Prosecuting neo-Nazi racism in German trial

The neo-Nazi case in Germany is exposing a society that is both in acceptance and denial of xenophobia.

NSU Neo-Nazi Murder Trial Starts In Munich
Neo-Nazis in Germany are reported to be "younger, more violent and more militant" than the rest of society [Getty]

This week, a highly controversial, potentially traumatic and definitely historic court hearing is starting in the Higher Regional Court of Munich: the trial of a neo-Nazi group, members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU), who are allegedly responsible for the execution-style killing of eight Turks, one Greek, one female police officer, several bombings that left many people maimed, as well as more than 15 armed bank robberies in various parts of Germany between 2000 and 2007.  

The last surviving member of the cell – 38-year-old Beate Zschaepe, who grew up in East Germany – will be prosecuted along with four others who have been charged with assisting the group. Supposedly, she was the idol of Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. She was a member of the NSU cell and part of a love triangle that included Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Bohnhardt. It is thought that both men committed suicide after a bank robbery in November 2011.

Four days later, Zschaepe set fire to the apartment where they were living together, and turned herself in to the police. Fortunately, evidences were still available in the apartment, including a lurid DVD that displayed how they executed their victims, while in the background, a cartoon character, Pink Panther, was seen adding up the number that were killed. All victims were executed in similar fashion, close range with the same automatic gun. German society is struggling to understand what transforms “a girl from next door” into a cold blooded neo-Nazi killer.

Nine of the victims had only one thing in common: they looked Turkish. The killings had a clear motive: to create fear among unwanted immigrants, inducing them to leave the country. More than 3 million Turks live in Germany, yet Germans still demean Turks by referring to them as “gastarbeiter” (guest worker) despite three generation of residence, and a wide range of permanent roles that help sustain prosperity in Germany.


There is a clearer racial undertone about the killings that are called “the Doner murders” in the German press, a somewhat condescending reference to the fact that some of the Turkish victims are workers or owners of gyro (doner) kebab street stands. One Greek victim was probably killed because of his mistaken identity – he was chosen to be killed because he looked like a Turk. Turks who live in Germany understand all too well the dismissive attitude of mainstream society expressed by referring to these crimes as the Doner murders.

The first victim was a businessman from Anatolia who managed to convert his small business venture into a successful flower export operation. Recently, his daughter Semiya Simsek wrote a book called Schmerzliche Heimat (Painful Homeland) about the family’s terrifying experience – first the killing of the father, then the endless scrutiny by the police investigation that focused more on the Turkish family and community than on the milieu of the neo-Nazi criminals.

Germany gripped by neo-Nazi murder trial

It is surprising, and perhaps revealing, that despite the significant evidence of a racist motivation for these murders, it took the German police an incredibly long time to become suspicious about the neo-Nazi role in the killing, despite their notorious embrace of politically motivated ethnic and racial violence.

As a result, this neo-Nazi cabal operated undetected for an incredible 13 years, resulting in more lives lost. After all, for the past four decades there have been plenty of attacks initiated in Germany against Turks by neo-Nazi groups. These included setting fire to apartment buildings, killing innocent women and children, and other acts of violence.

According to Today’s Zaman, a leading Turkish newspaper, the Turkish Parliament Human Rights Investigation Commission issued a report last year that enumerated many hate crimes consisting of racist and Islamophobic attacks against Turks living in Germany. According to Ayhan Sefer Ustun, chair of the Commission, “This is only the tip of the iceberg because so many went unreported because Turks feel authorities will not even look into the matter.”

The police long insisted that the prime suspects were rival Turkish gangs, organised criminal syndicates, or revenge killings associated with family relatives of drug traffickers. Or they blamed the murders on immigrant mafias, on Islamists, on crimes of passion as Turks in Germany are accused of polygamy. Why not attribute the killings to jealousy, or internal family problems? After all, according to a stereotype not entirely without a factual foundation, Germans believe that honour killings are common among Turkish families. So in effect, what German authorities did in response to this wave of hate crime was to blame the victims.

Extremism on the rise

Apparently such stereotypes, which exaggerate the unfortunate reality, even exert their influence in official assessments. According to a 2007 report obtained by the Associated Press, which was an internal document of the Baden-Wurttemberg Operational Case Analysis, it was stated that “there are uncovered shared elements: The victims were likely part of a group that earned a living with illegal activities, the likely killer could not have come from Western Europe because in our culture the killing of human beings is a grave taboo”. The only plausible suspects, the report concluded “were those who did not feel in the least bit bound to our norms and values… The killers were protected by the almost impenetrable parallel world of the Turks”.

The AP described such a conclusion as “striking” considering that Germany was guilty of a massive genocide against European Jews a matter of state policy a few generations ago that had enjoyed widespread German support.

Baden-Wurttemberg officials have earned a notorious reputation due to their tendency to transmit such outrageous discriminatory feelings in public documents. In 2005, Baden-Wurttemberg was the first Lander (that is, German federal state) to ban wearing the Islamic headscarf in public institutions such as schools and government buildings. The state officials did not hesitate to state openly that there were fundamental differences about cultural, and moral values as between the Oriental Muslim and Occidental Christian worlds.

