germany’s parliament that sought to ban the National Democratic Party, a far-right political party that the agency believes is in fact committed to undermining Germany’s democratic process. (Germany’s constitutional court ruled in January against banning the NPD.)
After Böhnhardt was charged with hanging the mannequin with the Star of David, agents from a satellite branch of the federal intelligence agency received a surveillance warrant to monitor him as well as Mundlos and Zschäpe. Agents were even watching in 1997 as the trio moved pipes and other materials into a storage garage on the outskirts of Jena. Intelligence agents did, in this case, pass that information along to police, who received a warrant to search the garage and the trio’s apartments that December.
But more than a month passed before police made their move. When they finally did, they found 1.4 kilograms of TNT and some partially made bombs in the rented garage; at Mundlos and Zschäpe’s apartments they discovered anti-Semitic paraphernalia, including a homemade “Nazi Monopoly” game, the objective of which was to send the most Jews possible to concentration camps. That very day, however, the trio disappeared underground.
And yet even after they went into hiding, they were never in complete seclusion from Germany’s right-wing scene, or from anyone paying attention to it. The NSU’s existence was discussed in neo-Nazi circles from the group’s inception. In 2002 the NSU even sent a letter to several Nazi publications, introducing itself as a “new political force in the struggle for the freedom of the German nation” whose motto was “Victory or Death.” “The NSU will never be contacted through an address,” the letter read, according to a summary posted on the blog NSU Watch. But it went on to clarify that this “does not mean, however, that it is unapproachable.” Enclosed with this letter was money — perhaps loot from the bank robberies — sent as a sign of support. One of the neo-Nazi magazines that received the letter even thanked the NSU in print for the donation. Records show that German domestic intelligence agencies were monitoring these publications at the time.
Network of comrades, national organizations — all these signaled that the NSU might in fact have been much bigger than just three neo-Nazis on the run. According to an investigation into the killings by the parliamentary office of the political party Die Linke (The Left), the NSU operated “with the help of at least three dozen male and female neo-Nazi supporters — i.e., using assumed identities, passports, driver’s licenses, and health insurance cards of neo-Nazi supporters to rent apartments and caravans — for nearly thirteen years.” How could such an extensive network of co-conspirators, and such a public debut within the neo-Nazi world, go unnoticed by intelligence services tasked with monitoring it?
One answer would be that the NSU’s existence was indeed noticed by those intelligence agencies, just not communicated to anyone who could have stopped the group. State intelligence officers in Thuringia and Saxony both conducted operations ostensibly aimed at nabbing the three core suspects. On May 6, 2000, several months before the launch of the NSU murder spree, a state intelligence officer from Thuringia was doing surveillance on someone believed to be associated with the trio, and managed to snap a photo of a man who resembled Böhnhardt in the city of Chemnitz. Thuringia officials shared it with Germany’s Federal Police (the BKA), which confirmed that the photo was “probably Böhnhardt,” according to records obtained by Der Spiegel. And yet, Thuringia intelligence officers didn’t share that information with Thuringia Police — the ones with the ability to actually make an arrest — until nine days later, long after the surveillance assignment took place and Böhnhardt’s trail went cold. This was one of “numerous leads that the trio was living in the city of Chemnitz and later in the city of Zwickau,” according to the Die Linke investigation.
Domestic intelligence agencies had numerous informants within right-wing circles in Germany, including in several of the very cities and towns where the trio grew up and later hid. And yet, time and again, the report notes, the information different agencies collected wasn’t shared with the police departments that had the authority to seek a warrant and make a move. It’s possible that this breakdown in communication was due to negligence. But it’s also possible it was by design.
German law enforcement has long relied on informants to gather information to prevent or solve crimes, though what counts as a crime has been a moving target. In the former East Germany, the Stasi notoriously relied on a vast, perhaps unprecedented, network of informants to report on the political transgressions of dissidents as well as those of one’s own family and friends. The Stasi fell when the Berlin Wall came down, but the practice of using informants lived on.
