Oktoberfest Bombing Under Review: Officials Ignored Right-Wing Extremist Links

By Tobias von Heymann and

Thirty-one years after the 1980 Oktoberfest bomb attack, officials have reopened the case. Previously unknown documents reviewed by SPIEGEL show that the perpetrator, allegedly a lone wolf, was involved with the neo-Nazi scene and Bavarian conservatives. But the unwelcome clues were likely ignored.

Photo Gallery: Oktoberfest Bombing Case Reopened Photos
DPA

The first booths were already open and a brass band was playing when a group of serious-looking people gathered at Munich's Oktoberfest in late September.

Tears were flowing, and some quietly placed red flowers at the entrance to the Theresienwiese, the site of the annual beer festival. They had come to commemorate their loved ones, their parents, siblings and spouses, who were murdered at this spot exactly 31 years ago, in the worst terrorist attack in postwar German history. Thirteen died and more than 200 people were injured.

Robert Platzer, one of the survivors, was 12 at the time. "I saw a young man bending over a waste basket at the entrance," he recalls. "It was as if he were trying to lift something heavy with both hands." At that moment, a bomb exploded in the young man's hands. Platzer witnessed the deaths of two of his siblings, whose bodies were ripped apart and hurled through the air.

At the commemoration ceremony politicians from all major parties vowed to reopen the case. Before that, the Bavarian state parliament had already adopted a nonpartisan resolution to resume the investigation.

Too many questions are still unanswered. Who was Gundolf Köhler, the man who had tried to plant the bomb and died in the process? Who or what made him a killer? And what were the political motivations for his crime? Was the attack part of a long series of right-wing extremist acts of violence that shook Western Europe at the time?

Early in the case, there had been speculation about Köhler's right-wing extremist background. And last year serious doubts emerged as to whether the 21-year-old was truly alone at the scene of the crime on Sept. 26, 1980. But the question of why the authorities never completely solved the case remains unanswered to this day. Could it have been that the party in power in Bavaria at the time, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), had no interest in seeing the case solved?

Looming Election

It was less than two weeks before the Oct. 5, 1980 German parliamentary election, and the CSU and its then Bavarian state governor and chancellor candidate, Franz Josef Strauss, were not interested in right-wing extremist terrorism. In their worldview, the threat always came from the left. The social climate was toxic, and the Strauss camp, and others, treated left-wing extremist terror group the Red Army Faction (RAF) and its sympathizers as Germany's public enemy number one.

What did not fit into this worldview was the idea that right-wing extremist groups were at the same time developing their own, loosely defined terrorist network, with cells in Hamburg, Nuremberg, Esslingen near Stuttgart, as well as in Antwerp and Bologna. Not surprisingly, efforts to investigate the threat from the far right were half-hearted at best.

For three decades, the official explanation for the Oktoberfest attack involved the theory of a confused "sole perpetrator." In May 1981, after just eight months of investigation, the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) postulated this theory in its "final comment" on the case. The Federal Prosecutor's Office also noted that there was "no evidence whatsoever" that "third parties" could have influenced Köhler. Case closed -- or so it seemed.

Until now, this final comment was the only document relating to the case that had been made available to the public, while the investigation files on which it had been based remained unknown. Now SPIEGEL has evaluated these files for the first time, in addition to dossiers from the former East German secret police, the Stasi, and other records, some of which were formerly classified -- a total of 46,000 pages.

Important Clues Ignored

The documents show that a number of Bavarian and federal government agencies were already aware of Köhler's right-wing extremist connections before the attack, but did not seriously follow up on important clues. Evidence, including what was left of the bomb, was removed on the night of the attack, witnesses were not adequately questioned and important leads were not pursued.

More thorough investigations would likely have uncovered the right-wing extremist network behind Köhler. But this would have highlighted connections Strauss and other CSU politicians had to the far-right. Politicians and investigators threw away an important opportunity, and terrorism coming from the right, unlike leftist terrorism, was long downplayed and characterized as an aberration by "sole perpetrators."

This was precisely what happened in the Köhler case. The "final comment" in the investigation report by the Bavarian LKA makes no mention whatsoever of direct right-wing connections or possible accomplices.

The investigators described Köhler as the unremarkable son of middle-class parents in Donaueschingen, a town in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. He was a geology student who became interested in chemistry and fossils as a teenager. The investigation report concluded that his motives were unknown, with the authors merely noting that the fact that Köhler had failed an important intermediate examination could have provided "the final impetus" to commit the crime.

But as the newly released documents show, the authorities knew more about the case than the report suggested. Köhler's first interactions with the far-right NPD party began when he was 14. He attended the party's state convention and campaign events. In Donaueschingen, he was in close contact with a former Nazi who served as a father figure and strongly influenced his worldview. For years, Köhler kept a portrait of Hitler above his bed, and he also collected badges, books and pictures from the Nazi era. For one of his birthdays, he treated himself to a steel helmet and military boots, and he joined a shooting club to practice using a weapon.

"He supported the extermination of Jews and communists in the Third Reich," one of Köhler's friends told police after the bombing. The friend also said that Köhler had raved about being part of an SS or Reichswehr military organization in Germany, "to be able to take action against communists." Köhler once traveled to the eastern French city of Strasbourg to visit a brothel. Friends who had accompanied him later said that when he saw a group of orthodox Jews there, he said that "Adolf had forgotten to gas them, and now we had to pay for the pensions of these old men." One of Köhler's brothers later told the police: "This radical right-wing sensibility stabilized over the years."

CSU Downplayed Neo-Nazi Activity

Still, in their final comments the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the Bavarian LKA downplayed Köhler's worldview and his strong connection to right-wing extremist organizations.

Köhler was a member of the Viking Youth, which, modeled after the Hitler Youth, was the most important German neo-Nazi youth organization at the time. The group's several hundred uniformed members were led by a Gauführer, a term meant to invoke the Nazi officials known as Gauleiter. They learned how to shoot, committed pipe-bomb attacks and, calling themselves "youth loyal to the German Reich," were determined to combat the left. In 1978, "Viking disciples" attacked four NATO soldiers at a military training area in the northern state of Lower Saxony and stole several submachine guns and magazines.

But the Munich police still did not feel that the neo-Nazi connection was was worth pursuing. During a search of Köhler's room, they even failed to recognize his Viking Youth membership card. "Because I was unfamiliar with this organization (Viking Youth), I paid no attention to this membership card. I considered such cards to be part of Gundolf Köhler's collection, a hobby," the operations manager of the "Theresienwiese Special Commission" wrote in a report.

The officers did take the membership card with them when Köhler's room was searched again two weeks later. But this piece of incriminating evidence was not mentioned in the final comment, and there was no further investigation of the organization.

The authorities also showed little interest in Köhler's involvement in the Wehrsportgruppe (Military Sports Group, WSG) paramilitary organization run by the neo-Nazi Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, or that he had attended one of their meetings "sometime in the past." At the time, right-wing extremist activities were being downplayed by those at the very top of the political ladder in Bavaria. Speaking in the state parliament in March 1979, Strauss said: "Don't make fools of yourselves by attributing significance to certain groups -- you mentioned Hoffmann's Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann today -- that they have never had, do not have and will never acquire in Bavaria."

The CSU chairman also had nothing but derision for the ban of Hoffmann's WSG by the coalition government of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party in Bonn in January 1980. Hoffmann, he said, ought to be "left alone" if he "happens to enjoy going for a walk in the country on a Sunday with a backpack and 'battledress' held up with a waist belt."

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