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The Chilling Neo-Nazi Trial That Exposed the Dark Side of a New Germany

How did the Nationalist Socialist Underground's decade-long killing spree escape the notice of authorities?

Courtesy of the German Federal Criminal Police Office via Getty Images
Courtesy of the German Federal Criminal Police Office via Getty Images

On June 27, 2001, Ali Taşköprü drove to the market in Hamburg to buy cigarettes. When he returned to his family’s store he noticed a dark liquid on the floor: a pool of blood. Behind the counter lay his son Süleyman. “I put his head in my lap,” he said afterward. “He was trying to tell me something, but he couldn’t anymore.” It would take ten years for Taşköprü, a Turkish-German who had lived in Germany for decades, to find out what happened to his son.

The mystery began to unravel with a seemingly unrelated incident. On November 4, 2011, police closed in on a trailer in Eisenach used by Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who they suspected had robbed a bank nearby. When the police arrived, Mundlos and Böhnhardt killed themselves and set fire to the trailer. Hours later, a woman named Beate Zschäpe set fire to an apartment in Zwickau that she had shared with the two men, and fled. On the run, Zschäpe mailed out several copies of a video claiming responsibility for a slew of killings and bombings stretching from 1999 to 2007—including the murder of Süleyman Taşköprü.

The video, a ghoulish document that combined footage from the crime scenes with jokey bits involving the Pink Panther, made clear that these events were part of a campaign of rightwing terror that had never been recognized as such by authorities when it was unfolding. Zschäpe’s neo-Nazi group, which called itself the National Socialist Underground (NSU), had murdered ten people throughout Germany and maimed many others.

With the exception of a policewoman, all the victims were gunned down execution-style in their places of business in broad daylight, with the same Ceska pistol fitted with a silencer. Eight of the victims were Turkish or German citizens of Turkish background (one was Greek). The policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter, was the only victim the terrorists would have considered “authentically” German. The NSU also set off a bomb at a Turkish café in Nuremberg in 1998, and two more bombs in immigrant areas in Cologne in 2001 and 2004. They committed at least 15 bank robberies to finance their life underground.   

When Zschäpe’s video was released, the awful scope of the NSU’s terror campaign shocked the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the victims’ families to offer apologies. German media framed the NSU’s actions as a national shame. The Bundestag and the German state parliaments convened investigative committees to find out why the police were unable to connect the dots on a neo-Nazi killing spree. A trilogy of movies aired on national public television, while plaques and memorials mark many of the crime scenes. Hamburg even renamed a street after Süleyman Taşköprü. 

To most Germans these modes of memorialization were familiar: They explicitly followed scripts established around Nazi crimes and the Holocaust. This was surely a sign of how seriously Germans took the NSU’s actions. But, in a curious way, the response turned out to be too much and too little at once. Despite a media onslaught, few were willing to examine the conditions that made the NSU possible in the first place. Exhausting levels of detail piled up, but central questions remained about Germany’s relationship to Nazism past and present.

The criminal trial of Beate Zschäpe and four suspected accomplices began in 2013 in Munich. Any hope that the trial would provide answers to those questions was quickly dashed: The proceedings degenerated into an enervating, confusing morass. Neo-Nazis were a menacing presence inside the courtroom and outside of it. Most of the defendants did what they could to slow down the trial. Zschäpe remained almost entirely silent, communicating through lengthy statements read by her attorneys. Press accreditation was severely curtailed, while questions the victims’ families had put before the court through their attorneys were ignored.

The trial ended only in July of this year. Last month, a small publishing house in Munich released the transcripts in a book, NSU Prozess. Das Protokoll (The NSU Trial. The Record.). The document not only gives Germans a full, unadulterated record of the trial for the first time, but also demonstrates how deeply rooted neo-Nazism is in certain parts of German society and how ill-equipped the German state is to tackle this challenge.

The questions raised by the trial eerily echo those raised by the seemingly unstoppable ascent of the far right in Germany in the past decade. The same year the trial began, the far-right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) formed. The next year it won 12 percent of the vote in Brandenburg state, and by this fall it was represented in all 16 German state parliaments. In the 2017 federal election, it won 12.6 percent of the vote, marking an ominous turning point in Germany’s postwar politics. 