Even in a constitutional democracy, the use of informants is morally fraught. Some informants will inevitably straddle the line between aiding the law and breaking it. The closer an informant is to the crimes and the better access he has to information about them, the more likely he is to have a hand in them. The intelligence officers who “handle” these informants must constantly make decisions about when to let minor transgressions pass in order to keep gathering information on major crimes that pose a threat to the state, and when they must, in good conscience, intervene.
This is a delicate game. As soon as information is passed to police, an informant’s associates become at risk of arrest, and his or her own cover risks becoming blown. On the other hand, if authorities’ fear of losing an informant is too strong, taxpayer money is essentially being used to protect criminals rather than the public.
By the time that Mundlos, Böhnhardt, and Zschäpe began taking their first steps toward murder, German domestic intelligence agencies had already begun cultivating informants in the right-wing scene in order to try to prevent or prosecute the sort of anti-immigrant arsons and other attacks that occurred frequently in the 1990s and generated negative press for a country that was deeply attempting to shed its racist past. By 1994, they had established a relationship with, among others, a pale-faced man named Tino Brandt. Brandt was the leader of the Thuringia Homeland Security, a prominent right-wing political group whose gatherings were sometimes attended by the NSU accused. Later, Brandt would testify to having met on various occasions all three core members of the NSU.
Antonia von der Behrens, a lawyer representing the family of one of the victims, points out that Brandt spoke with Böhnhardt over the phone in March 1999 — that is, after the trio was wanted by police — a fact corroborated by the Bundestag investigation. In fact, intelligence agents knew in advance that the call was to take place but nonetheless failed to record it. “They could have tapped the phone to arrest them,” she said. “Did they not do this because they wanted to protect Brandt?”
Brandt would later testify that intelligence agents had even intentionally thwarted police in an attempt to save him once before. A member of the Thuringia government committee that investigated the NSU’s activities there, Katharina König, described to FP what she and her co-investigators believe occurred. One morning in 2000 or 2001, state police received a warrant to search Brandt or his home for evidence that might indict him for hate speech, disturbing the peace, and resisting law enforcement officers. This particular morning, they intended to search his computer.
“The police say it was 6 a.m., and Tino Brandt was awake. And if you know Tino you know it’s unusual for him to be awake at this time,” König told FP. She says Brandt, who was fully dressed, bid the officers a “good morning. He says, ‘I know you need my computer, and I’ve prepared it.’ They took the computer but the hard drive was out.”
According to one police officer, Brandt was “grinning from ear to ear.” König said that when her committee asked the intelligence officer who served as a handler for Brandt, Reiner Bode, if indeed he had warned Brandt that the police were coming for him, Bode responded that, “when he learned the police would visit him, he visited Tino in his flat. He said ‘this, this, and this (pointing to Brandt’s various electronics) — I don’t want to see it tomorrow. But I didn’t warn him.’” Police said that on a separate occasion, when they didn’t inform intelligence agents in advance, another search of Brandt went ahead successfully, as he seemed unprepared.
“In the end there were 35 criminal cases against Tino Brandt but not one conviction,” said König. “The secret service stopped all their cases against Tino Brandt in order to save their spy.” (Years later, Brandt would be sentenced to five and a half years in prison for crimes related to the sexual abuse of children).
For all that protection, Brandt failed to provide any information about the missing trio significant enough to lead to their arrest. At the same time, he was receiving thousands of dollars in taxpayer money — 200,000 deutschmarks by his own estimate, or about $100,000 — for his role as an informant. That money, according to König, was simply reinvested in Thuringia’s right-wing scene. “Without the protection of the secret service, without the money of the secret service, the NSU wouldn’t exist,” she said. “The Nazi structure in Thuringia would never have been that big, that organized.” In fact, some believe the government money that went to Brandt may even have been used to purchase the NSU murder weapon, the Ceska pistol.
König acknowledged that Brandt did give intelligence officers some small details, such as a description of the car the trio used to escape Jena and go into hiding that day in 1998, and who owned it. And he told agents that he suspected they were hiding in Chemnitz, which turned out to be true. “The secret service collected all that information but never passed it to the police,” she says — perhaps out of a desire to protect their informants, out of bureaucratic rivalry over which law enforcement agency’s mission deserved to be privileged, or both.
