In recent days, some observers have criticized the German government for not taking a strong enough stand in reaction to revelations that a trio of neo-Nazis apparently killed at least 10 people in a seven-year murder series. But on Tuesday Germany's political class sent a strong signal that the country was determined to fight right-wing extremism.
In a rare show of unity, members of the German parliament from across the political spectrum issued a joint declaration condemning the murders. "We are deeply ashamed that, following the monstrous crimes of the Nazi regime, right-wing extremist ideology has spawned a bloody trail of unimaginable acts of murder in our country," the statement read. "Right-wing extremists, racists and anti-constitutional parties have no place in our democratic Germany," the text continued, adding that steps should be taken to strengthen all democratic groups committed to combating extremism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. The declaration also called for the structure of Germany's law enforcement agencies -- which are widely perceived to have failed in the case -- to be reviewed.
It is very unusual for all the parties represented in the Bundestag to issue a joint statement of this kind. The parliamentary group of Angela Merkel's conservatives generally refuses to pass resolutions in conjunction with the far-left Left Party, which it shuns because it is considered the partial successor to the former East German communist party.
Apology for Suspicion
In a plenary session, the members of the Bundestag also debated what action should be taken in response to the murders. Bundestag President Norbert Lammert, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, emphasized the parliament's grief, shock and dismay at the murders. "We are ashamed that the federal and state law enforcement authorities were unable to uncover or prevent the crimes that were committed over a period of years," Lammert said. He added that everyone in Germany had the right to live in safety, regardless of origin, beliefs or sexual orientation.
Lammert also apologized to the families of the deceased for the "suspicion" that had been placed on the murder victims. Investigators have been accused of disregarding the possibility that the murder series, which targeted mainly small businessmen of Turkish origin, might have had a right-wing extremist motive. Instead, police focused on the theory that the murders were related to organized crime, such as protection rackets, betting rings or money laundering -- a position that is now being criticized as racist in retrospect.
On Tuesday, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich, who has been at the center of the current debate on how to fight right-wing extremism, said that around 300 federal and state investigators were now working on the case. He told the Bundestag that the killings were an "attack on our society … and our democracy."
"We are filled with horror and grief as day by day we learn more about the murder series," Friedrich said. He promised that the crimes would be thoroughly investigated and that everything would be done to "dry out … the intellectual swamp" that had inspired the crimes, a reference to the far-right milieu that the terrorists had belonged to.
'Attack on Democracy'
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the floor leader for the opposition center-left Social Democrats, said that the murders were "an attack on us all and on democracy itself." Federal Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for vigilance against all threats to democracy, "no matter what part of society they come from." She played down criticism that the German state had been oblivious to the threat from the far-right. "We are not blind in either eye," she said.
Other parliamentarians called for the role of the domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which is responsible for monitoring political extremism, to be examined. There has been criticism of the fact that the different state-level branches of the agency appear not to have shared information with each other and with other authorities. Germany currently has 16 state-level domestic intelligence services, as well as the national agency, and there have been calls for some of those agencies to be merged.
On Monday, a spokesman for the German Justice Ministry confirmed that the German government was considering paying compensation to the families of the murder victims. The compensation would be set at around €10,000 per victim. The spokesman said that the ministry was currently trying to get in direct contact with the relatives of the deceased.
Meanwhile new details about the terror cell keep emerging. There are indications that the neo-Nazi trio may have known Michele Kiesewetter, the policewoman who was murdered in 2007 in Heilbronn. Investigators confirmed Tuesday that Kiesewetter's family had tried to take over the lease for a restaurant in a small eastern German town, but that a man connected to the terror cell was allowed to rent it instead. He apparently used the restaurant as a venue for right-wing extremist events.
Kiesewetter also lived opposite the pub in question from 2000 to 2003, and members of her family also lived nearby. There are also reports that one of the policewoman's relatives had hired a cook for another restaurant who has the same last name as one of the cell members, Beate Zschäpe. It is still unclear, however, if the policewoman had direct connections to the extremists and what form their relationship may have taken. The motive for Kiesewetter's murder has been a source of particular mystery.
The Zwickau neo-Nazi trio is suspected of murdering at least nine immigrants and a policewoman between 2000 and 2007. The right-wing extremist background to the murder series only came to light in early November when two members of the cell were found dead in a camper van in the eastern German city of Eisenach following a bank robbery. Their alleged accomplice is currently in detention but refuses to comment on the crimes. Investigators are looking into other possible suspects, and authorities now believe up to 20 people may have been part of the cell's support network.