The World from Berlin: Neo-Nazi Case Also Puts Government on Trial

The sole survivor of a neo-Nazi terrorist cell suspected of killing nine people with immigrant backgrounds and a policewoman in Germany has been indicted and will soon face trial. Commentators praise the development but warn that German officials might also face some tough questions about their botched investigation.

National Socialist Underground members (l. to r.) Uwe Mundlos, Beate Zschäpe and Uwe Böhnhardt: "No sign of active remorse on the government's part." Zoom
REUTERS

National Socialist Underground members (l. to r.) Uwe Mundlos, Beate Zschäpe and Uwe Böhnhardt: "No sign of active remorse on the government's part."

In what is expected to be the biggest terrorism trial in Germany since police foiled the Red Army Faction's far-left murder spree of the 1970s and '80s, Germany's Federal Prosecutor's Office issued indictments on Thursday against the sole surviving member of a deadly neo-Nazi terror cell and its supporters. Munich's higher regional court will now consider charges of accessory to murder in the slaying of 10 people and membership in a terrorist organization for Beate Zschäpe, who is believed to have been a key figure in the National Socialist Underground (NSU).

Federal Prosecutor General Harald Range said Zschäpe and the terror cell's two other members had comprised a "unified killing commando" in which all three members were on an equal footing.

One year ago, police uncovered the terror cell after Zschäpe set fire to the apartment where she lived together with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who died earlier in an apparent murder-suicide pact. The group is believed to have murdered nine mostly small business owners of Turkish and Greek descent as well as a policewoman. They are also believed to have committed 15 armed robberies over the years to support their life in the underground. Zschäpe herself has been in investigative custody for a year as charges against her were prepared, but she has so far refused to share her version of events with investigators.

The case has been a source of extreme discomfort for German authorities -- not only because it has drawn international attention to persistent xenophobia in some parts of society here, but even more so because it has underscored the failures of the country's security apparatus, particularly the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), a domestic intelligence organization with branches at the state and federal levels that is tasked with monitoring extremist activity in the country.

The agencies maintain numerous informants in the neo-Nazi scene and had several with close ties to the NSU members. With so many inside sources, many are now asking how the BfV agencies failed to uncover the NSU for more than a decade. Suspicions only increased after it was discovered that the agencies shredded files and sensitive information related to the case, which has already forced a number of senior officials to step down.

The trial comes at an inopportune time for the government in Berlin, which is weighting whether to make a renewed push for a ban on the National Democratic Party (NPD), a xenophobic, anti-Semitic political party that has seats in parliament in two eastern states. A court rejected a previous bid, in 2004, to prohibit the party because of the number of informants the government had placed at the highest levels of the NPD. Today, the proximity of informants to the NSU is creating a similar headache for domestic intelligence and police across the country. Indeed, four committees in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, are currently investigating these and many other failures of law enforcement and domestic intelligence during the NSU investigation.

On the editorial pages on Friday, commentators at a handful of Germany's top newspapers praise the indictment but also warn that Zschäpe will not be the only defendant in the dock. The German government, domestic intelligence and the police, they say, will also be on trial.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"This indictment is more than just a thick list of charges. It is a declaration of resolve -- a serious, strict, clear and decisive legal analysis of the right-wing extremist crimes. The Federal Prosecutor's Office acted in a way one would have hoped the other security authorities might have: with direction, energy and meticulousness."

"One year after the discovery of the (people behind the) murders, there is now an indictment that also serves as a sort of letter of protection. It offers some protection for the people in German society of Turkish origin. It shows them just how seriously the Federal Prosecutor's Office takes their tremendous feelings of insecurity. It is a seriousness that appears to be lacking among other state authorities."

"For an entire year, the public had to stare into the abyss of the failures of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the police, who sought to fill the void with excuses, evasion and dilettantism. For one year, the public has waited for politicians to finally follow through with the announcement made during the repulsive initial period (after the discovery of the NSU) that they would turn over every stone at the security agencies and force them to implement fundamental reforms. But nothing has happened. The chancellor has asked the families of the victims for forgiveness. However, there has been no sign of active remorse on the government's part. It is only the Federal Prosecutor's Office, supported by the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), that has done its job. In that sense, the indictment also offers hope: It keeps the hope alive that the other agencies aren't completely hopeless."

The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"Many questions still remain open: Why were these nine immigrants and a policewoman chosen as victims? Were there further perpetrators or plans? Did they possibly also plan to attack politicians or Muslim or Jewish facilities? Did the NSU have other helpers in the cities where they committed their murders who have yet to be identified? Was there a concrete blueprint or models for the crimes?"

"The investigators with the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the BKA will be able to do even less to redeem the almost incredible failures of the security authorities since 1998. Even imposing the toughest sentence possible against Zschäpe, the suspected right-wing terrorist, cannot distract from just how blind the state has been to the far right. Parliament and the public will still be debating the consequences eminating from this debacle for years to come."

"Additionally, the complete NSU network -- particularly the inner workings of the Zwickau cell -- will only be able to be revealed in its entirety if Zschäpe breaks her silence."

The leftist Berliner Zeitung writes:

"With the indictment, the judicial treatment of the NSU series of murders will begin. The Munich higher regional court will also have to clarify the circumstances that enabled the murder of nine immigrants and a policewoman. That means they will also have to throw light on all the breakdowns, the almost criminal lapses and the destruction of files by the participating domestic intelligence agencies and police in the states, which hindered the arrest of Zschäpe and her accomplices for 14 years."

"Of course, it is also important for the families of the murder victims to find out how and why the right-wing terrorists killed. They also have the right to a fitting sentence for the perpetrators. But the public also has the right to demand clarity on the issue of the role the security agencies played. Were they blind in one eye, blind in both eyes -- or was it a blindness that had been willed, ordered or innate? It's not just the suspected right-wing terrorist who will be in the dock in Munich -- it will also be the security agencies. A not-guilty verdict is unlikely for either party."

-- Daryl Lindsey

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