Germany: No lessons learnt from history

Despite a trial against right-wing terrorists, “we are still not discussing racism”, writes Zinoun.

US President Barack Obama with Angela Merkel and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel (right) at the former Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar in Germany [Getty Images]

The trial of four right wing nationalists, allegedly responsible for the killing of at least 10 people, has been the recent focus of the German media. The trial will start this coming Wednesday, April 17. The Media, however, isn’t actually reporting about the crimes committed, but bizarrely the focus has been the distribution of seats among journalists. Forget about discussing the greater issue at hand, that of contemporary racism in Germany.

Whenever I hear the news lately I think of the never-again rhetoric, which German politicians frequently use. For example, when US President Barack Obama visited Germany in 2009, he also visited KZ Buchenwald. He was joined by Angela Merkel and two Holocaust survivors – one of them was Elie Wiesel. All of them gave meaningful speeches about the history that influences us even today and stated that something like the Holocaust will never happen again. Merkel said

“… here in Buchenwald I would like to highlight an obligation placed on us Germans as a consequence of our past: to stand up for human rights, to stand up for rule of law, and for democracy. We shall fight against terror, extremism, and anti-Semitism. And in the awareness of our responsibility we shall strive for peace and freedom, together with our friends and partners in the United States and all over the world.” 

After Obama’s speech, Elie Wiesel noted: 

“But the world hasn’t learnt.… Will the world ever learn?” 

Serial murders 

In Germany, National socialists were able to kill 10 people in different cities between 2000 and 2006 without being stopped by security services. The National Socialist Underground (NSU), a right-wing terror organisation operating within Germany, killed eight men of Turkish origin, one Greek and a German police officer. 

Their first victim, Enver Simsek, was a florist who used to buy flowers in the Netherlands every week. He was shot in the face by two gunmen on September 9, 2000. Police suspected his involvement in the drug deals and connected his death to his criminal activities. They never realised that the victim was an innocent citizen – the security forces even ignored the doubts of his family members that right-wing extremists might be behind the murder.  

Some more killings followed and one of the guns used to kill Simsek was used in nine more murders, and police suspected the Turkish mafia’s hand.   

The cases were solved only when police identified three suspects behind the serial murders: Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Bohnhardt and Beate Zschape. However, Mundlos and Bohnhardt were found dead after robbing a bank on November 4, 2011, and Zschape turned herself in on November 11, 2011. 

Right-wing organisations continued to kill people and security institutions and government offices did not want to see or recognise them. How can anyone still believe, that we have learnt anything from history? 

One mishap after the other 

After the NSU came to light, a parliamentary enquiry committee was set up to reconstruct the involvement of different security agencies in the investigation of the killings. Now, the public – at least the interested public who also search for information beyond the mainstream media – gets every detail about the work done by the security services and the NSU. One failure is uncovered after the other. 

Obviously, there has been a communication disaster within and between different agencies. Additionally, a few days after the NSU serial killings came to light, the State Office for the Protection of the Constitution of Thuringia destroyed files connected to the case. At the Ministry of Interior, observation protocols of the right-wing extremists’ circles have been deleted. 

All these failures are constantly called “mishaps” by politicians. No one, especially not the ones responsible, seems to ask whether this failure is inherent in the system. Four leading figures of different institutions have been forced to leave office since the scandal came to light.

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Security agencies did not investigate the right-wing’s role when the serial murders continued – some criminal organisations were believed to be involved in those gruesome murders. Racism seems to be insitutionalised within security services. 

Right-wing radicals are always played down. Many still talk about the “terror trio”, a terrorist organisation consisting of only three Nazis, Mundlos, Bohnhardt and Zschape – the myth of the crazy lone perpetrator. Meanwhile, authorities assume a network of supporters of the NSU which consists of 130 people. 

The trial 

On April 17, 2013, the trial against Beate Zschape, the surviving member of the terrorist group, will begin. The trial will charge her, along with four other supporters of the NSU, with the murder of 10 people. 

And what is media reporting about? The horrible story that there is a national socialist movement killing people? No! They are reporting about Turkish journalists not getting seats in the courtroom

I fully understand the demand of the Turkish media representatives for reserved seats in the courtroom. They need to be able to report all the news details that emerge in the case. But I question the sole focus on this: German media debating the so-called “mishaps”, the decisions regarding leading personnel of security agencies, and reserved seats for journalists. 

The media is only reporting the scandal. A debate on racism, related to society as a whole, is not happening. They are not talking about racism. They are not talking about the stereotypes they themselves reinforce. One of the largest selling tabloids in the country, Bild, for example, regularly has racist stereotypes in its headlines. The mainstream media is not reflecting on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us so that no such event gives an opportunity for further growth of hatred and killings, but for peace. 

Extremism is a problem of the society as a whole. A study by Oliver Decker, Johannes Kiess and Elmar Brahler came to the conclusion that 23 percent of people in the western states of Germany agree to xenophobic statements, whereas in the eastern states (the former East Germany, where merely less than 5 percent of the population have a migration background) 32 percent agree to those statements. 

Germans are great in downplaying the racist problem. When asked in public, they are the “never-again-people”, but in the end, one has to be the scapegoat – most of the time, it is a foreigner or a person whose parents have immigrated. 

I think we have not learnt anything from history. Sure, there will never be anything as horrible as the Holocaust again. But for huge parts of our society, the perception of others is still full of hatred. Politicians and media are still quick to find groups that serve as scapegoats for social problems, but are not realising that institutional racism and xenophobic right-wing attitudes have reached the centre of society.  

No, we have not learnt yet. The narrative of “never again” does not hold true.

Katrin Zinoun studied Cultural Anthropology and African Studies. She works as a freelance journalist in Germany and contributes to Global Voices Online as the Lingua Editor Deutsch.

Follow her on Twitter: @dialogtexte