The AfD’s specter loomed over the proceedings in Munich. Would the German state be able to act as a guardian of a pluralistic, multi-ethnic country? Would the general miasma of national shame congeal into a specific account of who bore responsibility? And would this lengthy trial shed light on what had made the NSU possible—on what had allowed it to thrive and murder in the shadows for nearly ten years?

In the book’s introduction, the four journalists who compiled the transcripts of the trial—Annette Ramelsberger, Wiebke Ramm, Tanjev Schultz, and Rainer Stadler—come to a clear conclusion: The trial “did not succeed.” That is because, they say, the prosecution was focused above all on the five defendants, and declared any mutterings of a more systemic problem “a will-o’-the-wisp, like the buzz of flies in our ears.” That this buzz came from the victims’ relatives seemed to matter little.

In addition to being a historically important document, the book is simply an astonishing object: 2,000 pages, five volumes, crammed so full of information that the bios of the authors are included only as a small insert. This in spite of the fact that, since the NSU trial was neither televised nor recorded, the four journalists had to literally stenograph what they heard in the courtroom, day after day, for 438 days.

Keeping track of the cast of characters alone was no easy task. German law allows victims to hire attorneys to function as “co-plaintiffs’ attorneys,” who can call and cross-examine witnesses. So while the government’s prosecution team was composed of three jurists, the victims of the NSU’s killings and bombings were represented by 58 attorneys. The five defendants, for their part, had a grand total of 14 attorneys present; Zschäpe herself began with three, whom she tried to fire halfway through the trial. The judge ruled that they had to remain by her side anyway, and for years Zschäpe, her new attorneys, and her fired attorneys shared a bench without her dignifying her former attorneys with a single glance.

Uwe Mundlos (left), Uwe Böhnhardt, and Beate Zschäpe at an undisclosed location in 2004.
Courtesy of the German Federal Criminal Police Office via Getty Images

For 248 days Zschäpe remained silent. Then she had her new legal team read a statement that disavowed everything. She had once been a Nazi, she claimed, but had changed her ways while living underground. Mundlos and Böhnhardt had continued to murder in the name of her old ideology without her involvement. 

Her co-defendants, as the editors point out, represented different facets of German neo-Nazism. There was Ralf Wohlleben, a functionary for the far-right NPD party who seemed eager to lay claim to a bourgeois sort of respectability; André Eminger, a tattooed skinhead and self-declared “committed national socialist”; Holger Gerlach, a dimwitted loser who had finally found a tribe; and Carsten Schultze, who had left the neo-Nazi fold decades ago and genuinely seemed stricken about what he had allowed to happen.

Both Wohlleben and Schultze were indicted for their role in procuring a weapon for the killers, Eminger as an accessory to the bombings and several robberies. He and Gerlach were further indicted for the “formation of a terrorist group.” Zschäpe’s defense argued in closing that neither Zschäpe nor the other defendants could be said to be have formed a “terrorist group,” as German law requires a group to have at least three members. The lawyers claimed their client was unfairly tied to Böhnhardt and Mundlos, simply because she lived with them for the entire duration of their crimes. Where the prosecution saw a group, the defense wanted the judges to see only individuals, who may have been friends and roommates, and who may have shared an ideology, but did none of the things they did in concert with one another.

The transcripts show how carefully the prosecution punctured that fantasy: They were able to connect the fairly obvious dots suggesting that, yes, these people meant to start a terror cell when they first went underground in 1998, and, yes, their helpers either knew what they were doing or had a good-enough idea. 

But the editors point out that the trial went beyond the crimes of these five defendants. They call it “a deep core drill into German history, unearthing dangerous sediments underneath a surface of economic prosperity and seemingly firmly established democratic values.” In her closing arguments, the federal prosecutor Annette Greger claimed that “the motive of all these crimes was a far right ideology, the fever dream of a country free of foreigners, and the intention to shake this free, this friendly country, in which we live, to its core, in order to prepare the ground for a disgusting Nazi regime.”

In other words, the prosecution found itself in the somewhat schizophrenic position of wanting to establish a conspiracy—these five people, plus the two dead ones, had been an organization—but not too much of one. They aimed not only to secure verdicts against these five defendants, but also to position their crimes as malignant outliers in “this free, this friendly country.” But the victims’ attorneys presented a different story: Whatever else the NSU was, it wasn’t an outlier. Rather it was deeply consonant with a cruel, nationalist streak in German politics that is only getting stronger.

