Missed Opportunity? Hopes Pinned on NSU Trial May Be Dashed

The NSU neo-Nazi trial opening on Monday offers a chance for Germany to face up to the presence of violent right-wing extremists and to tackle racism in its institutions. Anti-Nazi groups warn that the lack of real change since the case came to light in 2011 means the country risks missing that opportunity.
"The problem is called racism," reads a banner at a march in Berlin last November to commemorate the victims of the NSU.

"The problem is called racism," reads a banner at a march in Berlin last November to commemorate the victims of the NSU.

Foto: Carsten Koall/ Getty Images

Beate Zschäpe, 

Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial ever will start on Monday in the glare of the domestic and international media when right-wing extremist 38, believed to be the sole surviving member of the National Socialist Underground  terrorist group, will face charges of involvement in the murders of 10 people, most of them immigrants.

Four alleged accomplices will be in the dock with her in the mammoth trial in which over 600 witnesses will be called to testify. A total of 84 court days of have been slated but that may not be enough. There are 80 co-plaintiffs from the families of the victims -- eight men of Turkish origin, one man of Greek descent, and a German policewoman.


Photo Gallery: NSU Murders Trigger Soul Searching in Germany

Foto: Carolin Lemuth/ dpa

The case has alarmed the country's 3 million people of Turkish descent and has been a huge embarrassment to Germany because of the catalogue of errors made by the police and security authorities that exposed them to accusations of institutional racism and of having been blind to the threat of right-wing extremism.

Last week, Germany apologized for those mistakes at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, describing the murders as "without a doubt one of the worst human rights violations in Germany in the last decade."

Chancellor Angela Merkel apologized to the victims at a formal ceremony in Berlin last year.

The trial start was delayed  by almost three weeks because of controversy over the allocation of seats for the media.  In the first round, no Turkish news organization obtained a press pass, which caused an uproar that threatened to further tarnish Germany's reputation.

'They Photographed My Father As He Lay Dying'

The execution-style killings, all committed with the same Ceska Browning pistol, were carried out in cities across Germany between 2000 and 2007. The police never seriously considered that the motive may be racism and instead suspected that the victims, who included a flower seller, a grocer and a part-time tailor, themselves had links with criminal gangs.

"After the murderers shot my father in the face they photographed him as he lay dying," Semiya Simsek, the daughter of Enver Simsek, a flower wholesaler who was shot dead on Sept. 9, 2000 at his roadside flower stall in Nuremberg, told the newspaper Die Welt last month. He was the first victim. The police believed the family was behind the killing, and also suspected he was smuggling drugs from Holland.

"One explanation is the prejudice against foreigners and Turks that is deeply ingrained in people's minds," said Simsek. "This influenced the investigation for years and led them into the one, wrong direction."

The cases were only solved by chance, and not until November 2011, when two members of the group, Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, committed suicide after police closed in on them following a bank robbery, one of 15 with which they had funded themselves over the years while living in Germany, untroubled by the police.

Police found the Ceska murder weapon in an apartment in Zwickau, where the two men had lived with Zschäpe for three years. She had set fire to the apartment as soon as she heard of the suicides. When she left, she handed her two cats to a neighbor but didn't help a disabled elderly lady who lived in another flat of the burning building. Zschäpe is also accused of arson and attempted murder.

Will Zschäpe Finally Testify?

She turned herself into the police a few days later, after mailing a DVD to newspapers and Muslim groups in which the NSU claimed responsibility for all the murders and for a nail bomb attack in a district of Cologne where many Turks live that injured 22 people in 2004. The film revealed the group's callousness, featuring clips of the Pink Panther cartoon character interspersed with photos of some of the murder victims lying in pools of blood.

Police handout photos of Zschäpe's expressionless face have frequently been on front pages since November 2011. Zschäpe, who had been romantically involved with both Böhnhardt and Mundlos, has so far refused to testify on the crimes.

The court will throw a spotlight on every corner of her life. Her mother, her cousin, the parents of Böhnhardt and Mundlos, fellow neo-Nazis, informants and police officers will be called into the witness box to help shed light on what motivated the NSU and how it was able to evade the police for so long, and with such apparent ease. Whether she breaks her silence will be one of the most interesting aspects of the trial.

Born in Jena in communist East Germany in 1975, she joined neo-Nazi groups in the early 1990s, met Böhnhardt and Mundlos and helped to organize far-right demonstrations. The three of them went on the run in 1998 when police issued an arrest warrant after finding four pipe bombs with 1.4 kilos of TNT in a garage she had rented. They also found a machete and a rifle in her apartment along with a homemade board game called Pogromly, a neo-Nazi version of monopoly.

The trial will expose to a broader audience the institutional shortcomings that have come to light in parliamentary enquiries underway since last year -- the security services are regionally fragmented and overly bureaucratic, say experts. Crucial information either wasn't acted on or wasn't shared among departments. Opportunities to arrest the trio, who felt safe enough to have spent a number of holidays on Germany's picturesque Baltic Sea coast, were missed.

The domestic intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, which maintains a murky network of neo-Nazi informants, has been singled out for particular criticism, compounded by its shredding of files  relating to the NSU shortly after the group was uncovered in 2011.

Its president, Heinz Fromm, quit last year. Several other heads have rolled, but he was the most senior official to go. The government has responded to the failings by setting up a central register of neo-Nazis and a new anti-extremism center which, however, focuses not just on far-right but on left-wing and foreign terrorism as well.

NSU Discovery Hasn't Triggered Much Change

But even though the Munich trial will spark a new flurry of attention, the everyday beatings, the intimidation and the abuse of immigrants by neo-Nazis around Germany will go on, say anti-racism campaigners and people who help the victims of violence.

On the ground, they say, not much has changed since the discovery of the NSU caused nationwide public uproar.

Asked whether he had the impression that authorities were getting tougher on neo-Nazis, Bernd Wagner, the founder of Exit,  a group that helps neo-Nazis to quit, told SPIEGEL ONLINE: "No, I can't detect that anything has really been learned," said the former policeman. "Many police officers, especially leading ones, feel harassed and insulted by the criticism. Most of them are working in the same way they did before November 2011, the spirit hasn't changed. It seems that the political leadership and their own superiors aren't demanding it either."

Biplab Basu, an Indian-born anti-racism campaigner who works for Reach Out,  a Berlin-based group that helps victims of racist violence, hasn't seen any improvement either.

"We had hoped that the behavior of authorities would change, at least for a year or two, but unfortunately we're seeing that this isn't the case," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

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."