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Photo Gallery: Oktoberfest Bombing Case Reopened

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Oktoberfest Bombing Under Review Officials Ignored Right-Wing Extremist Links

Thirty-one years after the 1980 Oktoberfest bomb attack, officials have reopened the case. Previously unknown documents reviewed by SPIEGEL show that the perpetrator, allegedly a lone wolf, was involved with the neo-Nazi scene and Bavarian conservatives. But the unwelcome clues were likely ignored.
Von Tobias von Heymann und Peter Wensierski

The first booths were already open and a brass band was playing when a group of serious-looking people gathered at Munich's Oktoberfest in late September.

Tears were flowing, and some quietly placed red flowers at the entrance to the Theresienwiese, the site of the annual beer festival. They had come to commemorate their loved ones, their parents, siblings and spouses, who were murdered at this spot exactly 31 years ago, in the worst terrorist attack in postwar German history. Thirteen died and more than 200 people were injured.

Robert Platzer, one of the survivors, was 12 at the time. "I saw a young man bending over a waste basket at the entrance," he recalls. "It was as if he were trying to lift something heavy with both hands." At that moment, a bomb exploded in the young man's hands. Platzer witnessed the deaths of two of his siblings, whose bodies were ripped apart and hurled through the air.

At the commemoration ceremony politicians from all major parties vowed to reopen the case. Before that, the Bavarian state parliament had already adopted a nonpartisan resolution to resume the investigation.

Too many questions are still unanswered. Who was Gundolf Köhler, the man who had tried to plant the bomb and died in the process? Who or what made him a killer? And what were the political motivations for his crime? Was the attack part of a long series of right-wing extremist acts of violence that shook Western Europe at the time?

Early in the case, there had been speculation about Köhler's right-wing extremist background. And last year serious doubts emerged as to whether the 21-year-old was truly alone at the scene of the crime on Sept. 26, 1980. But the question of why the authorities never completely solved the case remains unanswered to this day. Could it have been that the party in power in Bavaria at the time, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), had no interest in seeing the case solved?

Looming Election

It was less than two weeks before the Oct. 5, 1980 German parliamentary election, and the CSU and its then Bavarian state governor and chancellor candidate, Franz Josef Strauss, were not interested in right-wing extremist terrorism. In their worldview, the threat always came from the left. The social climate was toxic, and the Strauss camp, and others, treated left-wing extremist terror group the Red Army Faction (RAF) and its sympathizers as Germany's public enemy number one.

What did not fit into this worldview was the idea that right-wing extremist groups were at the same time developing their own, loosely defined terrorist network, with cells in Hamburg, Nuremberg, Esslingen near Stuttgart, as well as in Antwerp and Bologna. Not surprisingly, efforts to investigate the threat from the far right were half-hearted at best.

For three decades, the official explanation for the Oktoberfest attack involved the theory of a confused "sole perpetrator." In May 1981, after just eight months of investigation, the Bavarian State Office of Criminal Investigation (LKA) postulated this theory in its "final comment" on the case. The Federal Prosecutor's Office also noted that there was "no evidence whatsoever" that "third parties" could have influenced Köhler. Case closed -- or so it seemed.

Until now, this final comment was the only document relating to the case that had been made available to the public, while the investigation files on which it had been based remained unknown. Now SPIEGEL has evaluated these files for the first time, in addition to dossiers from the former East German secret police, the Stasi, and other records, some of which were formerly classified -- a total of 46,000 pages.

Important Clues Ignored

The documents show that a number of Bavarian and federal government agencies were already aware of Köhler's right-wing extremist connections before the attack, but did not seriously follow up on important clues. Evidence, including what was left of the bomb, was removed on the night of the attack, witnesses were not adequately questioned and important leads were not pursued.

More thorough investigations would likely have uncovered the right-wing extremist network behind Köhler. But this would have highlighted connections Strauss and other CSU politicians had to the far-right. Politicians and investigators threw away an important opportunity, and terrorism coming from the right, unlike leftist terrorism, was long downplayed and characterized as an aberration by "sole perpetrators."

This was precisely what happened in the Köhler case. The "final comment" in the investigation report by the Bavarian LKA makes no mention whatsoever of direct right-wing connections or possible accomplices.

The investigators described Köhler as the unremarkable son of middle-class parents in Donaueschingen, a town in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg. He was a geology student who became interested in chemistry and fossils as a teenager. The investigation report concluded that his motives were unknown, with the authors merely noting that the fact that Köhler had failed an important intermediate examination could have provided "the final impetus" to commit the crime.