From the day the NSU was finally discovered, the central question was how they had been able to carry on in secret for so long. There has long been a sense that German security forces are “blind on the right side,” as Germans put it. For the Federal Criminal Bureau (BKA) and the Constitutional Protection Service (BfV), “terrorism” invariably meant left-wing terrorism. And since 9/11, it had meant either left-wing or Islamist terrorism. As in the United States, the security forces frequently downplayed or ignored right-wing violence altogether. They were unwilling to recognize any larger structure to it, preferring to see irrational flare-ups where others saw evidence of broader forces at work. 

At other times the security forces implicitly condoned right-wing activity. Earlier this year, it was revealed that Hans-Georg Maaßen, head of the Constitutional Protection Service (BfV), had met years ago with politicians from the AfD to suggest ways of keeping the party off his own Service’s radar. And after neo-Nazis and members of the AfD marauded through the town of Chemnitz earlier this year, chasing people they took to be immigrants, Maaßen gave interviews calling reports about these events fake news—based not on his own agency’s investigative work, it turned out, but on videos and memes circulating in far-right circles. Maaßen was finally fired in early November.

Only thanks to the efforts of the co-plaintiffs’ attorneys, acting for the victims, do the police, the BKA, and the BfV remain a presence in these transcripts. Which is crucial, as the police cut a disturbingly large figure in the NSU story. For example, the police let the trio slip away during the initial search of their garage in 1998, which was itself rented from a policeman. After the crimes were discovered in 2011 the BfV immediately began collecting and shredding files pertaining to right-wing infiltration. And in all those years police allegedly saw nothing, or saw only immigrant-on-immigrant violence.

Before the NSU published their video, their assassinations were known as the “Döner-killings,” after the type of kebab immensely popular in Germany. Investigators seemed determined to seek the origins of these shocking crimes amongst the immigrant communities they terrorized. One of the task forces on the case, for example, was code-named “Bosporus.” When a witness identified as Beate K. went to the police after one of the crimes, she was shown mostly pictures of Turkish men as potential suspects. She was also asked to opine “whether the Turkish mafia might be behind it: weapons smuggling, money laundering.” In the case of the murdered policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter, the NSU’s final victim, authorities came to focus on a Roma family that had been somewhere in the vicinity of the crime scene, obsessively tracking their travels across Europe.

Beate Zschäpe appearing at a Munich court in July 2018.

The trial transcripts show that this compulsion was shared by an entire society—that the same prejudices that governed the investigators were at work in most non-immigrant witnesses. When Mundlos and Böhnhardt murdered Süleyman Tasköprü, a witness claimed she had heard two men arguing beforehand “in a foreign language.” When another witness crossed paths with Mundlos and Böhnhardt immediately after the murder of İsmail Yaşar in Nuremberg, she initially described them as “southern types,” i.e. ethnically non-German. The press operated with much the same biases: The left-leaning weekly Der Spiegel fantasized in 2011 that the killings were clearly the work of Turkish ulta-nationalists—“the shot in the face a sign … for a loss of honor,” the murders an indication that Turks lived in a “dark parallel society” within Germany. 

The NSU transcripts tell of a state and a society that couldn’t have seen what the NSU was doing, even if they had bothered to try. Their blinkers were so powerful that the authorities often turned their suspicions on the victims. With regard to almost all of the nine victims who were either immigrants or of immigrant descent—and, tellingly, not in the case of the dead policewoman—the police got it into their heads that the family’s stupefied trauma was actually “a cartel of silence” that they would have to break. In one case, they told a widow that her slain husband had been having an affair with a German woman and had two children by her. In another, they staked out a victim’s widow’s home. They questioned the families about organized crime, about drugs, about the outlawed Kurdish party PKK.

Who has a right to be silent and whose silence is criminalized? The state’s position in this question is all too clear throughout the trial. One is struck by the persistent silence that greets the phalanx of prosecutors and victims’ attorneys in these transcripts. When Zschäpe finally speaks, it is, as one family member of a victim put it, almost like “she was mocking us”: She denies everything, gets bogged down in pointless details, and offers hollow apologies and disavowals of her “former” beliefs. Indeed, her team argues that she is a victim herself. Again and again, the defense attorneys worry that their clients are being tried in the media and prejudged. All the wrongs that had been visited on the victims’ families for ten years, they sought to reclaim, implausibly, for their clients.