The official legal document bluntly differentiates Christian religious symbols by declaring that they represent Christian Occidental values and traditions in a manner that corresponds to the educational mandate of the constitution of the Lander, while in contrast the headscarf is unacceptable as it “represents cultural segregation, and thus is a political symbol”.

Nevertheless, according to crime statistics, Germans are not nearly as innocent as these reports suggest. In February alone, there were 941 right-wing crimes committed resulting in 20 injuries. Between 1990 and 2012, at least 152 people were murdered in Germany by right-wing extremists. Der Spiegel quotes the business daily Handelsblatt, saying that “the varnish painted over German’s susceptibility to extremism is thin. Tragically, as the history of the investigation into the NSU shows, German authorities have allowed themselves to become infected by this nonchalance as well as by the inaction of both German society and its politicians.”

Neo-Nazi murder trial begins in Germany

Finally, after the 2011 bank robbery and the seizure of clear evidence as to the racially motivated murders, a public debate ensued in Germany as to whether this ineffectiveness of German authorities was deliberate ignorance, denial, or actually involved cooperation with the right wing groups and security forces, or some blend of all three.

After all, German security services have a notorious reputation of being very precise and effective without a single glitch, making it reasonable to suspect the worst in this setting.

The failure of the police to expose the true nature of the Doner murders for so long has led at last to national soul-searching in a country where any suggestion of sympathy for Nazi ideology is greeted with horror by the respectable German mainstream. Three separate parliamentary inquires exposed embarrassing truths about files that were destroyed before the inquires were completed and the existence of paid informers who used cash received from authorities to fund neo-Nazi activities.

Several officials in Germany have resigned as a result of these disclosures. Wolfgan Thierse, deputy speaker of the Bundestag, said it was a valid question to ask if the security services had been “blind in the right eye” in failing to pay appropriate attention to right-wing organisations in contrast to their focus on left-wing extremists.

Far-right ideology is an issue for Germany that will not go away easily. Last year, a study by the country’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation found that 15.8 percent of East Germans held extreme right views. There are an estimated 23,000 far-right sympathisers in the country as a whole, and a recent government survey concluded disturbingly that neo-Nazis were “younger, more violent and more militant” than the rest of the German population.

At a memorial event in 2012, Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to these murders of Turks as a “disgrace” for Germany, and apologised to the families of the victims and Turkish community, and to the Turkish Foreign Minister who came to attend the ceremony.  

Further embarrassment was reported by mainstream media last month, when it was discovered that a sophisticated network of far-right prisoners had for years communicated with a secret code undetected by prison authorities to maintain contact with Zschaepe, who had become a hero of the far-right. 

Controversy over trial

These high profile trials are quite novel for Germany where the root causes of racism and discrimination against the ethnic minorities had never before been questioned in such a serious way. This trial will likely encourage greater scrutiny of the German police and security services, as well as expose hidden fears of foreigners present in German society, and could recall even memories of the Nuremberg international trials against Nazi surviving political and military leaders held after the Second World War.

Because of the high tension and sensitivity, even the size of the room where the trial of those associated with this string of murders was scheduled to take place and the location of the court were subjected to controversy. There are 77 co-plaintiffs and 53 attorneys representing the families of the mainly Turkish victims. International media is interested in this case, especially, of course, the Turkish and Greek media.

Initially, the regional court in Munich severely restricted access to Turkish and international media by relying on an exclusionary accreditation system that did not allow a single Turkish or Greek journalist into the court. This situation created a diplomatic encounter between Berlin and Athens that came on top of the already seriously frayed relationship between the two countries due to the Greek financial crises. This issue of access was also brought before the German Constitutional Court by several Turkish newspapers. The conflict was resolved when the Constitutional Court ruled that foreign media should be given access to trial.

Inside Story – The return of the neo-Nazis

The general public apparently feels that the proceedings will not shed light on the entire truth. It is felt that the trial will be technical and narrow and treated as purely a criminal case, and that the underlying socio-political issues will not be allowed to surface during the hearings.

The centre-right media still tend to believe that it was just “the combination of bureaucracy, blunders and incompetence among officials” and “right-wing extremism is segregated, tabooed and disdained sub-culture”.

There are expectations that the implications of the trial will extend beyond what happens in the trial itself. Nevertheless, Turks in Germany are not very hopeful about the effects of the case on their overall status in the country. There seems to be a belief in the Turkish community that the trial might have a beneficial impact on some issues, but there is an accompanying fear that it could create an angry backlash among far right-wing groups, which hold rabid anti-foreign views. 

The trial is expected to go on for at least two years. So, it remains to be seen as to the kind of influences it will exert on Germany’s immigrant minority, predominantly Turks. But what is already clear is that the attention surrounding the trial is already raising complex and controversial questions in Germany and throughout the world as to the degree to which the Turkish minority has been the target of extreme racism despite its important and established presence in German society.

Hilal Elver is a research Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, and the co-director of the Climate Change, Human Security and Democracy Project.