But as the newly released documents show, the authorities knew more about the case than the report suggested. Köhler's first interactions with the far-right NPD party began when he was 14. He attended the party's state convention and campaign events. In Donaueschingen, he was in close contact with a former Nazi who served as a father figure and strongly influenced his worldview. For years, Köhler kept a portrait of Hitler above his bed, and he also collected badges, books and pictures from the Nazi era. For one of his birthdays, he treated himself to a steel helmet and military boots, and he joined a shooting club to practice using a weapon.

"He supported the extermination of Jews and communists in the Third Reich," one of Köhler's friends told police after the bombing. The friend also said that Köhler had raved about being part of an SS or Reichswehr military organization in Germany, "to be able to take action against communists." Köhler once traveled to the eastern French city of Strasbourg to visit a brothel. Friends who had accompanied him later said that when he saw a group of orthodox Jews there, he said that "Adolf had forgotten to gas them, and now we had to pay for the pensions of these old men." One of Köhler's brothers later told the police: "This radical right-wing sensibility stabilized over the years."

CSU Downplayed Neo-Nazi Activity

Still, in their final comments the Federal Prosecutor's Office and the Bavarian LKA downplayed Köhler's worldview and his strong connection to right-wing extremist organizations.

Köhler was a member of the Viking Youth, which, modeled after the Hitler Youth, was the most important German neo-Nazi youth organization at the time. The group's several hundred uniformed members were led by a Gauführer, a term meant to invoke the Nazi officials known as Gauleiter. They learned how to shoot, committed pipe-bomb attacks and, calling themselves "youth loyal to the German Reich," were determined to combat the left. In 1978, "Viking disciples" attacked four NATO soldiers at a military training area in the northern state of Lower Saxony and stole several submachine guns and magazines.

But the Munich police still did not feel that the neo-Nazi connection was was worth pursuing. During a search of Köhler's room, they even failed to recognize his Viking Youth membership card. "Because I was unfamiliar with this organization (Viking Youth), I paid no attention to this membership card. I considered such cards to be part of Gundolf Köhler's collection, a hobby," the operations manager of the "Theresienwiese Special Commission" wrote in a report.

The officers did take the membership card with them when Köhler's room was searched again two weeks later. But this piece of incriminating evidence was not mentioned in the final comment, and there was no further investigation of the organization.

The authorities also showed little interest in Köhler's involvement in the Wehrsportgruppe (Military Sports Group, WSG) paramilitary organization run by the neo-Nazi Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, or that he had attended one of their meetings "sometime in the past." At the time, right-wing extremist activities were being downplayed by those at the very top of the political ladder in Bavaria. Speaking in the state parliament in March 1979, Strauss said: "Don't make fools of yourselves by attributing significance to certain groups -- you mentioned Hoffmann's Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann today -- that they have never had, do not have and will never acquire in Bavaria."

The CSU chairman also had nothing but derision for the ban of Hoffmann's WSG by the coalition government of the center-left Social Democratic Party and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party in Bonn in January 1980. Hoffmann, he said, ought to be "left alone" if he "happens to enjoy going for a walk in the country on a Sunday with a backpack and 'battledress' held up with a waist belt."

Already Known By Police

The extensive investigation files now indicate that the authorities knew about Köhler's contacts with Hoffmann before the attack. The German military counterintelligence service had intercepted letters between Hoffmann and Köhler that remain classified today. The Baden-Württemberg state intelligence service also had Köhler under observation, because his name had appeared on two WSG membership lists in 1977 and 1979. The police also knew about Köhler's ties to the Viking Youth and Hoffmann's WSG long before the Oktoberfest bombing. They too had found his name on membership lists they had seized from right-wing extremist groups.

But according to the investigation files, Köhler was only in contact with the WSG until 1976. The investigators did not find it sufficiently interesting that he had completed a type of guerilla training in Hoffmann's group and had even discussed "the possibility of a civil war in Germany" with other members.

The Viking Youth and the WSG were not the only stations in Köhler's extremist career. As a student in the southwestern city of Tübingen, he also gravitated toward the center of the far-right scene there. On Hoffmann's advice, he contacted the right-wing extremist group Hochschulring Tübinger Studenten, or "University Ring of Tübingen students." Its leader was Axel Heinzmann, an NPD member today and, at the time, a young politician for the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), the national sister party to Bavaria's CSU. He was also known at the university by his -- and Hitler's -- initials, "A.H."

