It is the 9th of June 2004, in Keupstraße, Cologne, a street with many shops and cafés owned by Turkish immigrants. An abandoned bicycle leans on a house wall, with a suitcase on it. People, not suspecting anything, walk by, buy food, laugh. Suddenly, an explosion: a bomb was in the suitcase, filled with 700 nails, each ten centimeters long. A cowardly and cruel crime, injuring twenty-two people, some of which could lose their lives. Later, some of them would even be treated as possible suspects; the police had no idea who could have perpetrated the attack. For more than a decade, the victims lived in fear, not knowing who harmed them and whether they would try again.
A trail of blood
Today, we know the Keupstraße bombing was part of an unprecedented series of crimes in recent German history: over thirteen years, and all over Germany, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), a neo-Nazi terrorist group consisting of three main members and a network of supporters, committed murders, bomb attacks and bank robberies. Nine immigrants are shot in cold blood by the NSU: Enver Şimşek in November 2000, Abdurrahim Özüdoğru in June 2001, Süleyman Taşköprü in June 2001, Habil Kılıç in August 2001, Mehmet Turgut in February 2004, Ismail Yaşar in June 2005, Theodorus Boulgarides in June 2005, Mehmet Kubaşık in April 2006, and Halit Yozgat in April 2006. A year later, the terrorists shoot policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter dead. The trio even produce a shocking video in the style of the Pink Panther celebrating their crimes. On November 4, 2011, Uwe Bönhardt and Uwe Mundlos commit suicide in a mobile home in the state of Thüringen. The last living member of NSU, Beate Zschäpe, turns herself in to the police a few days later.
Slowly, the German public starts understanding the dimensions of the group’s crimes; of their thirteen-year murderous crusade through Germany. The first months after the existence of NSU was revealed were filled with questions about the group: who the trio were, what led to their radicalization, etc. Not all of these questions have been answered, but public interest has shifted to a different issue: the authorities; how could the NSU have committed their crimes for so long, without anybody stopping them? What were the intelligence agencies and the police doing?
How the East was lost
In the mid-1990s, Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Bönhardt and Beate Zschäpe were in their twenties. All three were from Jena, in the state of Thuringia – one of the five states that once formed the quasi-socialist “German Democratic Republic”, an authoritarian ally of the Soviet Union. The optimism that prevailed after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the happiness in the run-up to the German “reunification” on October 3, 1990, had faded. The West German chancellor Helmut Kohl’s famous promise of creating “flourishing landscapes” in the East was never fulfilled. The GDR was history, and more and more people wondered if there had ever been a “reunification”, or if their city, state, country had not simply been annexed by West Germany. The transition from a centrally planned economy to capitalism had sent shockwaves throughout the East, resulting in mass unemployment. The income gap between East and West actually continues to exist to this day. Unemployment, the difficulty of coping with the fact that the entire system one grew up in had vanished, and the condescending way in which many West Germans treated the Easterners created a tense social climate in the German East in those years. In a time of troubled transformation and a search for identity, one issue became predominant: racism. Officially non-existent in the GDR, racist attitudes had in truth always been present in the East (as well as in the West). Now, racist mindsets mutated into violent and open hatred.
It was a time when swastika graffiti appeared everywhere; when drunk skinheads hunted down immigrants as well as Soviet soldiers and “ticks” (left-wing activists); when Ku-Klux-Klan-style crosses were burnt from hilltops.
In the first two years after the reunification, at least 34 people were killed by Neonazis and skinheads.
