Neo-Nazi Nuremberg: Germany forced to confront its dark side

The long-awaited appearance in court of a far-right group accused of murdering immigrants has revived awkward questions for the country

The four men and one woman charged in Germany’s biggest Nazi-linked trial since 1945 will find it hard to distance themselves from the racist ideology behind the string of murders they are accused of: when they appear in a heavily guarded Munich courtroom on Monday, some will have the creed of xenophobia etched indelibly into their skin.

“Die Jew Die” are the words tattooed on to André Eminger’s stomach. On his leg, the 33-year-old east German also sports a black sun tattoo comprising three swastikas. The face of the Nazi cult hero Horst Wessel is tattooed on his chest, and the image of a Second World War German soldier adorns  his arm.

With Beate Zschäpe, 38, the suspected ringleader, Eminger and three others are charged with complicity in the worst acts of neo-Nazi violence in Germany since the Second World War. They include the murder of eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman, and two bomb attacks which inflicted appalling wounds from which many of the victims will never recover.

“Their motive was to unsettle citizens of foreign origin in the hope that they would start leaving Germany out of fear for their own safety,” is how Harald Range, the chief state prosecutor charged with collecting evidence in the case, explains the background to the killings.

The victims were nearly all immigrant shopkeepers who were shot in the face or side of the head without warning and at point-blank range. In one case, a Turkish shopkeeper was severely injured when a nail bomb in a cake box exploded in his face. Another nail bomb ripped through a crowded Cologne street market and injured dozens.

The case has provoked shock and outrage in Germany, particularly within the country’s three-million-strong Turkish immigrant community, and especially because for nearly a decade the murders went unsolved. Instead of exploring the possibility that neo-Nazis were behind the attacks, the police claimed that “Islamists” or an immigrant “mafia” were responsible.

The inability of the police and intelligence services to solve the case has prompted the head of the German Turkish community to accuse both of institutionalised racism. Last year the head of German intelligence  was forced to resign in belated acknowledgement of his office’s shocking failure to trace the perpetrators for so long.

The killers were finally and unintentionally unmasked 18 months ago –more than a decade after they launched their campaign of racist murders. In November 2011 police were called to investigate a bungled bank robbery in the east German town of Eisenach. They followed a trail which led them to a burned-out caravan. Inside were the charred bodies of Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Boehnhardt, who together with Zschäpe co-founded the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation National Socialist Underground, or NSU, in the mid-1990s.

The trio had gone into hiding in 1998 to escape police detection. Realising that they had been run to ground by the police, Mundlos and Boehnhardt took their own lives. On hearing the news, Zschäpe set fire to the flat she shared with the two men in the east German town of Zwickau and went on the run. Four days later she turned herself in to the police. In the meantime, investigators had found the Ceska 83 pistol used to carry out all the anti-immigrant shootings in the charred remains of the caravan.

The murder weapon was not their only discovery; they also unearthed a macabre DVD showing the NSU’s blood-soaked victims. A giggling cartoon “Pink Panther” counts up the “kill” on the video. The terror gang had previously never claimed responsibility for any of the murders.

Zschäpe, who has been idolised by the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, is the only surviving member of the NSU. She will bear the brunt of the charges during her trial which is expected to last into next year. It will be attended by scores of co-plaintiffs from the victims’ families who are intent on seeing the perpetrators brought to justice.

Brought up by her mother in communist East Germany, Zschäpe, like many young people, became disillusioned by the mass unemployment that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Beate was a young, friendly girl when she came here,” recalls Thomas Grund, a worker at the youth club in the east German town of Jena that Zschäpe used to frequent.

But then she started to hang out with Mundlos and Boehnhardt, two combat-boot-wearing “bovver boys” who espoused the  type of far-right politics and violence against foreigners that suddenly erupted in east Germany in the early 1990s. She eventually took both men as lovers. Unwitting neighbours who lived next door to the flat the trio shared described Zschäpe as a “charming” person who took an interest in their children.

State prosecutor Range says he is convinced that she was no mere accessory to the killings but a participant who acted on “the same level as the others”. Zschäpe has sworn to remain silent during her trial.

Far-right ideology is an issue for Germany that will not go away. Last year a study by the country’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 15.8 per cent of east Germans had extreme-right views. There are an estimated 23,000 far-right sympathisers in the country as a whole, and a recent government survey concluded disturbingly that neo-Nazis were “younger, more violent and more militant”. Der Spiegel has complained that there is “no big push in society” to root out the problem. “The far right is not a major theme in public debate,” it said.

Many in Germany are hoping that Monday’s court case will ring the changes. An intelligence service shake-up is already under way.

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