It is a sound legal strategy, of course, part of a zealous defense. But, as the editors point out, what happened in the courtroom could not but resonate outside of it. It is telling that discounting the victimization of others while angrily claiming victimhood for yourself has been a central strategy of the AfD during its rise. The party has shown a Trumpian knack for casting people hurling bricks at housing for refugees as concerned citizens, and terrified refugees as dangerous predators. Whether they want to close the borders, set fire to kebab shops, or beat up refugees, an increasing number of Germans are ready, even eager, to withhold empathy from the persecuted and present themselves as the real victims.

In her closing arguments, prosecutor Greger claimed that Zschäpe, Mundlos, and Böhnhardt hated the police and the state they represented. The NSU’s campaign was aimed at delegitimizing the German state, an accusation corroborated by the massive lists found in their various hideouts contain the addresses of members of the Bundestag and centrist political organizations.

But if the German mainstream was a theoretical target of the NSU, it wasn’t a target the NSU ever actually attacked. With the one, still mysterious exception of the attack on two members of the police in Heilbronn in southern Germany, which resulted in the death of Kiesewetter, the NSU killed immigrants. It killed in kebab shops and bodegas, in internet cafes and flower stands. In 15 bank robberies not a single person was killed, though several were shot. The bank robberies almost all took place in the former communist East, in areas that have few immigrant communities. In contrast, all but one of the NSU’s killings took place in former West Germany, and all of them occurred in large, diverse communities. Whatever the NSU took itself to be attacking, it was far more specific than the German state writ large. 

Carsten Schultze appearing at a court in Munich in June 2013.

Did members of the NSU act alone? In the NSU’s lists of potential targets, victims’ attorney Mehmet Daimagüler points out, there is a Turkish-German prosecutor in the small Westphalian town of Siegen. Daimagüler grew up in Siegen, he practiced law there—yet he had never heard of this man. How had the NSU? As Elif Kubaşık, whose husband was murdered in his kiosk in Dortmund in 2006, remarked: “Did they have helpers in Dortmund? Do I still see them around town sometime?”

The slogan that rightwing protesters chant as they march through the cities, especially in East Germany, is “we are the people.” Whether or not the NSU’s enormous lists are evidence of an extensive network of helpers, informers, and fellow travelers, or whether they were meant merely to create that appearance, almost doesn’t matter. They are meant to raise Elif Kubaşık’s question, and they are meant to make people like her look over their shoulder in their own country. Even if we believe that they carried out their actions unbeknownst to anyone around them, the NSU did not really act alone. They could count on society’s biases and prejudices, on a rising politics of resentment, to sustain them at least for a time. 

Some of the more moving moments in these trial transcripts consist of the otherwise fairly neutral panel of judges going above and beyond what is necessary for purely evidentiary reasons to ask the victims’ families about their lives since the attacks. It is as though they wanted to acknowledge that while the violence done to these families cannot be undone, the persistent abstracting away of their suffering can at least be reversed. Towards the end of the trial Dilek Özcan, daughter of İsmail Yaşar, addressed Carsten Schultze, the only defendant who showed remorse: “They told me that you, among all the defendants, were the only one who didn’t look away when they put pictures of the dead up on the screen, and that your eyes were wide with horror.” Someone finally seeing what they have allowed to happen is the best these families could hope for in this trial. 

In the end, Schultze’s evident agony didn’t help him much. While Zschäpe got the maximum allowed by German law (15 years without the possibility of parole), Schultze was the only one of the four other defendants who got exactly what prosecutors had asked for. André Eminger was sentenced to time served and was released hours later to the hooting of his supporters. Less than a week later Ralf Wohlleben left prison. Their strategy of keeping mum, and of presenting themselves as victims, had worked. As of November, only Zschäpe and Schulze remain in prison. As Annette Ramelsberger, one of the editors of this staggering document, put it on the day the NSU trial ended: “Contrition isn’t worth it, it turns out. Silence is. The far right will learn that lesson all too well.”