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.
Germany's biggest neo-Nazi trial ever will start on Monday in the glare of the domestic and international media when right-wing extremist Beate Zschäpe, 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.
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.
- Part 1: Hopes Pinned on NSU Trial May Be Dashed
- Part 2: Accusations of Institutional Racism