In the fall of 1991, hundreds of neo-Nazis besieged several residences of foreign workers and refugees lived, in the city of Hoyerswerda (Saxony). For days, a crowd threw Molotov cocktails and stones at the buildings. The police failed to stop the riots, while many “ordinary” citizens stood by and applauded the neo-Nazis. A year later, in Rostock-Lichtenhagen (Mecklenburg-Pomerania), there was a repeat of the Hoyerswerda riots; a house in which asylum seekers and workers from Vietnam and Mozambique lived was attacked. Neo-Nazis burned it down and tried to set fire to the buildings. The name Lichtenhagen (a district that, after the reunification of Germany in 1990, had been plagued by mass unemployment) became synonymous with racism in Germany, with some observers comparing the events there to the infamous pogroms of 9 November, 1938, when Jewish shops and synagogues across the nation were destroyed by Nazis. Soon, an iconic photograph surfaced on the front pages of the world’s newspapers: a man in the track suit of the German national team, doing the Nazi salute with a urine stain on his pants. Mainstream conservative politicians used the violence to justify tougher asylum laws.
It is in this social atmosphere that these three people adopt far-right views and gradually become radicalized. Uwe Bönhardt, who had been spending time with members of the neo-Nazi party NPD since he was sixteen years old, shaves his head, breaks into cars, and gets sent to juvenile detention. In the early 1990s, Mundlos and Zschäpe meet in Jena. They get engaged, but when Mundlos is drafted into the army, Zschäpe becomes close with Bönhardt. The friendship of the three persists, however, as they are dragged deeper and deeper into the Thuringia neo-Nazi scene. They visit neo-Nazi rallies and organize their first demonstrative action: Mundlos and Bönhardt march through a concentration camp memorial site dressed in uniforms resembling those of the SA (Hitler’s security service). They join a group called Thüringer Heimatschutz (Thuringia Homeland Protection), one of the most militant neo-Nazi organizations in the state. In 1998, state police search their houses and find neo-Nazi brochures and explosives. The trio go underground, evading arrest. For the next decade, they are nowhere to be found, while leaving a trail of blood in the country.
I’m the one you’re looking for
On November 8, 2011, a few days after Mundlos and Bönhardt kill themselves in Thuringia, the only remaining NSU terrorist – the 36-year-old Beate Zschäpe – turns herself in to the police, saying: “ I am the one you are looking for”. After hearing of the death of her two partners, she had set fire to the Zwickau apartment in which they had conspired, before travelling across Germany to surrender.
Failure after failure
Beate Zschäpe could have been arrested
This is how the NSU terror ended. But why were the trio safe from the police for thirteen years? According to media reports, Beate Zschäpe could have been arrested in 1998, when the police raided the NSU bomb lab. But she was not. And only a couple of months after the NSU went underground, the Landesverfassungsschutz (Administration for the protection of the constitution – each state and the centre has this agency to monitor extremist movements and prevent political crime) in Saxony was made aware of rumors that NSU was hiding in a specific area by an informant and that the three were plotting to get weapons and leave the country.
In May 2000, Verfassungsschutz officers followed a group of neo-Nazis through the Thuringian city of Chemnitz. They saw a man enter a building – he fit the description of Uwe Bönhardt, who went underground two years earlier. The officers did not arrest him on that fateful day– four months later, the NSU committed its first homicide.
In October 2000, two groups of policemen watched the Chemnitz apartment of acquaintances of the NSU. One of those groups was the Saxony Landesverfassungsschutz, and the second one was a special unit from Thuringia. A friend of the NSU group was confronted by police, but no NSU members were found in his flat. The special unit did however see him talk to somebody from a telephone booth for a long time, then take a cardboard box out of his flat and burn it. But the officers did not intervene to stop what was probably the destruction of evidence, because their official job was to “observe”.
One of the most important aspects of the NSU affair is the so-called “V-Mann” system; the “V-men” are members of extremist movements who pass on information about the movements to the police for money. In Germany, the far-right neo-Nazi movement is heavily infiltrated by these informants. In 2003, a procedure in the German constitutional court to have the neo-Nazi party NPD banned failed because every seventh member of NPD party leadership was listed as a V-man for the authorities at that time. For this reason, the attempt to ban the NPD failed miserably, with the judges striking down the case, arguing that given the massive depth of infiltration, the court could not distinguish between actions initiated by neo-Nazis and actions initiated by their state-funded comrades. Additionally, there were instances when V-men who had committed crimes were shielded from prosecution by security agencies. The V-men programme, in fact, seemed like the state was financing neo-Nazi extremism.
