Frühlingsstrasse in the Weissenborn neighborhood of the eastern German city of Zwickau is a street lined with renovated old houses, manicured front gardens and sidewalks that look swept clean. It would be an idyllic residential neighborhood, if it weren't for the house at number 26.
The windows are smashed, a section of the front wall has collapsed onto the lawn, and there is a gaping black hole on the right side of the second floor. An incendiary bomb exploded at this house a little over a week ago. But the real nature of the bomb that exploded there was not clear until last Friday. As it turned out, the reverberations from the explosion rocked not just the nearby houses on Frühlingsstrasse, but the whole of Germany.
Three hours earlier, a fire had also been set in a parked camper in Eisenach, a city 180 kilometers (110 miles) away. The two men inside, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, had just robbed a bank. They had ended up in Eisenach after being on the run for 14 years. The two men shot themselves before a police patrol could reach the burning vehicle.
It didn't take investigators long to see the connection between the two incidents. Then they began digging through the wreckage in Frühlingsstrasse, looking for clues. The deeper they dug, the more astonished and shocked they were by what they uncovered.
At first, it seemed that they had just hit upon a gang of bank robbers that had blown up their hideout.
They dug deeper.
Were the two men and one woman a neo-Nazi trio that had built pipe bombs in the eastern state of Thuringia in the late 1990s and had gone into hiding in the Zwickau area?
The investigators dug even deeper.
Was the trio a group of cold-blooded murderers who had gunned down police officer Michèle Kiesewetter in the southwestern city of Heilbronn four years ago? The investigators found Kiesewetter's service weapon, a Heckler & Koch P 200, and that of her severely injured fellow police officer in the burned-out camper, while the presumed murder weapon was found in the rubble in Zwickau. But that wasn't the end of the story.
Were they members of a right-wing extremist terrorist organization that had randomly shot and killed nine men throughout Germany since 2000, eight of them of Turkish origin and one from Greece? That was the point at which the investigation had arrived by the end of last week, when police found a weapon in the pile of rubble that had become synonymous with what was probably Germany's longest, most brutal and most mysterious series of murders. The weapon was a Ceska, model 83, 7.65 caliber Browning.
The Pink Panther's Terror Tour
Although the authorities had not yet completed their analysis of the pistol when SPIEGEL went to press, they are almost completely convinced that it's the same Ceska that was used to commit the so-called "doner killings," named after two of the victims, who sold doner kebabs, between 2000 and 2006. Next to the weapon lying in the fire-blackened rubble in Zwickau, police found four DVDs that had already been placed into envelopes. A 15-minute film by a group calling itself the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU) had been burned onto the disks. In the film, which SPIEGEL has viewed, the authors call themselves a "national network of comrades whose principle is to value action above words. As long as fundamental changes do not occur in politics, press and in freedom of opinion, the activities will continue."
Using a macabre cartoon style, the authors take the Pink Panther cartoon character on a "tour of Germany," making stops at the sites of the nine doner murders. They film the sign on the door of flower shop owner Enver S., the first victim, and show his body and a photo that the neo-Nazis apparently took at the scene of the crime, with the heading "Original." The film, scored with the music from the Pink Panther cartoon series, is a chilling mix of infantile and fascist esthetics.
In another bizarre image, the police appeals for public assistance are derided, under the heading: "Today: Doner Skewer Campaign." The cynical post-mortem is accompanied by a press review including newspaper articles about the killings and the photos of several Turks who were shot to death.
In the video, the neo-Nazis also claim responsibility for a 2004 bombing in Cologne, in which 22 people were injured, almost all of them ethnic Turks. The video shows the presumed bomb before detonation, a suitcase on a bicycle filled with shiny nails, and a gas cylinder. The film ends with photos of the police murder in Heilbronn and the presumed police weapon.
The agitprop videos, addressed to several media outlets and Islamic cultural centers, were apparently intended to ignite the next stage, a propaganda campaign, after 13 years of silent terror. The neo-Nazis apparently felt strong enough now to take on all of society.
On the Wrong Track
The Ceska and the DVDs are the key elements in a case that is unprecedented in the history of postwar Germany: a series of murders apparently committed by neo-Nazi killers, presumably stemming from a white-hot rage against foreigners, and yet committed with such ice-cold precision that it took investigators an entire decade to finally track down the group.
In fact, until recently the authorities were on the wrong track, believing that the doner killings were committed by the Turkish mafia and were related to a protection racket, or that the killers could be traced to nationalist splinter groups in Turkey or elsewhere, but certainly not to right-wing extremist groups. Indeed, the authorities were convinced that they had the latter under control, which is now proving to have been a miscalculation.
This error of judgment is all the more glaring because there were apparently also co-conspirators. As the state government in Thuringia confirms, one of the men was using the name "Holger G." The real Holger G., who had apparently earlier told authorities that he was merely doing the trio a favor, was arrested on Sunday. He is suspected of providing the group's members with identification documents. Members of the state government in Thuringia already speculate that they are dealing with a larger "right-wing extremist network," which supported the trio "up until the last minute." How else could the fugitives have obtained so many weapons and passports?
There are some indications that the trio from Thuringia was merely the hard core of a terrorist cell of the sort that has until now only been the stuff of audacious conspiracy theories. Were they a miniature underground army, a sort of Brown Army Faction like the far-left Red Army Faction which terrorized Germany in the 1970s, consisting of two men and one woman, equipped with 19 weapons and the ability that all terrorists share, namely to deactivate their conscience?
Echoes of the RAF
The fact that neo-Nazis are becoming militant and committing attacks isn't a new phenomenon. The best-known case is that of Munich Oktoberfest killer Gundolf Köhler, who set off a bomb at the Wiesn festival site in Munich on Sept. 26, 1980, killing himself and 12 other people. Köhler was a member of Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, a paramilitary group of right-wing extremists who dreamed of civil war. The Hoffmann group had already been banned before the Oktoberfest bombing.
Another example is that of Berlin right-wing extremist Kay Diesner, who shot a police officer in 1997 while he was being chased, and was then sentenced to life in prison. And in Munich, several followers of neo-Nazi leader Martin Wiese were sent to prison for several years after police uncovered their 2003 plot to bomb a cornerstone-laying ceremony at a synagogue in the city.
But there is no precedent in German postwar history for an underground right-wing combat group that funds itself through bank robberies and plans and commits deadly attacks, defying the authorities' attempts to stop them using manhunts, informants and state-of-the-art surveillance technology. In fact, this sort of terrorism has until now only been associated with a group operating on the other side of the political spectrum, the Red Army Faction (RAF).
All of this raises many new questions. For example, what other crimes did the group commit? Investigators believe that they can pin at least 14 bank robberies on the trio. But in addition to the doner murders, which can now apparently be attributed to them, were they involved in other terrorist attacks? Suddenly everything seems possible, and every angle is being investigated. For example, police now speculate that the group may have been behind an unsolved bombing in the southwestern city of Saarbrücken, at a 1999 exhibition focusing on war crimes committed by the German army, the Wehrmacht, in World War II.
Beate Zschäpe, who had disappeared from the Zwickau flat shortly before it was firebombed, has since turned herself in to the police. Nevertheless, when SPIEGEL went to press she was still refusing to make any statements, and her role in the group remains unclear. When contacted by SPIEGEL, her attorney also declined to comment on the accusations.