NSU Trial Prosecutor: Beate Zschäpe 'Collaborated in All The Murders'

In an interview with SPIEGEL, German Federal Prosecutor Harald Range, 64, talks about the charges filed against alleged right-wing terrorist Beate Zschäpe, the mistakes made by the security services and the difficult investigations leading up to what will be Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial.

Photo Gallery: Alleged NSU Terrorist Faces Trial Photos
dapd / BKA

SPIEGEL: Mr. Range, we would like to talk to you about the failures of the judiciary in the handling of right-wing terrorists.

Range: (says nothing)

SPIEGEL: There has been a great deal of discussion about the mistakes of the police and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV, Germany's domestic intelligence service) in conjunction with the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU), but hardly any about those made by the judiciary. Where did public prosecutors fail?

Range: I don't think anything went wrong. But the final verdict on this issue, of course, will have to be reached by the federal and state committees of inquiry. These murders and bank robberies initially fell within the jurisdiction of state public prosecutors' offices. We, as the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, only become involved when terrorist crimes are involved. And that only became evident last year.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that the public prosecutor's office in (the eastern city of) Gera was right when it did not see any reason to suspect terrorism in 1998, after neo-Nazis Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe had disappeared?

Range: You have to look at it from the perspective of the time. Back then, the development was not recognized. And we, as the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, are dependent on what we are told by the states and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation.

SPIEGEL: In January 1998, the authorities searching the premises of the neo-Nazi trio found pipe bombs, 1.4 kilograms of TNT and death threats against foreigners. What else should signs of right-wing terrorism look like?

Range: We took that into account in our inquiry at the time. It wasn't just the public prosecutors in Gera, but also the police, who saw the trio as a loose collection of perpetrators and not as an established terrorist group with a uniform purpose and terrorist goals.

SPIEGEL: If the judiciary had already assumed it was a terrorist group at the time, the case would not have fallen under the statute of limitations in 2003. The authorities would have continued to investigate the trio.

Range: Hindsight is always 20-20. I'm not in the position of the public prosecutor's office investigating the case at the time, which is why I don't want to make any personal accusations against anyone. Perhaps there were miscalculations at the time, but there was certainly no incorrect or incomplete information, such that something was deliberately being concealed from us. In our indictment, we also assume that the trio's plan to commit murders only crystallized after they had disappeared in 1998.

SPIEGEL: What can the judiciary learn from these mistakes?

Range: We have to cooperate even more effectively and exchange more information. It's important that the mentality changes, and that we say to ourselves: Wait a minute, this could be something for the Federal Public Prosecutor.

SPIEGEL: You have now filed charges Zschäpe and four presumed supporters of the NSU.

Range: It was a herculean task. We collected 6,800 pieces of evidence, mostly from the wreckage of the burned-out house in Zwickau, and questioned about 1,200 witnesses. On our side, 10 public prosecutors ran the investigations, and the Federal Office of Criminal Investigation at times had more than 400 officers working on the case. In addition to our actual responsibilities, we had to examine, for the parliamentary investigation committees, especially the one in Berlin, all records since 1992 that could reveal a connection to the NSU. This was done concurrently with the investigations. It was a significant challenge, partly for logistical reasons.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a sense of how high the expectations of the families of the victims are?

Range: Yes, we feel that very much, and not just in relation to the victims and their families. I was at several events, especially with our Turkish fellow citizens, where there was a palpable sense of anxiety in discussions.

SPIEGEL: Is a case like this subject to too much social and political pressure?

Range: We had to free ourselves from that, as well as from the question of a ban of the NPD, in which we were expected to provide facts. Some members of the committee were unhappy about our reticence. They said that the information we could provide had already been printed in SPIEGEL, and they wanted to know whether we had anything else to offer. But I didn't allow myself to be pushed into making overly hasty assessments. We can only provide credible information. The NSU was not the armed wing of the NPD.

SPIEGEL: One of your investigators said that it was also a matter of making things right for the victims' families, because those who were murdered had long been placed under suspicion themselves. Do you share this view?