In a letter to his young protégé, Hoffmann had advised him to seek Heinzmann's help in developing a local Wehrsportgruppe. This placed Köhler at the interface between right-wing extremism and the nationalist conservative establishment. Heinzmann cleverly addressed two milieus, the neo-Nazis and the CSU. He was a driving force behind the Aktionsgemeinschaft Vierte Partei (Fourth Party Action Group), which had ties to the CSU and aimed to expand the party's reach nationwide. Heinzmann and his neo-Nazi friends also attended joint conferences between NPD officials and CSU members of the Bundestag, including the party's foreign-policy spokesman at the time, Hans Graf Huyn.

Fighting communism was the subject of these meetings, known as Africa Seminars. In perfect harmony, neo-Nazis and Strauss supporters, including a number of CSU Bundestag members, discussed how best to vanquish the red threat. "Our freedom is being defended on the Cape," one of the meeting slogans read. To demonstrate their solidarity, CSU and NPD politicians traveled to southern Africa in the late 1970s. In 1981 Edmund Stoiber, the general secretary of his party at the time, campaigned for the CSU trips "with a number of interesting interlocutors." On another occasion his boss, Bavarian state governor Strauss, said: "One mustn't be too squeamish with auxiliary troops," no matter how reactionary they might be.

Damning Witness Testimony

Heinzmann's militant leanings had been public knowledge in Tübingen for some time, a circumstance that led to a bloody brawl in December 1976, when about 200 anti-fascists tried to prevent a neo-Nazi meeting from taking place. Hoffmann, Heinzmann and their friends, including Köhler, were in the thick of the brawl. The local press described it as one of the "most brutal altercations in the city since 1945." In a flyer titled "Is Bloodshed Necessary?" Hoffmann bragged that he and his supporters had beaten seven leftists so bad that they had to be hospitalized, and had also "injured many others." Köhler also bragged about the beatings. He had "participated in the activities of a radical right-wing group in Tübingen" and had "really cleaned up," he later told friends in Donaueschingen.

But Köhler's relationship with Heinzmann, his role in Tübingen right-wing extremist circles and the connections between the CSU and the far right were all clues that investigators did not pursue. The public was also not familiarized with the immediate background of the attack, even though witness testimony in the extensive files clearly indicate that Köhler had more on his mind than his problems at university.

In early August 1980, a few weeks before the attack, the student spoke with close friends about the Bundestag election scheduled for that October. He wanted to vote for Strauss, he said, but added that it was also important for the NPD to receive more votes. In the end, he said, only violence could produce change. It was about time, he said, for someone besides the left to stage an attack, namely the right.

In the conversation, Köhler also said that it might be a good idea to commit a bombing attack in Bonn, Hamburg or Munich. The attack, he added, "could be blamed on the left, and then Strauss will be elected."

Neo-fascists in Italy had already done something similar. Only eight weeks earlier, a bomb attack had devastated the train station in Bologna, killing 85 and injuring 200. The right-wing extremist attack was initially portrayed as the work of leftist terrorists. The strategy apparently fascinated Köhler and other right-wing radicals in Germany. They envisioned a series of bombings that would spark fear throughout the country, setting the scene for the establishment of a new Nazi dictatorship.

A Meeting in Italy

Another clue also raises questions about the background of the Oktoberfest attack. A few weeks earlier, Köhler's idol Hoffmann apparently met in Italy with the internationally feared neo-fascist Joachim Fiebelkorn. The neo-Nazi from the town of Eppstein in the Taunus Mountains near Frankfurt was an informant for the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) and a number of intelligence agencies. He also helped Klaus Barbie, the former head of the Gestapo in Lyon, build a paramilitary combat group in Bolivia. According to previously unknown Stasi documents, Fiebelkorn, "at the instruction of Chiaie," had met with "Karl-Heinz Hoffmann in Rome on July 13, 1980," as well as with French and Italian right-wing extremists.

The Italian neo-fascist Stefano delle Chiaie was viewed as one of the leading international terrorists of the day, a sort of right-wing counterpart to the left-wing terrorist "Carlos." Western intelligence agencies held Chiaie and his varying terrorist organizations, like "Ordine Nuovo," responsible for anti-communist attacks on several continents in the 1970s and 1980s. Bu what did Hoffmann discuss during his meeting in Italy, if it took place as the Stasi had noted? Did the men merely discuss ideological issues? Or the possibility of staging attacks in Germany based on the Italian model?

