Lars Christiansen, 19, and Michael Peters, 25, whose trial began yesterday, are accused of a crime that shocked Germany, and made headlines across the world, at the end of last year. In the small north German town of Molln two houses were set on fire within less than an hour one November night.
Warning calls to the police announcing the two fires signed off with the words: 'Heil Hitler]' A 51-year-old Turkish woman, her 14-year-old niece and her 10-year-old granddaughter all died, and others were lucky to escape with their lives. The arson-murders - just a few months after a similar arson attack and a spate of right-wing violence in the east German town of Rostock - led to a wave of candle-lit demonstrations nationwide. Hundreds of thousands (including the President, Richard von Weizsacker) took part in the marches against violence, and a huge campaign against Fremdenhass , or hatred of foreigners, got under way.
None the less, as the state prosecutor, Hans-Christian Strobele, pointed out yesterday: 'Almost daily, we can read of attacks which only by chance do not end in the same, terrible way.' Mr Strobele said that he did not want to diminish the guilt of the individuals who committed the crime. But he emphasised the context. He said that the crime and the continuing violence should help Germans to 'address their history, and the history of a united Germany'.
Both Christiansen and Peters admitted to having had contact with the rechte Szene, the 'right-wing scene'. But both also claimed that they personally had become disenchanted with right-wing politics in the meantime. Both defendants initially confessed; since then, Christiansen has retracted his confession.
Christiansen yesterday admitted liking songs with words like: 'We are proud, Aryan, and pure', or 'The foreigner has got your job. He'll soon get a kick in the head. The boss throws you out, you have no job. You're a right-winger, you're a problem. You're a skin: you can go.' But he insisted that he did not believe in 'the most extreme' right-wing slogans.
Christiansen is being defended by one of Germany's best-known and reputedly best-paid lawyers, which has raised some eyebrows. Rolf Bossi arrived 40 minutes late for yesterday's first hearing; just before the trial began he had been giving a live interview (the name caption said 'Rolf Bossi: Star Lawyer') in a Hamburg television studio, 80 miles to the south.
Peters, like Christiansen, admitted having Nazi insignia in his rooms. He also said that he greeted friends with a Heil Hitler salute - 'but only when we were in a group'. Peters has never held a steady job. He mentioned drinking and meeting other skinheads as his main pastimes.
Peters claimed that he 'had no problems' with Turks whom he met. He then admitted, however, having a poster on his bedroom wall which said: 'Germany for the Germans] Foreigners out]' Outside the court Mr Strobele said: 'I hear a choice of words which I have heard from politicians, too: 'We're not against foreigners - we're against asylum-seekers and fake asylum-seekers.' I recognise this language - and it tries to legitimise the use of violence.'
The symbolic qualities of the trial have focused much attention on the proceedings. Above all, Germans are looking for a signal of how tough the sentences will be, if both defendants are found guilty. So far, according to Luise Schmidt, a 55-year-old nurse attending yesterday's trial, 'the authorities have been far too soft'. The trial resumes next week.