“In the late ’90s, there was not a lot of trust between the intelligence agencies and the police,” admits Gordian Meyer-Plath, now the head of Saxony’s domestic intelligence agency, who was a domestic intelligence agent for the state of Brandenburg at the time of the killings.
Meyer-Plath and others have defended German agencies’ use of informants, portraying their handling as a sort of give and take, each party benefitting the other: When done right, the ultimate beneficiary is public safety. One of Meyer-Plath’s own informants was once situated close to the NSU and did come through, partially: In 1998, Carsten Szczepanski told Meyer-Plath that the trio now accused of orchestrating the attacks was plotting to buy weapons to rob banks. Szczepanski turned out to be correct. Meyer-Plath believes he simply didn’t know that they were also plotting to do far worse. Besides, back then, the mere possibility of a local bank robbery was no cause for which to sound a nationwide alarm.
The attacks of 9/11 changed everything, Meyer-Plath said, impressing upon officials the grave consequences that can result from failing to share intelligence. It was a wake-up call to intelligence agencies around the world, “the biggest watershed in how security agencies and how police work together,” said Meyer-Plath. “It’s not a major issue any longer,” he said of the hesitancy by different agencies to talk with one another. “Unfortunately, this watershed came too late for the NSU.”
But for others, this explanation sounds naive. The issue is not simply that intelligence agencies failed to share what they knew, say critics. It is that they relied on and prioritized the needs of people who were inherently untrustworthy. “To say the least, the secret service believed they had those informants under their full control and that they were playing a game with them, like playing chess,” said Volker Eick, a political scientist who has studied Germany’s use of informants, including in the NSU case. “Believing those informants were figures with whom they could play, they didn’t take into account that it could be just the other way around.”
Nearly 14 years passed between the day the core NSU trio fled Jena, disappearing into the underground, and the day Böhnhardt and Mundlos’s bodies were found, shot and smoldering in their van. That same day, an apartment in the town of Zwickau burned and exploded. Amid the ashes, police found the Ceska 83 pistol used in nine of the murders as well as a hit list that indicated the group had been conducting surveillance on dozens of additional targets. They also found copies of the Pink Panther video, the same DVD that was sent to media outlets, political parties, and Muslim groups.
At long last, with two of its members already dead, police issued a statement soliciting public help in finding the third member of the NSU. Four days later, Zschäpe turned herself in. She chose a police station in Jena: her hometown, where it all began.
Slowly, a sort of national reckoning began. The head of Germany’s federal domestic intelligence agency resigned, as did the leaders of three state intelligence services, including Saxony’s; Meyer-Plath was promoted to fill that vacancy. In 2012, in a nationally televised ceremony, Chancellor Angela Merkel issued an apology to the families of the victims for German authorities’ failure to prevent the murders.
The reckoning has led to attempts at reform. In 2015, Germany’s parliament passed a law to forbid intelligence officials from using serious criminals as informants. It also required Germany’s courts to consider racist, xenophobic, or other discriminatory motives when determining how to sentence people convicted of a crime. Germany’s Office of the Federal Prosecutor, whose jurisdiction had long been limited to cases that threatened Germany’s national security, was given the authority to henceforth prosecute any crimes with racist motivations. Right-wing or other racially motivated plots can now be prosecuted as seriously as terrorism cases — something optimists hope will deter xenophobes from resorting to violence against immigrants in the future.
Germany’s parliament launched a special inquiry into the “systemic failure” of authorities to prevent the NSU attacks. Lawmakers consulted some 12,000 files, questioned more than 100 witnesses, and published a 1,300-page report. Despite shedding light on some of what had gone wrong, including the many failures in communication among German authorities, the report stopped short of saying that institutional racism among police or intelligence officials had played any role. Following an outcry by critics that the report let authorities off the hook and left many questions unanswered, in 2015, the Bundestag announced it would begin a new fact-finding inquiry into the case.
