1980 Oktoberfest Bombing: Did Neo-Nazi Murderer Really Act Alone?

By Jan Friedmann, Conny Neumann, Sven Röbel and Steffen Winter

Thirty years ago, a bomb killed 13 people and injured hundreds at Munich's Oktoberfest. New evidence has raised questions about whether the attack was really carried out by a right-wing extremist acting alone. Politicians and attorneys for the victims are seeking to reopen the case.

Photo Gallery: The 1980 Oktoberfest Bombing Photos
DPA

Every year when Munich's famous Oktoberfest rolls around, Robert Höckmayr almost loses his mind.

While the happy crowds are flocking to the beer festival, Höckmayr becomes so anxious that he breaks out in sweats and is plagued by nightmares. His wife says that he becomes extremely irritable during the event. On those nights, he sees himself as a young boy who was standing only one-and-a-half meters (about 5 feet) from a trashcan. He remembers a flash, a loud bang and silence. It was enough to destroy a life.

On Sept. 26, 1980, Höckmayr was attending the Oktoberfest with his family: his father, his mother, his brothers Ignaz and Wilhelm, and his sisters Ilona and Elisabeth. Höckmayr no longer has any siblings. Two died in the bombing and the others died later in life.

Höckmayr, who was a 12-year-old child at the time, saw things that no human being can ever fully process. "I was devoid of emotions after that," he says. Höckmayr, now 42, is a marked man. There is so much shrapnel in his body that it never fails to set off the metal detector at airports.

Reexamining the Case

For decades, investigators were convinced that they knew who had committed the horrific act: a maniac with ties to the far-right scene who acted alone. But now, 30 years after the bloodiest attack in German postwar history, the old case is being reexamined.

Previously unknown documents describe the key witness to the attack as an active right-wing extremist and even raise the suspicion that he may have been an active informant for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Was it really a coincidence that the eyewitness, whose name is Frank Lauterjung, was at the scene of the crime? Various inconsistencies have reignited interest among politicians and attorneys in the events of September 1980, and in the question of whether the person who planted the bomb may have had outside support.

"I will not give up until the judicial inquiry is resumed," says Peter Danckert, who is a legal expert with the center-left Social Democrats. Werner Dietrich, an attorney representing victims, is gathering every possible piece of evidence that could breathe new life into the investigation. Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele supports these efforts and is pursuing a possible Italian connection. Finally, Munich Mayor Christian Ude has always insisted that the case needed to be reopened.

At its core, the case revolves around whether a crazy perpetrator who was acting alone triggered the inferno at the Oktoberfest, or whether an extremist right-wing group had in fact staged a terrorist attack against Germany on that September day. The bomb, deposited in a trashcan at the entrance to the Theresienwiese, the site of the festival, killed 13 people and injured 219, many of whom lost limbs in the explosion. The bomb detonated at 10:20 p.m., just as thousands of visitors were crowding toward the exit. The horrific images quickly circled the globe.

Unclear Motives

It is beyond dispute that Gundolf Köhler, a university student from the Swabian town of Donaueschingen, made the bomb, took it to Munich and deposited it at the scene of the crime. But even today, 30 years later, his motives remain unclear.

Köhler was also killed in the attack, because the bomb went off too soon. Few people believe that he committed suicide, however. He was said to be technically adept and knowledgeable about explosives. But the student also had ties to Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, a banned neo-Nazi terrorist organization, and had taken part in their exercises a number of times. Was the Munich bombing in fact a terrorist group's attempt to drive the country toward the right, just nine days before parliamentary elections?

The key eyewitness remains a dubious figure. Frank Lauterjung was able to provide more details about the attack than anyone else. He survived the explosion, even though he was only a few meters away, because he had had a "bad feeling" and thrown himself to the ground before the bomb detonated. Investigators questioned Lauterjung at least five times in 1980. He died of heart failure two years later, when he was only 38. But when he was questioned, the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Munich ignored his most explosive statement.

Lauterjung told investigators that he had noticed Köhler engaged in a heated conversation with two men in green parkas near the site of the bombing, about half an hour before the attack. Does this suggest that there were several perpetrators, or others who knew about the planned bombing? The two men were never found. They were not among the victims, nor did they contact the authorities as witnesses.

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