Neo-Nazi trial begins in Munich

Court to hear evidence 38-year-old woman masterminded 13-year campaign of killings against German migrants

From left: Angelika Lex, Reinhard Schoen, Sebastian Scharmer and Stephan Lucas, lawyers and joint plaintiff for the relatives victims of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground address a news conference in Munich yesterday. Photograph:  Reuters/Michael Dalder

From left: Angelika Lex, Reinhard Schoen, Sebastian Scharmer and Stephan Lucas, lawyers and joint plaintiff for the relatives victims of the neo-Nazi group National Socialist Underground address a news conference in Munich yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Michael Dalder

 

If it wasn’t for a botched bank robbery it is unlikely that Beate Zschäpe would go on trial in a Munich court room this morning.

On November 4th, 2011, two men, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, snatched €70,000 in cash from a savings bank in the eastern city of Eisenach. Cornered by police in a mobile home hideout, Mundlos shot Böhnhardt in the head, set the caravan alight, then shot himself.

Hearing news of the botched bank robbery, carried out by her friends and lovers, Ms Zschäpe (38) torched their home and went on the run.

Apprehended four days later, she goes on trial today accused of membership of a previously unknown neo-Nazi terrorist cell, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), behind 10 shootings and a bomb attack over 13 years.

Investigators have pieced together a profile of a young woman, rejected by her parents and raised by her grandmother, who drifted from casual jobs into a neo-Nazi scene established in eastern Germany to scoop up disaffected people like her who fell between the cracks of unification.


Underground campaign
Ms Zschäpe joined forces with Mundlos and Böhnhardt in far-right campaigns in their native Jena, attacking Vietnamese migrants and planting fake bombs in concentration camp memorials.

Their underground terror campaign began in September 2000, with all but one of their victims of Turkish or Greek origin shot in their workplace – usually internet cafes and fast-food restaurants. The German tabloid media dubbed them the “doner kebab murders”.

Ms Zschäpe’s defence lawyers says there is nothing but circumstantial evidence linking her to the shootings, allegedly carried out by Mundlos and Böhnhardt. She is unlikely to testify in Germany’s biggest terrorism trial since the 1970s.


Clues ignored
Watching closely today are the families of victims and groups monitoring Germany’s far-right scene. They want to know whether it was by accident or design that investigators ignored countless clues – including from paid informers in the neo-Nazi scene – that could have exposed the NSU as far back as 1998.

Parliamentary inquiries have found no evidence of police collusion with the group but have exposed a systematic failure of investigators and police to share their respective pieces of the NSU puzzle.

No less than 36 agencies in Germany are involved in policing and intelligence. These decentralised structures, based in the federal states, are a postwar answer to the centralised police, secret police and SS structures that assured the rise of Nazi terror. The irony that precisely these postwar structures failed to expose a neo-Nazi group has not been lost on a Bundestag investigation into the matter.

Committee chairman Sebastian Edathy cites three key problems. First: a massive failure of police and intelligence to share information. Second: a focus of attention and resources on Islamic extremism in the decade since the Hamburg-planned September 11th, 2001, attacks. Third: ignoring clues of a far-right background to the shootings and, instead, a dogged belief that the crimes – and even the victims – were part of migrant organised crime structures.

The failure to find any evidence to support this was, according to a note in one police report, because “it is part of the Turkish mentality towards German police not to tell the truth”.

With the trial likely to last up to two years, it will give Germany ample time to consider a neo-Nazi threat many did not want to believe existed.