Those least satisfied with their government’s response to the murders are the families of the victims — the wives, sons, and daughters, the parents and friends of the nine men who were murdered. All had experienced profound tragedy. Some had sat and listened as police officers lied to them, accusing them of hiding evidence, accusing their loved ones of shameful acts. Many are still angry. Some now feel their last chance at justice is slipping away, too.
That last chance is playing out quietly in Munich. Residents of the bustling Bavarian city where two of the murders took place go about their days unaffected by the unprecedented trial that is currently underway in a modernist courtroom near the city center.
Nearly four years of trial have revealed much about what went wrong, but little about why, and nothing about who within Germany’s government is to blame. In fact, that’s the way it’s meant to be. What is taking place in Munich is a criminal trial — one designed to ascertain the guilt or innocence of the five living people accused of co-conspiring with the NSU—not to interrogate the state itself.
Since her two accomplices killed themselves, Beate Zschäpe is the only living suspect charged with directly plotting the 10 murders, two bombings, and 15 robberies committed by the National Socialist Underground. She also stands accused of setting what prosecutors called a “dangerous” fire in the apartment she shared with Böhnhardt and Mundlos in the town of Zwickau, near Chemnitz, in an attempt, they allege, to cover her tracks. Two other defendants stand accused of helping furnish the Ceska pistol, and two more stand accused of providing support to the group.
If convicted of murder, Zschäpe could face life in prison. But in Germany that could translate to as little as 15 years, at which point a prisoner can apply for parole. Zschäpe has denied playing any part in the killings. Her attorneys have rooted her defense in what some have called an anti-feminist narrative: that she was merely the submissive lover of two murderous men. In her only statement of the trial, in December 2015, her attorney read a letter to the court in which Zschäpe apologized to the families of the victims that she was unable to do anything to stop her associates from murdering their loved ones.
Afterward, news outlets quoted victims’ family members’ dissatisfaction with her apology. One family member told the Guardian it was a “slap in the face.” Another said it “appears completely contrived.”
“My clients wanted to find out why their fathers, husbands, and brothers had to die,” one prominent lawyer for the victims, Mehmet Daimaguler, told Deutsche Welle. “Ms. Zschäpe didn't say anything about that.” Hardly anyone else has either.
Daimaguler and the small army of lawyers who represent the families make frequent motions to introduce evidence or elicit testimony that might implicate the state — they try calling police officers, intelligence agents, and their informants to the stand testify about mistakes that were made. In response, federal prosecutors tend to object that such lines of inquiry are beyond the court’s purview. “Some of the lawyers of the victims try to say the state is as guilty as Zschäpe and Mundlos and Böhnhardt,” said Meyer-Plath, who has testified in the trial. “But the court is trying to cut that out and say ‘we are talking about guilt of individuals and not about government problems.’ The prosecutors and the judges are on the same page on that.”
The refusal of the court to consider testimony that could fault the state becomes clear to anyone who takes the time to visit the courtroom in Munich. On a sunny morning last June, the press watched from the balcony as one of the prosecutors stood up and read a statement responding to an earlier motion by the victims’ attorneys to bring forth a witness — a state informant — who was recently reported to have employed Mundlos and possibly Zschäpe at a construction company. Bringing him on the stand would have allowed lawyers to ask questions about what he knew, when he knew it, and who he’d passed that information along to. The lead prosecutor, Herbert Diemer, objected strenuously: “The state had [no] prior knowledge about the NSU trio,” he declared. “And even so, it wouldn’t be a subject of discussion here. It would not be part of this trial.”
The judge sided with the prosecutors, denying the lawyers’ motion to call the informant to testify. With that, the court adjourned for the 286th time. In an interview with a German newspaper, Gamze Kubasic, the daughter of the Turkish immigrant who was murdered in his Dortmund convenience store in 2006, said, “I want to know who — especially in Dortmund — aided and abetted the murder.... What did the secret service and the informants know, and why was the murder not stopped?” Antonia von der Behrens, who is one of Kubasic’s lawyers, said her client wants to see “criminal charges pressed against the people who are responsible for covering up and for not passing on relevant information or who did not act on this information.” She says they want to see police “admit that the investigation into the murder ... was one-sided and racist.”