Hoffmann, who was in prison for several years for other crimes and now raises woolly-coated pigs in Saxony, says today: "I was not in Italy in 1980, I never saw or spoke with Fiebelkorn, and I don't know anything about him. I was neither the mentor nor the instigator for Gundolf Köhler, who, incidentally, was not a perpetrator but the victim of a staged attack. All investigative proceedings against me in that case were discontinued."

According to the files on the Oktoberfest attack, Köhler spoke with friends about his mentor Hoffmann three weeks before the attack. "Gundolf quoted Hoffmann, who had said several times that the bigger the target and its values, the more victims there could be," one witness was quoted saying.

Possible Accomplices Sighted

Then the bomb exploded in Munich, creating a scene of carnage at the exit from the Oktoberfest grounds. Body parts and dying victims were strewn across the path, while scores of people who had been in good spirits only moments earlier were now injured and confused. But what no one has known until now is that there were already signs at the time that Köhler may have had accomplices. Four youths told police that they had seen Köhler with several young men wearing German armed forces parkas shortly before the attack. They drew sketches of Köhler and his possible accomplices that largely coincided with the statements made by another witness. But the investigators also showed little interest in this possible lead.

The SPD/FDP federal government had wanted to send investigators to the crime scene that night, but the Bavarians put them off. Strauss appeared at the Theresienwiese festival grounds late that night. The Bundestag election campaign was in full swing, and the Bavarian candidate for the chancellorship promptly went on the offensive and tried to blame the left for the attack.

A few hours later, Strauss wrote an opinion piece for the weekly newspaper Welt am Sonntag. "For months I have been receiving indications that an attack was to be expected before the elections," he wrote, noting the question of whether the attack had come from the left or the right was irrelevant. "The terror began on the left. We have been warning against such a development for years." Strauss later speculated on possible perpetrators, saying that such an attack might be the work of then Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, the Stasi or the KGB.

The Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann, on the other hand, was exculpated after the attack by the Bavarian interior and close associate of Strauss, Gerold Tandler. "At no point," Tandler said, did the group constitute "a threat."

As a result, Köhler's act of violence was not used as an opportunity to thoroughly investigate the Wehrsportgruppe, the right-wing extremist terrorist network in Germany and the role of the perpetrator. It would have been a chance to shed light on the right-wing clique backing Köhler. Instead, his associates were able to continue what they were doing.

Right-Wing Extremist Violence Continues

Less than three months after the Oktoberfest drama, the Jewish author Shlomo Levin and his girlfriend were murdered in Erlangen, near Stuttgart. Levin had written a critical report about the Wehrsportgruppe and had compared its leader Hoffmann with Hitler. The police suspected that the murder had been committed by Uwe Behrendt, one of Köhler's acquaintances from Tübingen. But Behrendt fled to East Germany through Hoffmann's Bavarian residence at Ermreuth Castle. He was found shot to death, under suspicious circumstances, in Lebanon three months later.

A wave of bank robberies designed to raise cash, based on the RAF model, ensued. In one case, a robbery led to a deadly shootout in a Munich street between neo-Nazis and the police. Car bombs wounded US soldiers in the central German city of Giessen, and another friend of Köhler's, Stefan Wagner, went on a rampage in Frankfurt. Before he turned his gun on himself, Wagner told his hostages that he had been an accomplice in the Oktoberfest bombing.

Despite their extensive findings, the authorities held onto their theory that the Oktoberfest bomber was a "sole perpetrator." In fact, even Köhler's brother Hermann had told the police that he didn't believe that the killer had acted alone. "He wanted change within Germany, and he felt that he was part of a small elite unit that felt the same," he said when he testified about his brother Gundolf. "In the event of a change in Germany, this group was to be prepared to assume power." His brother, he added, had advocated a "violent overthrow," insisting that then "the people would clamor for a Führer."

Strauss's assertion that the security services had everything "under control" was therefore a deliberate deception.

Köhler's friends in the Hochschulring Tübinger Studenten, the Wehrsportgruppe and other right-wing terror cells remained out of control after the Oktoberfest bombing and the failure to fully investigate it -- and right-wing extremist violence remained an ongoing problem in Germany.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.