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Photo Gallery: The 1980 Oktoberfest Bombing

Foto: Istvan Bajzat/ picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

1980 Oktoberfest Bombing Did Neo-Nazi Murderer Really Act Alone?

Thirty years ago, a bomb killed 13 people and injured hundreds at Munich's Oktoberfest. New evidence has raised questions about whether the attack was really carried out by a right-wing extremist acting alone. Politicians and attorneys for the victims are seeking to reopen the case.

Every year when Munich's famous Oktoberfest rolls around, Robert Höckmayr almost loses his mind.

While the happy crowds are flocking to the beer festival, Höckmayr becomes so anxious that he breaks out in sweats and is plagued by nightmares. His wife says that he becomes extremely irritable during the event. On those nights, he sees himself as a young boy who was standing only one-and-a-half meters (about 5 feet) from a trashcan. He remembers a flash, a loud bang and silence. It was enough to destroy a life.

On Sept. 26, 1980, Höckmayr was attending the Oktoberfest with his family: his father, his mother, his brothers Ignaz and Wilhelm, and his sisters Ilona and Elisabeth. Höckmayr no longer has any siblings. Two died in the bombing and the others died later in life.

Höckmayr, who was a 12-year-old child at the time, saw things that no human being can ever fully process. "I was devoid of emotions after that," he says. Höckmayr, now 42, is a marked man. There is so much shrapnel in his body that it never fails to set off the metal detector at airports.

Reexamining the Case

For decades, investigators were convinced that they knew who had committed the horrific act: a maniac with ties to the far-right scene who acted alone. But now, 30 years after the bloodiest attack in German postwar history, the old case is being reexamined.

Previously unknown documents describe the key witness to the attack as an active right-wing extremist and even raise the suspicion that he may have been an active informant for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. Was it really a coincidence that the eyewitness, whose name is Frank Lauterjung, was at the scene of the crime? Various inconsistencies have reignited interest among politicians and attorneys in the events of September 1980, and in the question of whether the person who planted the bomb may have had outside support.

"I will not give up until the judicial inquiry is resumed," says Peter Danckert, who is a legal expert with the center-left Social Democrats. Werner Dietrich, an attorney representing victims, is gathering every possible piece of evidence that could breathe new life into the investigation. Green Party politician Hans-Christian Ströbele supports these efforts and is pursuing a possible Italian connection. Finally, Munich Mayor Christian Ude has always insisted that the case needed to be reopened.

At its core, the case revolves around whether a crazy perpetrator who was acting alone triggered the inferno at the Oktoberfest, or whether an extremist right-wing group had in fact staged a terrorist attack against Germany on that September day. The bomb, deposited in a trashcan at the entrance to the Theresienwiese, the site of the festival, killed 13 people and injured 219, many of whom lost limbs in the explosion. The bomb detonated at 10:20 p.m., just as thousands of visitors were crowding toward the exit. The horrific images quickly circled the globe.

Unclear Motives

It is beyond dispute that Gundolf Köhler, a university student from the Swabian town of Donaueschingen, made the bomb, took it to Munich and deposited it at the scene of the crime. But even today, 30 years later, his motives remain unclear.

Köhler was also killed in the attack, because the bomb went off too soon. Few people believe that he committed suicide, however. He was said to be technically adept and knowledgeable about explosives. But the student also had ties to Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, a banned neo-Nazi terrorist organization, and had taken part in their exercises a number of times. Was the Munich bombing in fact a terrorist group's attempt to drive the country toward the right, just nine days before parliamentary elections?

The key eyewitness remains a dubious figure. Frank Lauterjung was able to provide more details about the attack than anyone else. He survived the explosion, even though he was only a few meters away, because he had had a "bad feeling" and thrown himself to the ground before the bomb detonated. Investigators questioned Lauterjung at least five times in 1980. He died of heart failure two years later, when he was only 38. But when he was questioned, the State Office of Criminal Investigation in Munich ignored his most explosive statement.

Lauterjung told investigators that he had noticed Köhler engaged in a heated conversation with two men in green parkas near the site of the bombing, about half an hour before the attack. Does this suggest that there were several perpetrators, or others who knew about the planned bombing? The two men were never found. They were not among the victims, nor did they contact the authorities as witnesses.

Links to Far-Right Scene

What the investigators overlooked at the time was that Lauterjung was an avowed right-wing extremist. Previously unknown letters were discovered in southern Germany as part of a deceased person's estate. They reveal that in the mid-1960s Lauterjung had held senior positions with a right-wing extremist youth group, the Bund Heimattreuer Jugend (BHJ), where he served as "deputy national leader" and "regional commander."

The BHJ organized tent camps at the time and paid homage to ex-Nazi Hans-Ulrich Rudel. Members closed letters with the phrase "Heil Dir!" ("Hail you!"), a reference to the Nazi greeting "Heil Hitler." After Lauterjung, in a letter to a newspaper, had accused the far-right NPD party of "rehashed emotional nationalism," the BHJ expelled him. It also claimed that he had lied in his application for membership by stating that he was "single," even though he was actually divorced.