Range: I do think that we can reestablish confidence in the state with our investigations. But it also wasn't incorrect to intensively investigate people associated with the victims at the time. Today we can rule out all kinds of conspiracy theories. Organized crime did not play a role. The NSU had no connection to other groups.

SPIEGEL: Your deputy Rainer Griesbaum likened the investigations to peeling an onion, saying that layer after layer had to be removed to reach what was inside. How close did you get to this interior?

Range: Very close. At first there was speculation over whether there were other NSU murders, other bank robberies, other crimes or other members, as well as a large network of supporters. The intensive investigations put an end to these speculations. In our view, the NSU was a group consisting of three members that relied on a small number of supporters and helpers. We found no reason to suspect that there were other murders or robberies.

SPIEGEL: There were also people outside the narrow circle of supporters who knew that the NSU existed, such the longstanding NPD official David Petereit. The NSU is mentioned in his Neo-Nazi pamphlet as long ago as 2002. Is this part of the historic truth being ignored, because it can't be addressed under criminal law?

Range: The fact that the NSU communicated with Herr Petereit is one thing. But whether he knew that the trio was responsible for a series of murders is something else. Nevertheless, this connection is mentioned in the indictment, because it shows how the NSU interacted with others. We'll never be able to tell whether the tools of criminal trial law are enough to discover the complete historic truth. But a trial has always been the only place where we come very close to the truth. I have great confidence that in this case we will also succeed in this regard.

SPIEGEL: The Federal Court of Justice argued that there wasn't enough time to examine the historic truth. Did you leave some things in the dark?

Range: No. Ultimately, it's a matter of what is examined in the courtroom. That's the truth that can be discovered. In a constitutional state, there are limits that have to do with the human dignity of the defendants, because no one can be forced to incriminate himself. We don't have torture, and that's a good thing.

SPIEGEL: Have you been able to discover what the killers' motives were?

Range: The central motive was to unsettle our fellow citizens of foreign origin -- the goal being that they would leave Germany, out of fear for their own safety.

SPIEGEL: And were you able to determine how the victims were selected?

Range: We don't have a definitive answer to that. They were chosen randomly, and the killers had no prior contact with them. But maps were used to carefully consider where the best places for the attacks would be and who the potential targets were.

SPIEGEL: Why did the group diverge from its pattern with its attack on two police officers in (the southwestern city of) Heilbronn in 2007?

Range: It didn't really diverge at all. If you take a close look at the DVD in which they claim responsibility, it becomes clear that the group also intended to strike at the state. There is one scene in which a police officer is symbolically executed with a gunshot to the head. According to our information, this sequence was incorporated into the video in 2006, or months before the murders in Heilbronn.

SPIEGEL: Why Heilbronn, of all places?

Range: We can only speculate on that. But ultimately Heilbronn fits into the pattern for target locations: an industrialized city with a relatively high immigrant population.

SPIEGEL: There were no letters claiming responsibility during the series of murders. The group only claimed responsibility after the fact. Do you have an explanation for that?

Range: I think it was part of the strategy. The crimes themselves were supposed to produce the desired outcome, and the claim of responsibility only happened at the end. The NSU members evidently had an exit scenario, presumably in the event that they managed to escape. When they saw that this wasn't going to work, Mundlos first killed Böhnhardt and then himself, and Frau Zschäpe played out the scenario on her own.

SPIEGEL: Were the murderers trying to create a monument for themselves?

Range: That's one way to look at it.

SPIEGEL: Who had what responsibilities within the NSU?

Range: As we see it, the members of the group planned, organized and ultimately carried out everything together. To visualize it, one could say that two people did the killing while the third person stood guard. Not directly at the scene of the crime, but by handling the cover and the logistics. By securing the apartment as an indispensable headquarters for the NSU, by cultivating the stories and by handling the group's financial affairs. This is why we see Beate Zschäpe as a full co-perpetrator. She collaborated in all the murders and attacks.

