A Munich court announced its verdicts last week at the end of the five-year long NSU (National-Socialist Underground) trial.
Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the Neo-Nazi “NSU trio”, was sentenced to life imprisonment for her role in the ten murders, three bombings and 15 armed robberies carried out by the NSU between 2000 and 2007.
Zshäpe had claimed that she had known nothing of the activities carried out by Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the two other members of the trio who had committed suicide after a botched robbery in 2011.
A neo-Nazi all her adult life, Zschäpe claimed — unsuccessfully — that she had merely lived with Mundlos and Böhnhardt.
Ralf Wohlleben, a former official of the neo-Nazi NPD who had helped supply the weapon used in nine of the murders, was given a ten-year sentence. Two other defendants who had provided various forms of assistance to the trio received three-year sentences.
To cheers from a dozen black-shirted neo-Nazis in the public gallery, André Eminger was sentenced to two-and-a-half years. An arrest warrant against him dating from last September was also revoked, allowing him to leave the courtroom as a free man (for the time being).
Eminger has the words “Die, Jew, Die” tatooed across his stomach. He was described by his own solicitors as “a National-Socialist through and through”. He wore a jumper bearng the insignia of a Neo-Nazi heavy metal band during the trial.
Eminger provided more assistance to the trio and for a longer period of time than any other defendant. But the court concluded that he had not necessarily been aware of the terrorist activities.
After the announcement of the verdicts and sentences 5,000 protestors joined a demonstration in Munich called by No Closure, an umbrella organisation which brings together local groups including NSU-Watch and the Munich Alliance against Nazi Terror and Racism.
Over a thousand demonstrated in Berlin, 800 demonstrated in Hamburg, 300 in Rostock, and several hundreds in spontaneous demonstrations in Kiel, Bremen and Frankfurt.
The leniency of Eminger’s sentence was one of the demonstrations’ themes. But this was overshadowed by the slogans “The NSU was not just three” and “No Closure”. In other words:
• The trio must have been part of a much larger neo-Nazi network.
• Despite being the longest-ever trial of right-wing terrorism in German history, the courtroom proceedings failed to answer, or even address, many of the basic questions thrown up by the history of the trio.
Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt grew up in Jena in former East Germany. Unemployed teenagers at the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and German re-unification, they were attracted by the then resurgent far-right and neo-Nazi movements.
They attended far-right pop concerts, clashed at weekends with local left-wing punks, visited Buchenwald wearing SS uniforms which they had made for themselves, and invented a board game (“Pogromly”) in which points were awarded for sending Jews to concentration camps.
In the mid-1990s they joined the Thuringian Home Guard, a semi-military neo-Nazi organisation. The head of its Jena group was Ralf Wohlleben. Faced with the likelihood of a state ban in the late 1990s, the organisation “colonised” and took over the NPD in Thuringia.
By that time Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt had already gone underground. In 1998 the police had raided a garage which the three of them had rented and discovered explosives, bomb-making materials and a large amount of antisemitic literature.
But the three did not live really “underground”. They used false identity papers, but otherwise lived entirely public lives.
It is not credible that they could have led such lives, as well as having ready access to the weapons and explosives needed for their murders, bombings and robberies, without the support of a much broader organised network.
Other material found by the police in the flat in Zwickau where they had lived underlines the fact that the trio belonged to a broader network.
A list of ten thousand names from all over Germany was found in the flat. Apart from ethnic-minority, mainly Turkish, individuals, the list also included the addresses of offices of political parties, mosques, Turkish cultural associations, synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and asylum-seeker hostels.
The size of the list, its spread over the entire country, and the details recorded against individual names rule out the list being the work of three individuals acting on their own.
And the murders and bombings themselves could not have been carried out by three lone individuals.
The victims were ethnic minority shop and snackbar owners (mainly of Turkish origin, but also Turkish-Kurdish and one Greek). In many cases, it would have been impossible to identify the shop or snackbar owner — or even the location of their businesses — without personal observation.