A BHJ leader suspected early on that Lauterjung may have been a "provocateur" who had infiltrated the organization, and that he, like others of his ilk, were possibly working for Germany's domestic intelligence agency. This suspicion was reinforced by the fact that he would sometimes "disappear for four weeks at a time, as if he had been wiped off the face of the earth."

Looking for Sex

The star witness undoubtedly had a checkered past. Shortly after he was expelled from the BHJ, Lauterjung joined the Socialist German Student Union (SDS), first in Munich and then in Berlin. It seems ironic that this man, of all people, happened to be at the scene of the crime, standing not far away from Köhler, and had observed the student for several minutes before the bombing occurred. Had he been assigned to follow Köhler? Lauterjung claimed that, as a gay man, he had been looking for sex at a public toilet at the entrance to the Oktoberfest grounds that was known as a gay meeting place.

Lauterjung also said that he had believed Köhler was doing the same thing, and described him as an unkempt "intellectual outsider type" in a red plaid jacket. According to Lauterjung's testimony, Köhler was carrying a heavy, cylindrical object in a white plastic bag and was tampering with it. He was also apparently carrying a small suitcase.

The only problem is that the suitcase disappeared without a trace after the explosion, even though other witnesses said that they had seen it immediately after the attack, standing on the ground a few meters from the trashcan.

The testimony of a female passerby revealed another curious aspect of the case. She said that she saw two young men standing next to Köhler's body. One of them, she said, was lashing out wildly and was shouting: "I didn't want it! It's not my fault! Just kill me!" The police were unable to clear up the incident, because the man was never questioned.

Not a Trace

The testimony of a woman from the state of North Rhine-Westphalia also led nowhere. She said that she had seen a car with five passengers near the entrance to the Oktoberfest a week before the bombing, just after it had opened. According to the woman, there was a large object wrapped in black material on the back seat. The woman even remembered the vehicle's license plate number: VS-DD 500. It was a Ford owned by Köhler's father. But Köhler's mother later told police that her son had been at home at the time. The investigators believed her, even though Köhler's parents were in fact away that weekend. Had the group attempted to stage the attack a week earlier?

The experts with the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation were not even able to analyze the detonation of the deadly explosive device, because the detonator and the control unit for the mortar shell which had been converted into a bomb were missing. Not even a trace of the detonating device was found among the thousands of pieces of debris at the site of the bombing. The investigators assumed that a faulty fuse had caused the bomb to detonate earlier than planned.

But there is no evidence to support this assumption. In a 1984 novel, Wehrsportgruppe founder Karl-Heinz Hoffmann wrote that the Oktoberfest bomb was detonated by remote control. The LKA's explosives experts concede that this was certainly technically feasible in the 1980s. Hoffmann is now claiming in a video posted on YouTube that Köhler was in fact a victim, and that he was blown up by the backers of the attack so as to point the blame at his Wehrsportgruppe.

Destroyed Evidence

Were these backers from Italy? A few weeks before the Oktoberfest bombing, right-wing extremists killed 85 people in an attack in Bologna. After the Oktoberfest bombing, Munich papers received calls claiming responsibility for the attack from "the right-wingers in Bologna," who had supposedly placed the bomb in Munich. The attorney and Green Party member of parliament Hans-Christian Ströbele sees this as a promising lead.

Although some of the Bologna bombers were convicted in Italy in 1995, German authorities have yet to gain access to their interrogation reports. Did they include clues about the Munich bombing?

Nowadays, DNA matching could possibly be used to resolve the issue of possible backers. Cigarette butts, paper and bits of clothing found at the bombing site were kept for years. But, as Germany's federal prosecutor's office concedes, all the items collected by the "Theresienwiese Special Commission" were destroyed in 1997.

Meanwhile, the Bavarian capital is gearing up for the biggest Oktoberfest of all time. It begins on Sept. 18 and runs until Oct. 4. Munich is celebrating the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest this year, and the city is sparing no expense when it comes to security. Massive concrete bollards around the Theresienwiese are intended to prevent Islamist terrorists from detonating car bombs at the event. Hundreds of police officers will provide security. Sadly, drunken revelers have been known to relieve themselves at the site of a memorial to the victims of the 1980 bombing at the entrance to the Oktoberfest.

Regaining Dignity

Robert Höckmayr, whose siblings were killed in the bombing, will not be at the festival this year. He remains severely disabled today and is forced to haggle with officials over every cent of his disability payments. He feels abandoned by society, by the government and, most of all, by Bavaria. He never received any therapy, and to this day he is left on his own when it comes to his emotional and physical problems.

A compensation fund for the victims of Sept. 26, 1980 is the least Höckmayr expects of those currently in power. "I would like to regain a piece of my human dignity," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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