NSU Network The Many Shortcomings of Germany's Neo-Nazi Terror Trial
The right-wing extremist terror cell known as the National Socialist Underground ultimately murdered 10 people. The trial ended last week, but plenty of questions remain about the group's numerous accomplices.
In the end, after a five-year trial against Beate Zschäpe and supporters of the right-wing extremist terror cell known as the "National Socialist Underground" (NSU), it's worthwhile to take another look at how it all began. To examine what happened on that day more than 20 years ago when Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt went underground. It makes sense to focus on some of the details that were initially ignored, at secondary players who seemingly didn't play a significant role -- to understand just how complex the NSU really was.
Back then, on Jan. 26, 1998, police searched a garage in the eastern German city of Jena that had been rented by Zschäpe. They found five pipe bombs containing 1.3 kilograms of explosives. It looked as though the authorities had found a hot trail.
For the trio, that search meant it was time to disappear. Zschäpe and her two companions climbed into an old car to flee toward Chemnitz. But then the car broke down.
It was a completely normal breakdown and normal people would simply have called a tow truck and waited on the side of the road. But Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos didn't wait -- and they made it to Chemnitz despite the mishap. After that, they were gone and stayed gone for almost 14 years -- until the terror network's cover was spectacularly blown in November 2011 when Böhnhardt and Mundlos committed suicide and Zschäpe set the trio's hideout in Zwickau on fire.
And what about the escape car they left behind? The trio alerted an old friend from whom they had borrowed the car and who shared their right-wing view of the world. That friend contacted another friend who towed the car away. It was only with the help of such friends that the three were able to erase the clues that could have helped lead the police to their hideout.
Last Wednesday, a state court in Munich sentenced Beate Zschäpe to life in prison on 10 counts of murder, with the court emphasizing the particular gravity of her guilt. And with that, it seemed like the NSU story had come to an end.
'Not Totally Cleared Up'
In Munich, German public prosecutors consistently stuck to the theory they had developed early on - namely that the NSU had consisted solely of Zschäpe and her late accomplices Böhnhardt and Mundlos. Only four supporters were convicted last week as well, including Ralf Wohlleben, the neo-Nazi friend who loaned them the getaway car. He was handed a prison sentence of 10 years for complicity in murder.
But what about the friend of a friend who towed the car away? And the many other helpers who made it possible for Zschäpe and her two partners to live a life in the underground. "I want to know why there still hasn't been a serious investigation into additional accomplices," said Gamze Kubasik, the daughter of one of the murder victims, following the verdict. Many other family members of the NSU's 10 murder victims -- including eight people with Turkish backgrounds, one Greek man and a policewoman, all killed between 2000 and 2006 -- feel the same way. Several politicians were also critical last week, with Petra Pau, a member of German parliament with the Left Party, saying that the "right-wing terror network has not been totally cleared up." Uli Grötsch of the center-left Social Democrats said that the authorities "needed to uncover additional supporters" of the NSU. Armin Schuster, of the center-right Christian Democrats, said: "Questions remain open even after the verdict."
Parliamentary investigative committees, reporting by journalists and the detailed work undertaken by representatives of the families as joint plaintiffs in the case have all found numerous leads and clues. Together, they show just how expansive the right-wing terror network was.
This network enabled the NSU to survive. Friends helped tow away cars, like Andreas R., who also acted as an informant for authorities from the state of Thuringia. They procured explosives, obtained IDs and other documents, made apartments available and supplied weapons. Without their help, the 10 murders, three explosions and 15 robberies committed by the NSU would not have been possible.
The Explosives Supplier
Before there was an NSU terror cell, Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe didn't live under cover. Until 1998, they had personal IDs, street addresses and telephone numbers under their real names. And they were neo-Nazis through and through.
It was a time when Mundlos was saving murderous and racist rhymes on a diskette. "Ali you dirty pig, we hate you ... If you say it would be too out of line, must only see the Turkish swine! He steals, robs and then shows disdain. But today he'll die, what a shame!"
Even then, the three plotted attacks on those who dared to think differently and experimented with mock-ups of explosive devices. But they lacked the necessary explosives to commit a terror attack.
Which is when Thomas S. came on the scene. A former lover of Zschäpe's, he was one of the most important members of the Saxon chapter of Blood & Honour, an internationally active neo-Nazi organization to which Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos were closely linked. Blood & Honour organized right-wing rock concerts in addition to producing CDs, DVDs and magazines, making millions doing so. They used that money to finance the scene.