The murders and bombings were variously committed in Nuremberg, Hamburg, Munich, Rostock, Cologne, Dortmund and Kassel.
Three individuals in Zwickau, supposedly living in the underground, could not have obtained the local knowledge needed for such murders and bombings without assistance.
The network of support on which Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt must have relied raises questions about the role of the state authorities: the BfV (Federal Office for Protection of the Constitution) and the police. Hence the demand for “No Closure”.
Both the BfV and the police had a network of informers in the neo-Nazi milieu. But both authorities claim that they had no knowledge of the activities or location of the trio.
Thomas Starke provided Zschäpe, Mundlos and Böhnhardt with the explosives found in the Jena garage in 1998 and then helped them go “underground”. From 2000 he was a police informer.
Stephan Lange was a leading figure in the neo-Nazi “Blood and Honour” organisation. The NSU trio were linked politically to “Blood and Honour”, and were personally friends with Lange. He was an informer for both the BfV and the police.
Ralf Marschner, a singer in the neo-Nazi West-Saxon Riff-Raff skinhead band, was Zwickau’s most prominent neo-Nazi. He lived round the corner from the trio and provided two of them with jobs in his firm. He was a BfV informer between 2000 and 2002.
BfV informer Andreas Temme was present when one of the NSU victims was murdered. He claimed that he had not heard the shots (as a silencer had been used) and had not seen the blood on the counter or the corpse behind the counter when leaving.
When the existence of the NSU finally became known in November 2011 the BfV immediately shredded the files of seven of its neo-Nazi informers.
When one of several federal-state government inquiries into the NSU requested a copy of the BfV file for Marschner, it was told that the file had been destroyed in a flood.
And the Hessen BfV, which covers the scene of the internet café murder, has imposed a 120-year ban on revealing the contents of an internal report on the links between local neo-Nazis and the NSU.
Apart from a police officer killed in 2007 — the reasons for which remain a mystery even after the trial — all NSU victims were Turks/Turkish Kurds, and a Greek. They were all killed with the same weapon. And all had been shot repeatedly at close range.
But for years the police consistently refused to attribute a racist motive to the crimes. Instead, throughout the six years of the nine murders, the police attributed them to mafia or gangland killings in the Turkish community, or to Turkish community wars over turfs for drug-dealing.
Police tried to persuade the widow of the first NSU victim that her husband had been connected to the Turkish mafia. When that failed, they invented a story that he had been having an affair with another woman, in the belief that would provoke his widow into admitting his criminal ties.
The family of another NSU victim, Mehmet Kubasik, was questioned about his possible links to drug-dealing, the mafia or the PKK, and their home was searched for evidence of such non-existent links.
The Greek victim’s widow was told that her husband’s absences from home were due to visits to brothels in Frankfurt. The police claimed that he had a secret lover They even demanded she admit to the murder of her husband.
The name given to the task force eventually set up to investigate the murders summed up the thinking of the police: Bosphorus. More perjoratively, the murders were referred to as the “kebab murders”.
The Nuremberg police even went as far as setting up a fake kebab stall, in the belief that that would lure out the Turkish mafia supposedly behind the killings.
When witnesses reported seeing white Caucasians “of Eastern European appearance” fleeing the scenes of the crimes on bikes, and suggestions began to be raised that there could be a racist motive for the killings, one police chief responded: “Have you ever seen a Nazi on a bike?” (For murders and bank robberies alike, Mundlos and Böhnhardt used bikes for their getaways.)
Even as late as 2007, after all NSU murders had been committed, the Criminal Investigations Office issued a statement claiming that the murders must have been committed by people who did not share German cultural values:
“Given that killing human beings is considered highly taboo within our cultural space, we can safely assume that the perpetrator is, in terms of his behavioral system, located far outside our local system of values and norms.”
The trial delivered verdicts on the five defendants, although Zschäpe has already announced her intention of appealing.
But the trial failed to confront was the institutional racism of the German state authorities which effectively allowed the NSU a free run for seven years — and which allows the same approach to the NSU’s successors and co-thinkers today.