Cats and Camper Vans The Bizarrely Normal Life of the Neo-Nazi Terror Cell
The neo-Nazi terror cell of Uwe Böhnhardt, Beate Zschäpe and Uwe Mundlos managed to hide from the police for almost 14 years. But between murders, attacks and bank robberies, the trio led a surprisingly normal life. They kept cats, played computer games and even went on vacation several times together. By SPIEGEL Staff.
After 10 people were dead, two bombs had exploded and four post offices and six savings banks had been robbed, Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe went on a vacation together.
It was the summer of 2007. They had loaded up a van and driven north, and now they were staying at a camping site on the Baltic Sea island of Fehmarn, located near Germany's border with Denmark. A few months earlier, the two men had killed a police officer and severely wounded her partner with a shot to the head. But now they were about to spend a few relaxing weeks on the beach.
Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe, who went by the names Max, Gerry and Liese, strolled over to one of the nearby campers and asked whether anyone wanted to play cards. The campsite neighbors later said that they had quickly developed a friendly relationship with the trio. Böhnhardt bought an inflatable boat with an outboard motor, Mundlos went windsurfing with one of the neighbors and Zschäpe spent a lot of time sunbathing. Life was peaceful in that summer of 2007.
They didn't discuss politics. None of the other campers had any idea that the three were leading a double life, that they had been on the run for almost 10 years, and that at least two of them were under the delusion that it was up to them to save the German people. Böhnhardt and Mundlos believed that enemies were lurking around every corner: in politics, in the media and -- naturally -- among leftists. They also thought they had enemies among ordinary Turkish greengrocers and owners of döner kebab stands.
They began running from the authorities in January 1998, when police found a pipe bomb, among other incriminating items, in a garage that Zschäpe had rented in the eastern city of Jena. Their lives as fugitives came to an end in November 2011, with the deaths of Böhnhardt and Mundlos in a camper in the eastern city of Eisenach. Thirteen years and nine months had passed in the interim.
What happened during that time? What was life like for the three fugitives? Was Zschäpe the lover of the two murderers, or was she their housekeeper? Or were the three merely a group of people that fate had thrown together, who could no longer find their way back to normal life?
Zschäpe, now imprisoned in Cologne, is saying nothing. But Max B., Holger G. and Carsten S., former associates who helped the group hide from the police -- and without whom the trio could not have committed murders -- are now willing to come clean. SPIEGEL has gained access to thousands of pages from investigative files, including statements by neighbors and vacation acquaintances, as well as evidence found in the rubble of their last hiding place in Zwickau. All of this yields a picture of three people who, near the end of their years on the run, were leading a surprisingly open life. At the same time, the reconstruction of this period of almost 14 years shows how close the authorities came to finding them at times -- and yet never did.
The three met in the early 1990s in Jena. Zschäpe and Mundlos were a couple at the time. Later, after the relationship had ended, she became romantically involved with Böhnhardt. The three couldn't have been more different. Mundlos was the smartest member of the group. His father had taught computer science at the Jena University of Applied Sciences since German reunification. After finishing the 10th grade, Mundlos completed a training program in data processing at Carl Zeiss, a famous Jena company that makes optical systems. Then he performed his compulsory military service and went back to college to obtain his Abitur, the German high-school diploma that is a requirement for university. Three months before the final examinations, however, he disappeared with Böhnhardt and Zschäpe. He was 24 at the time, and the oldest member of the trio.
Böhnhardt, the son of a teacher and an engineer, had dropped out of school, and he had multiple convictions on charges of theft, assault and extortion -- a repeat offender, in other words. He said little, saw himself as a man of action and worked in construction. In 1997, he was about to be sentenced to a prison term of two years and three months for various offences, including an episode in which he hung a mannequin decorated with a Star of David from a highway overpass. Böhnhardt, 20, had a strong incentive to disappear.
Only Zschäpe came from a difficult background. After she had given herself up to police on Nov. 11, 2011, she told the officers that the two Uwes had had a sheltered upbringing compared to her childhood. For that reason, she said, it was "inexplicable" to her as to why the two had "developed in that fashion." Zschäpe referred to herself as a "grandma's child." Mundlos and Böhnhardt became her substitute family. She was 23 when the three went into hiding.