SPIEGEL: But was Zschäpe also involved in planning the murders?

Range: I can't preempt the trial. But there are a few clues that are already known. They include her fingerprints on newspaper articles about NSU attacks that were found in the wreckage at the site of the fire in Zwickau. Besides, the police also found many surveillance notes there. To me, this means that she knew what was going on.

SPIEGEL: That's all?

Range: Another important clue is a call from a telephone booth in Zwickau to a mobile phone in Munich at around the time of one of the murders in 2005. And there is also witness testimony that places Frau Zschäpe very close to the scene of a crime in Nuremberg.

SPIEGEL: But is that enough for the conviction, which you are seeking, for setting up a terrorist organization, 10 counts of murder, aggravated arson and 15 robberies?

Range: You have to see this in context. Frau Zschäpe was an active participant in the discussions related to the group's armed conflict, and she was involved in illegal activities with her accomplices for almost 14 years. For that reason, I am convinced that she wasn't just an accessory or merely a companion, but was in fact acting on the same level as the others.

SPIEGEL: Does Zschäpe face a conviction for "particularly grievous guilt"? (a provision in German law which means she would be held beyond the usual life term of 15 years.)

Range: This question is, of course, valid, in light of the charges.

SPIEGEL: Do the conditions exist for preventive detention?

Range: In the indictment, we argued that the formal conditions for preventive detention do exist. It will be up to the court to decide whether it is ultimately ordered.

SPIEGEL: Is it because of political pressure that you are filing the maximum of possible charges?

Range: The only pressure I have is to clarify the facts and then present them to the court for deliberation. There may be other situations, such as espionage cases, in which political considerations on the part of the government can sometimes play a role. But not in the case of murder.

SPIEGEL: By law, a terrorist organization must consist of at least three individuals. If you can't prove that Zschäpe was a member of the NSU, the case falls apart.

Range: In addition to the evidence already mentioned, there are statements to the effect that the three always appeared as a single unit. Besides, the Federal Court of Justice itself never questioned that this was a terrorist organization.

SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, the charges are based primarily on circumstantial evidence.

Range: This will clearly be a trial based on circumstantial evidence. Two of the three presumed perpetrators are dead, and the one who survived isn't talking. We have to form an overall picture by assembling pieces of evidence one by one.

SPIEGEL: What role do you believe was played by André E., the presumed NSU helper, against whom the charges long seemed questionable?

Range: Because of his close, friendly relations, he was very close to the group. According to our information, he personally rented the camper vans for two of the group's robberies and one of its bombings.

SPIEGEL: But the bombing in question was committed in early 2001, and supporting a terrorist organization comes under the statute of limitations after 10 years.

Range: Being an accessory to murder does not come under the statute of limitations. And in our assessment, André E. willingly accepted the possibility that a murder was to be committed with the help of the vehicle he had rented.

SPIEGEL: In your assessment, how long will the trial last?

Range: We have five defendants, 10 defense attorneys, about 60 co-plaintiffs and almost 40 attorneys for ancillary lawsuits. There are 27 individual charges. And then there is the charge of membership in and support of a terrorist organization. It will be the biggest trial to date on right-wing terrorism in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany. It would be wrong to predict its duration.

SPIEGEL: What can we expect from the trial: law or justice?

Range: The fundamental goal of the criminal trial is to achieve justice. I also hope that it will provide a reappraisal of the events, especially in the interest of the victims' families, and that it will send the message that society does not accept such actions and in fact reacts decisively against them.

SPIEGEL: Do you have any indication that Beate Zschäpe will speak?

Range: No. But it isn't unusual in a trial. The defense strategy is often geared toward waiting to see which "arrows" the prosecution has "in its quiver." Ultimately Ms. Zschäpe will have to make that decision herself. I'm curious to see what happens.

SPIEGEL: What will you say to the victims' families if there are acquittals?

Range: That's the price of the constitutional state. But I am confident that I won't have to address that question.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Range, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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