“Instead, there are until today no police officers who say that they made serious mistakes during the investigations. The police still defend what they have done and keep saying, ‘it is easy to know better today but that time we could not have known.’ And this is just not true.”
When asked why prosecutors were so opposed to hearing evidence that might implicate German authorities, a spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors told FP in an email that prosecutors had led “comprehensive, utmost time-consuming” investigations into all of the suspects, consulting more than 400 police officers who were involved in investigating the attacks, and that they had “heard thousands [about 2,000] witnesses, examined thousands of clues and analyzed thousands upon thousands [7,000] physical pieces of evidence together with about 4TB of data.” She also said that the state’s investigation would continue even after this trial ends, and that prosecutors were “aiming at convicting possibly more supporters of the ‘NSU’ and shedding light on possible further criminal offenses.” She did not respond to FP’s question as to whether German authorities had acted negligently.
One evening after a day at the courthouse, I went to a hotel café in Munich to meet von der Behrens. With her was Alexander Hoffmann, a lawyer who represents two victims of the 2004 Cologne bombing who has been attending the NSU trial and helping summarize each day’s proceedings in German, English, and Turkish on NSU Watch. As a chamber orchestra and a pianist serenaded a patio crowded with couples and friends chatting under a dark sky, they spoke about racism and neo-Nazis. They discussed how Germany’s unique past may be affecting how the NSU case is being prosecuted, and why the attempt to take stock of what happened has felt so unsatisfying.
“Nobody wants to admit that we have Nazi terrorists in Germany,” Hoffmann said. Whether it stems from shame over past racism or pride in being regarded as one of the most welcoming countries in the world for immigrants today, he says authorities tend not to take racially or ethnically motivated crime more seriously than any other kind. In the case of the police, he said, it may be even more sinister: “I’m convinced that the whole way police work is done on a basis of prejudiced, racist background.... If they would really fight racism and fascist ideology, they would at some point fight their own biases.”
Von der Behrens said it isn’t just that Germany is ashamed to be faced with violent racists. It’s that it values its reputation for supposedly having reckoned with and moved beyond some of the most virulent racism and antisemitism the world has ever known.
“Germany likes to present itself as a country that has shown the world how to deal with the past — that it can acknowledge past atrocities and, supposedly, learn from them,” said von der Behrens.
“For a country like that not to be able to acknowledge that we have racist murders ... if the police can’t even admit they did something wrong, how are they supposed to learn?”
One case in particular is testing whether authorities have learned anything from their experience with the NSU. In a small town, just outside the eastern German city of Dresden, eight Germans face a charge almost unprecedented in similar cases — terrorism — for using explosives to attack leftwing politicians as well as apartments housing refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and elsewhere in 2015, injuring some of them in the process. Some authorities point to the case as evidence that they’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. Others say it proves they are merely repeating them.
The Freital Group formed in early 2015 after rumors surfaced of two Moroccan immigrants harassing schoolchildren on a public bus in the town. A collection of German vigilantes, who participated in anti-refugee demonstrations, began roaming buses on “patrols.” By that summer, authorities were sufficiently concerned to have taken notice of the group — but weren’t able to find evidence that it was xenophobic or that it intended to commit any attacks. In a July 2015 letter, Saxony Interior Minister Markus Ulbig responded to questions posed by the speaker of Saxony’s parliament about Civil Defense FTL/360, as it was known at the time. He wrote that state authorities were “not aware of any actual evidence of extremist aspirations,” stating only that “the investigations are ongoing.”
A few months later, in September, an illegal firework blew apart the windows of a house in central Freital where a group of Eritrean refugees was living. In the early hours of Oct. 18, a leftist alternative housing project was pelted with rocks and planted with explosives. The next day, police tapped the phones of people they now suspected were responsible for these attacks. They overheard indications that the men were plotting another attack, according to prosecutorial files obtained by FP. And yet they made no arrests.
Thirteen days later, on Halloween night, a young Syrian man was looking for food in his fridge when he noticed a lit fuse outside the kitchen window. He and his roommates scrambled to the hallway and shut the door just as three explosions blew open the windows to their home. He told FP that one refugee was sent to the hospital after his face was cut by shards of glass.
