The Higher Regional Court of Munich has brought one of the most high profile cases in Germany’s post-war history to an end. Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the neo-Nazi group the Nationalist Socialist Underground (NSU), will serve a life sentence after being found guilty of ten murders carried out over 11 years. Her trial has lasted five years.
It was only in 2011 that the public learnt about the existence of the xenophobic and racist terrorist group comprising Zschäpe and her two co-conspirators Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who are both now dead. Until then, neither the police nor the intelligence services had realised that the murders, which were spread across Germany, were connected. The victims were nine businessmen with migrant backgrounds and a German police officer. The group also committed two bomb attacks and several bank robberies. Authorities also failed to pick up the pattern in these crimes.
Far-right extremism appears to have been generally overlooked or, at least, not sufficiently prioritised by Germany’s security authorities. And, indeed, the question of why the authorities failed to recognise the NSU’s activities over such a long period of time led to an unusual number of parliamentary inquiries and executive investigations, some of which are still ongoing. The Bundestag itself dedicated two inquiries to the topic. Taken together, the findings suggest that German authorities have indeed failed to grasp the violent potential of the neo-Nazi scene.
They were clearly deeply embedded in Germany’s neo-Nazi scene, yet not much is known about the three members of the group. Following a bank robbery in November 2011, the police found Mundlos and Böhnhardt dead in a caravan in an apparent suicide. Zschäpe set fire to the flat they had shared in Zwickau shortly afterwards and turned herself in a few days later.
When searching the remains of the flat, the police found a bizarre confession video where a Pink Panther animation presented evidence of the trio’s lethal activities. Referring to themselves as the NSU but not revealing their names, the group threatened migrants in the video.
Despite the length of the trial, crucial questions remain unanswered. Zschäpe has remained almost silent throughout the process and evidence is limited, so it remains unclear how the group selected its victims. Nor is it clear what role German authorities played in the events. The domestic security service and police units run informants in the neo-Nazi scene, including some close to the trio and their connected groups. So why were they not more clued up about the NSU?
Most of the killings were investigated as being part of organised crime, or ethnic feuds. A xenophobic motif was often quickly rejected. Were the authorities incompetent? Did they even tolerate some neo-Nazi activities? Could they be guilty of institutional racism? For the victims’ families and their communities, the trial provided no satisfying answers, just like the parliamentary inquiries.
The trial involved Zschäpe and four other defendants who had assisted the NSU in different ways, from providing the murder weapon to hiring cars and apartments. Zschäpe denied the charges but spoke only twice during the trial. She fell out with her original defence team and ended up being represented by two sets of lawyers when the court refused to unseat the first team.
The court rejected Zschäpe’s claims of innocence and found her to be fully complicit. The group was hoping to spread “fear and insecurity” among immigrant communities, the court found. In particular, Judge Manfred Götzl suggested that it was due to Zschäpe that the group could stay undercover for such a long time, as she was critical in creating a “harmless, unsuspicious” front. She kept friendly contact with their neighbours in their various homes, for example, and was by far the most sociable member of the NSU.
In contrast to Zschäpe, the court’s verdict concerning two of the co-defendants, André Eminger and Ralf Wohlleben, was considered to be surprisingly mild. The court found Eminger, who had regular contact with the NSU members, not guilty for complicity in murder. He received a sentence of two years and six months for supporting a terrorist organisation. The NSU’s gun provider Wohlleben got ten years – but now only needs to serve two as he has already been on remand for eight years.
Facing up to right-wing extremism
Since the NSU’s killing spree was exposed, a number of institutional reforms have been implemented to strengthen the German authorities’ approach towards far-right extremism. A clearer prioritisation of this form of extremism, joint databases and a smoother process of information sharing were some of the major points of reform. Despite these efforts, however, the far-right scene remains substantial, with about 23,000 individuals, as the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution’s most recent figures suggest.
Like some other European countries, Germany has seen the rise of a populist right-wing party in the form of The Alternative for Germany (AfD). Its remarkable success in a number of elections since spring 2013 has raised concerns that its right-wing attitudes are becoming normalised. Some AfD members are openly racist and xenophobic. Senior figure Björn Höcke, for example, has previously suggested that Africans are “fundamentally different” to Europeans and described Berlin’s Holocaust memorial as “a monument of shame”. German authorities do not consider the party as a whole as extremist, however, and it is therefore not subject to monitoring.
Issues of far-right politics and extremism continue to occupy the country. This trial has left some important questions unanswered, especially with regard to the role of authorities and the extent, and ways, in which informants are being used. For the victims’ families and many observers, further investigation into these questions is an absolute must.
Claudia Hillebrand does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.