And it didn't stop at the music. Blood & Honour, which has since been banned, also had an armed wing called Combat 18 whose members were responsible for murders, arson attacks and bombings in several countries. (The number 18 is common neo-Nazi code representing the first and eighth letters in the alphabet, AH, which stands for Adolf Hitler.)
Thomas S. took advantage of his contacts within this network to obtain the 1.3 kilograms of explosives that was later found in Zschäpe's garage. He handed over the explosives in a carton that was roughly the size of a shoebox. The right-wing terrorists used a few grams of the explosive material in 1997 for a suitcase bomb, covered with swastikas, which they placed in front of the Theaterhaus theater in Jena. But it didn't go off; a battery for the detonator was missing.
Thomas S., who later took a different last name, didn't just help out with bomb supplies. When the three fled Jena in winter 1998, he found them places to sleep in Chemnitz. Even well after Böhnhardt, Mundlos and Zschäpe went underground, Thomas S. continued to stay in touch with them. He is said to have told other neo-Nazis who wanted to donate money to the cause that the trio no longer needed any help.
A short time later, the Berlin State Criminal Police Office recruited Thomas S. as an informant, known in German as a Vertrauensperson, or VP. For 10 years, from 2000 to 2011, he provided information from the scene to the authorities and he even told his contact persons about the NSU trio on at least five occasions. But the information he shared still didn't lead to the discovery of the terror cell -- one of the many grave errors made by German law enforcement authorities that would later become the subject of a parliamentary investigative committee.
After Zschäpe's arrest, Thomas S. was one of the few from the NSU orbit who testified to the German Federal Criminal Police Office, the BKA. He helped officers reconstruct what took place during the first few months after the NSU went underground in addition to providing insight into those who supported the trio and into the actions taken by Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos.
The Passport Provider
Day-to-day life in hiding could only work in the long term with passports, a bank account and other official documents. That's something that members of the left-wing terror group Red Army Faction (RAF) -- in which Mundlos is said to have been deeply interested -- knew all too well. In hiding, he sought to emulate their attention to detail.
In Chemnitz, he borrowed the personal identification card belonging to Max-Florian B. and used it to apply for a new passport, submitting his own photo in the application. From that point onward, he was able to use the passport to officially identify himself as Max-Florian B.
Mundlos used the passport for more than 10 years. He relied on it to open an account, purchase a railway card to save money on train travel and even to rent an apartment. The real Max-Florian B. apparently even made his birth certificate available to the trio; officials found it in the smoldering remains of the NSU's final apartment in Zwickau, to which Zschäpe had set fire.
In the ensuing years, B. maintained sporadic contact with the three neo-Nazis according to testimony B. later provided to the police. He visited Mundlos in Zwickau in 2003 and then met Mundlos and Böhnhardt one or two years later in Dresden. One day, it must have been in 2009 or 2010, the two even dropped by B.'s house in Dresden. The terrorists brought along presents for B.'s two children and asked for updated details about his current life, as they had in the past.
In Chemnitz, the three were apparently able to move around freely, even though many neo-Nazis were fully aware of their presence in the city. Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos found lodging in shared apartments occupied by other right-wing extremists. For a time, for example, they lived in an apartment belonging to the then-boyfriend of an acquaintance named Mandy S. The acquaintance told her boyfriend that the trio needed help because they had "screwed up." The boyfriend was Max-Florian B.
At the time, security officials had their eyes on the city, with Chemnitz widely considered to be a stronghold of right-wing extremism. The situation for the NSU terror cell there became untenable.
In summer 2000, they moved to Zwickau. Using the illegally procured passport along with proof-of-income, likewise provided by Max-Florian B., who worked as a stonemason, the three were able to rent their own apartment.
One year later, they moved again -- and again they received help from friends within the right-wing extremist network. André Eminger, who was likely the trio's most important supporter and who was likewise a defendant in Munich, put the NSU in touch with another neo-Nazi named Matthias D.
Matthias D. worked as a long-distance truck driver and was a collector of Nazi paraphernalia. In 2003, he rented an apartment in Zwickau for occasional use -- an apartment that he then rented to Uwe Mundlos, who D. insists he only knew under the name Max-Florian B.
Matthias D. would later say that he occasionally spent the night in the apartment himself when he was in the area. In other words, he would periodically stay with people who were in the process of committing a series of murders and robberies and who were being sought by the authorities. Matthias D., though, would later say that he knew nothing about the criminal backgrounds of his tenants and that he only held brief chats with them over coffee.