Although the trio is often described as having gone "on the run," it is perhaps not the right expression. After all, Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos didn't have to go far to remain undetected. According to the investigators' reconstruction of their lives underground, they lived in at least seven different apartments in the cities of Chemnitz and Zwickau in eastern Germany. And the longer they lived underground under assumed names, the safer they felt. For instance, they went on vacation more frequently than was previously thought. They went to the Baltic Sea island of Usedom in 2000, and to the northern German cities of Flensburg and Lübeck in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
Just 100 Kilometers Away
Their disappearance in January 1998 took them from Jena to Chemnitz, 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the east, where they stayed with a friend for the first few weeks. After that, an acquaintance from the local neo-Nazi scene offered them the apartment of her boyfriend, Max B., a tall, broad-shouldered man with the powerful hands of a stonemason. He had become part of the Chemnitz skinhead scene with the help of classmates in the vocational school he attended.
His small apartment in an old, three-story building wasn't far from downtown Chemnitz. At first, Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe lived there alone, while Max B. stayed at his girlfriend's apartment. The trio had brought along a computer and a printer, which they set up in the bedroom. When Max B. and his girlfriend broke up a short time later and B. returned to his apartment, he moved into the bedroom, while the trio occupied the living room.
Max B. didn't feel entirely at ease with his guests. They told him about a fake bomb that they had supposedly deposited in Jena. Once he saw the butt of a pistol sticking out of a bag. He would have preferred to get rid of the three as quickly as possible, he later told police, but they didn't want to leave.
Instead, B. accepted the situation. He and Mundlos used to play "Panzer General" ("Tank General") on Mundlos's computer, a strategy game that simulates World War II battles. In his later interrogation, he referred to Mundlos as "Uwe the intellectual." He described Böhnhardt, on the other hand, as "authoritarian" and said that Böhnhardt would dominate Mundlos in conversations.
It was a tense time. Once, when a police officer turned up in front of the building, Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt jumped behind the door. Mundlos told Max B. in a whisper that he should watch the policeman to see if he went away, "otherwise we'll go up on the roof."
People on the run are habitual liars. They live in a state of panic, constantly fearing that the truth about them could be discovered at any moment. Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt had been wanted by the police since January 1998, and they had almost no money. Because of their circumstances, they hit upon an idea that would have serious consequences for Max B. He and Mundlos were roughly the same height, had about the same build and even similar faces.
Mundlos had passport photos taken of himself and went to a registration office with B.'s identity card and birth certificate. On Sept. 7, 1998, the Chemnitz city government issued a passport that contained the personal data for Max B. and a photo of Mundlos. According to the passport, its holder was 1.82 meters (6 feet) tall and had brown eyes. There was now a second "Max B.," in the shape of Mundlos.
Duplicating someone's identity is a clever method for someone who wants to disappear but doesn't want to assume the risks associated with a completely forged passport. It's also cheaper. And all the person with the duplicate identity has to do is to ensure that the "original" doesn't do anything stupid.
During this period, Mundlos was spending a lot of time in front of the computer in the bedroom, writing articles for skinhead magazines and designing layouts -- his intellectual contribution to furthering the neo-Nazi cause. But whenever he flipped through right-wing extremist fanzines, he only saw reviews of concerts and references to drinking, rather than the militant propaganda he would have preferred. He was irritated by the apathy he saw.
Running Out of Cash
In October 1998, an article titled "Thoughts on the Movement" appeared on page 26 of White Supremacy, a German skinhead magazine. The author was anonymous, but it was probably written by Mundlos. It was the first piece he had written from the underground, a lament on the lack of discipline among fellow extremists. In it, he chastised them for making "pleasure" the focus of their lives rather than the "struggle." He also criticized neo-Nazis for the hypocrisy of pushing anti-drug messages while at the same time indulging in heavy drinking, writing that they "wouldn't survive a single day without alcohol." Mundlos used the word "Kampf" ("struggle" or "fight") eight times. "Those who are not willing to actively participate in the struggle," he wrote, are merely supporting everything "that is directed against our people, our country and our movement."
Mundlos didn't see himself as an ordinary neo-Nazi, but rather someone who had a goal and was determined to fight for it. Together with Böhnhardt and Zschäpe, he developed a board game they called "Pogromly," a Nazi version of Monopoly that they hoped to sell to fellow radical right-wingers.
The trio was low on funds. They accepted donations at right-wing concerts, which were sometimes even organized as benefits for the three fugitives. In January 1999, Ralf Wohlleben, then an official with the far right National Democratic of Germany (NPD), told an associate that something had to "happen as soon as possible," because the trio urgently needed money.
At the same time, they were also becoming more demanding. According to investigators, they asked their associates for documents, money, weapons and, in 2000, even motorcycles. But it was more than their helpers could provide. Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe gradually came to the realization that if they wanted to live underground, they would have to take matters into their own hands.