Missed Opportunity? Hopes Pinned on NSU Trial May Be Dashed
Part 2: Accusations of Institutional Racism
"I'm talking about police officers on patrol," Basu said. "I recently accompanied a young black man to court. An elderly man had hurled abuse at him on a street in the Neukölln district of Berlin and then hit him with an iron bar. People called the police. When they arrived, the first thing they did was push the victim up against the wall and handcuff him. When he protested, they told him to shut up."
"Some passersby and children from a nearby playground called out that the police had got it wrong," Basu continued. "He said he forgot about the pain from the iron bar. What hurt most was that the police immediately saw him as the suspect."
Similar incidents happen frequently, said Basu. "Very, very many people say that when the police arrive, the first thing they do is ask for the victim's papers. It's the same principle as with the NSU murders. I don't think the trial will lead to much change in society."
UK Launched Reforms after Stephen Lawrence Case
Anetta Kahane, head of the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, a group that combats right-wing extremism, said Germany needed far deeper and more fundamental reforms to combat institutional racism.
She cited the changes made in British law in the wake of a racist killing in 1993, when Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old black man, was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus in London.
The acquittal of the five suspects in his death led to an outcry and a public inquiry that concluded the city's Metropolitan Police Force was institutionally racist and called for widespread reforms of public institutions from the police to local government and the National Health Service. The law was changed to enable a retrial and two of the original suspects got life sentences.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking last month before a memorial service marking the 20th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence's death, said it had "sparked monumental change in our society."
Black and Asian police officers in Britain say more change is needed. But Germany, says Kahane, is way behind in this respect.
Victims Seen as 'Superfluous'
"We've got to do what Britain did when it went through that painful process of checking to what extent there's a racist mindset in institutions," she told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "But nothing is happening here and the trial won't change that. We haven't got a debate about racism in Germany. That's why we don't really see the Nazis."
"If they'd done an attack like in Boston and so-called biological Germans had been among the victims, it would be different. But the NSU deliberately targeted people that not only they, but society, regard as superfluous."
Estimates of the number of people killed by neo-Nazis since the early 1990s, when there was an upsurge in far-right violence following unification, vary widely. Some put the figure at close to 200.
The true number of racist assaults is almost impossible to ascertain because many victims don't go to the police.
According to the 2011 report of the domestic intelligence agency, there were 755 violent assaults motivated by right-wing extremisism in the whole of Germany in 2011. But according to figures compiled by groups that help neo-Nazi victims, there were a total of 626 assaults in eastern Germany alone last year, suggesting that the total for Germany is much bigger than official statistics suggest.
"We have a lot of blind spots in parts of the country where we don't have many contacts who report assaults," said Robert Kusche of RAA Sachsen, an advice group. "Sometimes violence is normal there and the victims don't go to the police or contact us, but simply accept it."
Greater Public Sensitivity
The German parliament's committee investigating the NSU case is expected to submit its report in September, and it remains to be seen what recommendations it will make.
Some observers do detect a greater public awareness of neo-Nazis. When the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) launched a campaign of demonstrations targeting asylum seekers' hostels in the eastern state of Saxony last year, local groups quickly organized public resistance.
"People stood outside hostels to protect them and they organized events that attracted bigger crowds of all ages," said Grit Hanneforth, director of Kulturbüro Sachsen, a pro-democracy NGO catering for the region.
"Citizens' groups are now able to muster support relatively quickly and with more knowhow. And people know who to call and how to organize themselves when they want to oppose something going on where they live, like a neo-Nazi concert."
But Hanneforth added that combating everyday racism remains a major challenge, and that extremists are continuing to infiltrate organizations like sports and youth clubs.
"Violent attacks still happen, regardless of whether there's more pressure on neo-Nazis from the authorities. They're becoming more aggressive. I hope the NSU trial will contribute to a better public understanding that it's only dealing with the very tip of the iceberg."
Professor Hajo Funke, a leading analyst of the far right, said the NSU case had yet to bring about real change in the way the security authorities work. True, police have stepped up raids on neo-Nazi groups. But previous bans and raids haven't stopped the daily intimidation of immigrants, and they didn't stop the NSU.
An Opportunity for Change
"Law enforcement agencies haven't been jolted into action to curb the most dangerous aspect -- everyday terrorism by the far right in the form of racist assaults," Funke told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There's been a jolt in public awareness. But not in the institutions."
The domestic intelligence agency should be dissolved and its duties moved to a unit that is far more analytical and transparent in its assessment of the domestic terrorist threat, said Funke.
Funke has been among those who have been warning for a long time that everyday terrorism could lead to organized terrorism of the sort carried out by the NSU.
"I assume there are more NSUs, but the scene is extremely well organized and very well armed," said Kahane. "Getting hold of weapons has never been a problem for them."
The NSU case, she said, was an opportunity for Germany to get to grips with its far-right problem. "If we don't seize moments like this, opportunites that may come along later will be all the more painful."
- Part 1: Hopes Pinned on NSU Trial May Be Dashed
- Part 2: Accusations of Institutional Racism