The Weapons Dealer
The three NSU members lacked the weapons necessary to realize their plan of robbing banks and post offices and, later, killing immigrants. Jan W., who was part of the leadership of Blood & Honour at the time, is thought to have tried to organize weapons for the trio early on. An informant working with state intelligence authorities in Brandenburg, which borders on the state of Saxony where Zwickau is located, claimed that Jan W. made money and weapons available to the terror cell through his organization. The informant said that he had learned from people in the neo-Nazi scene at the time that the NSU planned to carry out attacks and then leave the country with the help of the money they stole. That information, however, apparently did not trigger much interest among the Brandenburg authorities.
Speaking with DER SPIEGEL, W. later claimed that he had "never possessed a weapon, much less passed one on to the three." Zschäpe, though, had a different story to tell. In the Munich court, her defense attorneys testified on her behalf that W. had provided the NSU cell with a weapon.
Mundlos is thought to have secured additional weapons by way of a video game store in Zwickau. The store's owner Pierre J. and his employee Hermann S. are suspected of having supplied Mundlos with multiple weapons, including the gun he used on Nov. 4, 2011, to first shoot Böhnhardt before then killing himself.
Pierre J. testified that he had known Mundlos under the name of Andreas but denied having sold him a weapon. His employee Hermann S. likewise denied the accusations but admitted to having sold Mundlos two signal guns.
Even today, it isn't possible to say just how widespread the NSU terror network was. Did local neo-Nazis help the three choose the targets for their attacks? Were those local neo-Nazis perhaps on alert should something have gone wrong during the murders?
How, for example, did the right-wing terrorists from eastern Germany know prior to their 2001 bomb attack in Cologne that the owners of the small grocery store in Probstei Street were Iranian? It wasn't apparent from the outside. The tailor's shop in Nuremberg, where Turkish immigrant Abdurrahim Özüdogru was shot and killed by the NSU that same year, also didn't necessarily look from the outside as though its owner was Turkish.
There is evidence that some neo-Nazis were aware of the existence of a group called NSU years before Mundlos and Böhnhardt committed suicide. In 2002, for example, the following sentence appeared in the editor's note of the neo-Nazi magazine Der Weisse Wolf, or The White Wolf: "Many thanks to the NSU, it has born fruit. The fight continues ..."
Because of that mention, the authorities in 2012 searched the office and home of the magazine's publisher, who was a state parliamentarian in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania with the neo-Nazi party National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) at the time. And the searches proved worthwhile, with the authorities confiscating a letter, the original of which was saved on a computer in the Zwickau apartment belonging to the NSU trio.
Investigators are convinced that the NSU sent the Weisse Wolf a cash donation along with the letter. Did nobody at the magazine, did nobody in the scene, wonder who and what was behind the NSU and where the money might have come from?
An additional clue that some in the neo-Nazi scene had been aware early on of the existence of the NSU is provided by the song "Döner Killer," released in 2010 by the neo-Nazi band "Gigi und die Braunen Stadtmusikanten," or Gigi and the Brown Town Musicians, a play on a Grimm fairy tale. At the time the song was released, authorities were still trying to determine who might be behind the series of murders targeting those with immigrant backgrounds. They still hadn't made a connection to right-wing extremists and continued to suspect that the perpetrator was part of the Turkish community.
Why, then, would a neo-Nazi band write a song about the series of murders? Read from a certain angle, the lyrics almost sound as though the band might have known who was truly responsible for the violence and the singer was charged with public incitement and glorifying illegal acts, but he was acquitted on appeal. The court ruled out the possibility of the singer having insider knowledge about the serial killings.
Federal prosecutors continue to investigate suspected accomplices, including André Eminger's wife. Thus far, however, no charges have been filed against any of them. And now that the trial against Zschäpe has finally come to an end, the chances of such charges being filed are slim. The statute of limitations applies in some cases while in others, the evidence thus far compiled is insufficient to file charges.
What is left is the resentment of the family members of the NSU victims and the survivors of their attacks. Many don't want to accept that the end of Zschäpe's trial in Munich could mean the end of the investigation -- and that the small and large crimes committed by the trio's accomplices will go unpunished. The one-of-a-kind opportunity to shed light in a court of law on the many dark stains in the NSU story has now, with the pronouncement of last week's verdict, been lost.