In their underground years, the NSU terrorists had close contact with several V-men, which raises the question: why weren’t the terrorists arrested if police informants knew of their whereabouts? Either the V-men’s loyalties were with the murderers rather than with the authorities (which would mean that the V-Mann system was a failure), or they did inform the state about the location of Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Bönhardt, but the police themselves were unwilling to stop the NSU.
An exemplary case is that of Tino Brandt, who was hired by the Thuringia state security service in the early 1990s. He became one of the leading members of the aforementioned militant neo-Nazi organization, Thüringer Heimatschutz, out of which the NSU developed. Brandt was a major supporter of the NSU: he helped them by obtaining fake passports for them, for example. The fake documents were paid for with taxpayer money – Brandt alone received payments totalling over €100,000 from the security service. He was charged 35 times, yet never faced a trial.
The notion that the German security services have something to hide becomes all the more credible in light of their initial reaction to the exposure of the NSU: a few days after Zschäpe turned herself in, officials in the Cologne headquarters of the Verfassungsschutz launched “Operation Confetti”, where confidential files about Verfassungsschutz informants in neo-Nazi groups were destroyed. Most of the informants had some relation to NSU. Over the next few months, in Cologne and several other security services throughout Germany, hundreds of documents related to the NSU were mysteriously – and sometimes in violation of official guidelines – shredded. Officials lie to members of parliament about the events. It all looks like a textbook example of a cover-up. The chiefs of various security services resigned and parliamentary investigative committees were established.
If you know there’s something happening, please stay away from it
The most peculiar incident, however, was the murder of Halit Yozgat in the city of Kassel. On April 6, 2006, at about 4:50 pm, Andreas T. enters the internet café owned by Yozgat. T. is no normal customer: he works for the state of Hesse Verfassungsschutz. Eleven minutes later, while T. reportedly sat in the back of the café before a computer, a NSU terrorist shoots Yozgat point blank. Andreas T., agent with the Hesse state office for protection of the constitution, leaves the café shortly afterwards. He puts a few coins on Yozgat’s counter while the man is bleeding to death on the floor directly behind. Andreas T. later testified that he had not heard or seen anything suspicious. And he also denied that he brought a plastic bag into the café with him – although witnesses were sure he had one. A secret police officer present at the site of a neo-Nazi terrorist murder at the precise time of the crime? It is hard to believe that this was a coincidence.
A few weeks later, Andreas T.’s superior at the Verfassungsschutz undercover police calls T. saying, “Well, my advice is, if you know there’s something happening, please stay away from it”. The attorneys of Halit Yozgat’s family believe that he was talking about the murder, which would raise the alarming suspicion that the authorities knew of the plot to murder Yozgat in advance.
With Beate Zschäpe, the last living member of the “National Socialist Underground”, and three of the group’s alleged neo-Nazi supporters facing criminal trial in Munich since May 2013, more and more details about the group’s inner workings are being brought to light. However, many disturbing questions about the role of the German authorities remain unanswered. Many people now believe that the countless failures by the security services are no coincidence, or isolated glitches. The NSU has shattered many people’s trust in the German state. Despite repeated official denials, people are now speaking out and saying that institutionalised racism exists. The police, as Germans nowadays say, was “blind in the right eye”, a description of its failure to prevent neo-Nazi terrorism. In May, this criticism was echoed by a United Nations body investigating racism in Germany; the German authorities, the body said, needs to act more decisively on right-wing extremist crime.
The numerous failures and mistakes made by police in the NSU case cast a dark shadow of doubt over Germany’s institutions: did the terrorists have supporters in the authorities’ ranks? Were the investigations deliberately sabotaged and slowed down, in order to ensure NSU could ‘finish the job’?
By their repeated failure to intervene and arrest the trio, the German state became a silent accomplice in the NSU’s crimes. The NSU case has damaged people’s confidence into the workings of German democracy like no other scandal.