What happened next has been held up by some as a model of post-NSU German criminal justice: in the months following the Halloween attack, Germany’s federal public prosecutor, Dr. Peter Frank, decided to take the case out of the hands of local authorities, arresting five of the eight Freital Group suspects in a dramatic raid last April that involved some 200 federal and state police, and — using the new powers granted to him in the wake of the NSU failings — charging the accused as terrorists in a trial that began this month.
When FP met with Ulbig, Saxony’s interior minister, two months later about the case, he described it as an ideal example of how police and local and federal prosecutors managed to work together to snag a group of xenophobic Germans bent on harming refugees. “When the criminal actions became public, then the police investigated very quickly,” he said. When it seemed that the evidence against the suspects might amount to terrorism, the federal prosecutor stepped in, as is his duty, to take over the case. The chair of the NSU investigation committee in Germany’s parliament, Clemens Binninger, went so far as to laud the federal prosecutor’s actions as sending a “clear signal” that present day right-wing threats would be taken seriously.
But in the months since, the legacy of the Freital case has become more complicated. Prosecutorial files obtained by FP indicate that the Saxony prosecutor, who had been investigating the case before the federal prosecutor stepped in, had been planning to charge the suspects in the lowest level court possible — the same court that tries traffic offenses — on the basis that the firework attacks were not intended to be lethal. Even more surprising, she declined to classify the case as a “politically motivated crime” — Germany’s closest categorization to a hate crime — which, under a new law passed in the wake of the NSU case, could have resulted in a stricter sentence were they convicted. That’s despite her taking care to note that the suspects had “extreme right-wing and xenophobic attitudes,” and that evidence like flyers and stickers with phrases like “refugees not welcome,” and “we demand asylum homes closed down,” had been discovered during searches of the suspects’ property. The prosecutorial documents also show that Saxony police, who had already issued arrest warrants following the attack on Halloween night, may in fact have been on the verge of apprehending more suspects themselves when Frank intervened, garnering unearned praise for federal authorities.
But most damning of all was the news that came out in December: A Saxony police officer was placed under suspicion of having passed along information about police operations to the Freital Group, tipping off its members about the time and location of police deployments. If true, this would represent an act of deliberate sabotage as serious as the failures of police forces during the period of the NSU killings. It might also be a sign that the lessons of the NSU murders, in some parts of the country at least, have yet to take root. (Two other officers were also initially suspected of leaking information to Freital Group members, but the cases against them were dropped for lack of evidence; authorities are currently investigating at least one more officer.)
Germany and its institutions seem to long for the NSU ordeal to be over — to put an end to this dark chapter in the nation’s history. A verdict is tentatively expected this summer regardless of whether the families feel satisfied with its proceedings.
Disappointed with the trial in Munich, some of the victims’ family members are now planning to hold a public “tribunal” of their own. This May in Cologne, where the NSU’s largest bombing ripped apart an immigrant neighborhood, they hope to convene for a series of discussions meant “to overcome the racist divide of this society.” According to the event’s website:
The NSU is not a single phenomenon, it is part of a history of racism in Germany. The story continues today with burning refugee shelters, with daily attacks. But who is telling this story? The victims are not extras, they are the main witnesses of the incident. They are the protagonists of a history of immigration that has been successful in Germany.
Whether that history of success will continue remains to be seen. It’s a history that’s being rewritten as we speak, as more than 1 million recent arrivals attempt to find their place in German society. Once again, German authorities find themselves struggling to protect immigrants from a wave of xenophobic attacks. Last year there were 3,500 attacks on refugees — an average of almost ten a day; 560 of those resulted in injuries. Police appear overwhelmed. In 2015 there were at least 220 violent attacks on refugees in Germany; by the end of that year, authorities had secured only four convictions.
Taken together, the NSU case, the Freital Group, and the ongoing incidents of violence raise uncomfortable questions that Germany’s government would prefer not to ask, much less answer. The country has advertised itself a safe haven for the world’s refugees fleeing war and strife. But what if Germany is unable to protect them from violence here?