Fears of Damage to International Reputation Germany Considers Event Remembering Neo-Nazi Victims

How could a cell of neo-Nazi terrorists thought to be responsible for killing nine foreigners go undetected for 13 years? The foreign media is following developments relating to the Zwickau terror cell closely. Many fear the coverage will be badly damaging to Germany's international reputation.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Turkish Ambassador to Germany Ahmed Acet are seen on Tuesday during a joint visit to a Turkish community organization in Berlin.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Turkish Ambassador to Germany Ahmed Acet are seen on Tuesday during a joint visit to a Turkish community organization in Berlin.

Foto: Sebastian Kahnert/ dpa

The Germany correspondent for El Pais, Spain's most important newspaper, wanted to know the answer to this question: How could it be that a group of neo-Nazis was able to operate for 13 years under the noses of the justice system in a country where even getting caught riding a bicycle without a light can result in a fine?

The left-leaning Madrid newspaper is anything but alone in asking questions like that this week.

The crimes allegedly committed by the Zwickau cell  of neo-Nazi terrorists is making headlines in media all across Europe. In its online edition, French daily Le Monde has even shown screenshots of the DVD in which the suspected perpetrators seek to claim responsibility for the murder of eight men of Turkish origin and one Greek man. The series of slayings known as the "doner killings" took place between 2000 and 2006 and the crimes remained unsolved for years. "The possible existence of a gang of neo-Nazi murderers has shocked Germany," the paper writes.

British and American newspapers are also reporting extensively on the neo-Nazi killers. Meanwhile, Turkish newspapers are drawing parallels between the activities of the far-right terrorists, and the open questions about their possible contacts to informants working for Germany's domestic intelligence agency, with the alleged "deep state" conspiracy in Turkey known as Ergenekon,  where Turkish state institutions supposedly supported violent criminals.

They aren't good headlines, and they shed a poor light on Germany. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government is deeply concerned about the battering Germany's reputation may take. Speaking in Brussels on Monday evening where a meeting of European Union foreign ministers had just taken place, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said, "This is not only terrible for the victims and not only bad for our country, it is also above all very bad for our country's reputation in the world."

Merkel Speaks of 'Disgrace' for Germany

Earlier, Chancellor Merkel had spoken at a conference of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party in Leipzig of "shame" for Germany. She also mentioned the possibility of reintroducing efforts to ban the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD). The government's last effort to prohibit the party collapsed in 2003. But Germany's domestic intelligence agency, created after World War II to protect democracy by monitoring political extremists, considers the NPD to espouse an anti-Semitic, xenophobic and neo-Nazi worldview. The party currently holds seats in the state parliaments in the eastern states of Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, having cleared the 5 percent vote hurdle in both states.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Westerwelle made the one appropriate gesture he could. Together with Turkey's ambassador to Germany, Ahmet Acet, he visited the Berlin offices of the Turkish Community in Germany (TGD), the country's largest organization representing the interests of a good number of the estimated 3 million people of Turkish origin living in the country.

The organization's president, Kenan Kolat, had been angered by the sluggish reaction by the German public to the crimes. There had been a lack of human sympathy, he had complained. Faced with the brutal murders of nine men -- eight Turks and a Greek, who were executed by the suspected killers between 2000 and 2006 -- the German public had remained largely quiet. There were none of the kind of spontaneous mass protests over the xenophobic killings that had taken place after attacks by right-wing extremists against minorities in the past.

Did Investigation Show Anti-Turkish Bias?

All this has been carefully noted by the immigrant organization, as had the fact that the police for years believed the killings to be the work of criminal Turkish elements -- the special police task force which was active until 2008 was even named "Bosporous," after the body of water that divides Istanbul. This name showed how the crimes had not been handled appropriately, national Green Party co-chairman Cem Özdemir said on Monday, arguing that it heavily implied the killers must have been Turkish. Özdemir, who is a prominent figure in German national politics, was himself born in the southern state of Baden-Württemburg to parents who came to the country during the "guest worker" wave of immigration.

Only the Central Council of Jews in Germany had immediately voiced its solidarity with the Turkish community. He was grateful for this, Kolat said, but pointed out that there had been no response even from churches and trade unions. "Investigating the crimes is one thing, but I also expect a gesture from the government towards the bereaved," Kolat, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), told the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper.

Westerwelle's visit to the TGD office in Berlin sent a swift and clear signal. It was a small gesture to the group of people who had seemingly been the prime target for the terror cell: Turks and Germans of Turkish descent. In Ankara, it was not only the media that reacted to the alarming reports emanating from Germany, but also the Turkish Foreign Ministry. Turks expect that investigators will get to the bottom of the so-called doner murders, "whatever may be behind them," the ministry said. In addition, Germany should do everything in its power to contain any "radical elements" in the country.

The full extent of the crimes committed by the neo-Nazi group has caught Germany off-guard. Between the never-ending euro crisis and conferences of two major government-coalition parties in Germany earlier this week, the full extent of the trail of blood left across Germany by far-right criminals over the years is only now becoming clear to many politicians.

Now they are searching for a stronger gesture, one that would pay suitable tribute to the memory of the nine men and the 22-year-old policewoman from Heilbronn who the neo-Nazi group apparently murdered.

It is time to grieve, says Thomas Oppermann, a senior politician with the Social Democrats. He is calling for a joint memorial service and will hold talks with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, on the issue during the next few days.

Berlin Mulls State Event Commemorating Victims

SPIEGEL ONLINE has also learned that the federal government in Berlin is currently taking steps to plan a commemorative event for the terror cell's victims that would express a broad sense of mourning in Germany over the horrendous crimes.

Government sources told SPIEGEL ONLINE that Bundestag President Norbert Lammert of the CDU and Chancellor Merkel have tasked German President Christian Wulff (also a member of the CDU) with developing plans for an appropriate memorial service. Possibilities discussed include a special service in parliament or a public memorial service. Another possibility would be a private service for the families of the victims, but it is more likely that a public memorial service will be held in order to send the strongest possible signal to the international community.

The opposition is pushing for a quick decision to be made. "We need neither sanctimonious chatter nor can we go back to business as usual in light of the terrible events," Green Party leader Özdemir told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "What's needed now are strong gestures that make clear that people who are not of German origin have equal rights and are an equal part of our country and that we do not differentiate."

Özdemir said the political and societal failings in Germany that occurred after a wave of racist attacks that took place in the early 1990s in cities like Solingen, Mölln, Hoyerswerda and Rostock could not be allowed to be repeated. "That's why a state occasion commemorating the victims of the far-right terrorist attacks would be the right message."

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