It is an outstanding lawsuit in all respects: five presumed members and supporters of the neo-Nazi terrorist group “National Socialist Underground” (NSU) are standing trial at the Higher Regional Court (Oberlandesgericht) in Munich. This high-profile case is considered to be one of the largest and most important criminal trials in Germany since the country’s reunification. The trial centres upon the 13-year underground activities of the NSU which, between 1998 and 2011, murdered ten people, committed at least two bomb attacks and carried out several bank robberies. The main defendant is Beate Zschäpe, 43, accused of being a key member of the group. In 1998 she went into hiding, together with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who were presumably the main perpetrators committing the murders and attacks; the two men died in 2011. Four additional defendants are accused of having supported the NSU in different ways. So far only one, Carsten S., has expressed remorse and made a substantial confession.
The NSU – a singular far right terrorist group
In its terroristic crimes, the NSU displayed a tremendous degree of brutality. The extreme right group murdered eight men of Turkish and one of Greek origin out of a racist motivation; each time, the murderers entered a small business the victims ran or worked at and executed them with a Česká pistol. These murders took place in several big cities all across Germany from 2000 until 2006. A tenth victim was a female German police officer who was killed in 2007. In 2001 and 2004, two bombs planted by the NSU exploded in Cologne – directed against immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish and Iranian descent. In both attacks, innocent people were severely wounded. Although there has been a long history of right-wing terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany, the crimes committed by the NSU ought to be considered as unprecedented. There has never been a radical right group before that has operated over the course of more than a decade and carried out that many targeted executions. The NSU case is also exceptional in the protracted legal and political unwinding of the complex details comprising the group’s underground activities. The group itself was not publicly known about before 4 November 2011, when Mundlos and Böhnhardt committed suicide after a foiled bank robbery.
The failure of investigation and prosecution before 2011
However, it was a matter known to public and police since 2001 that the murders – with the exception of the police officer’s killing – were all connected: the same Česká pistol was always used. For years, police alleged that the victims’ relatives hid information about criminal involvement of the murdered men – leading to in-depth investigations into these families’ backgrounds. The media took the same line, entitling the murders with the degrading label “Dönermorde” (“Doner Murders”). The same procedure was applied to the victims of Keupstrasse bombing, even though police failed to make the connection between the crimes until 2011. Several parliamentary inquiry committees constituted after 2011 found that prosecution services not only failed to track down the Neo-Nazis in hiding, but also incorrectly assessed the acts of violence as offences committed by cross-border organised crime. They too drew the wrong conclusions from the immigrant background of the victims.
Open questions of the NSU case
Although there has been immense public effort to clarify the NSU case, two aspects still give rise to questions both public and official. First, the activities of the NSU was backed by a yet unknown number of supporters from the radical right scene. In the 1990s, Mundlos, Böhnhardt and Zschäpe had been able to make and maintain extensive contacts in the neo-Nazi group “Thüringer Heimatschutz” (THS) (“Thuringian Homeland Security”) as well as the so-called “Blood & Honour” skinhead music milieu that outlasted their underground time. Other troubling links to the wider neo-Nazi scene include showing encouragement to the NSU in the neo-Nazi magazine Der weisse Wolf [The white wolf] in 2002; supplying official documents and places to live for the three in hiding; and actively supporting their terrorist activities by purchasing the murder weapon. While the range of supporting activities varied widely, the four defendants accused alongside Zschäpe only comprise the most entangled individuals. Existing evidence that incriminated many others did not lead prosecutors to publicly press charges yet – even though authorities had identified over 120 persons that presumably supported the NSU.
Second, the role of the domestic intelligence service (Verfassungsschutz) and their informants remains a highly topical matter. It is still an unresolved question as to how close the informants came to the terrorist cell and whether the Verfassungsschutz knew about the existence of the NSU. Several informants, it turns out, had been key figures in the scene the NSU grew out from – such as Tino Brandt, leader of the THS – or were under the suspicion of being a confidant before 2011, such as Thomas R. alias “Corelli”, who died in 2014 shortly before he could testify on that issue.
Surely the most mysterious affair regards an employee of the Hessian state agency of the Verfassungsschutz, Andreas Temme, allegedly nicknamed ‘Little Adolf’ for his extreme right-wing views. Amongst his tasks was to investigate the radical right scene in Hesse, yet he stayed as a visitor in the Internet Café when the ninth victim of the NSU, 21 year old Halit Yozgat, was shot there on April 6, 2006. To date, there has been no clarification of this dubious coincidence – not least as Temme claims to have not even noticed the murder while chatting on a computer in the café. As might be expected, the victims’ relatives and their legal representatives insist on full clarification of the role of the Verfassungsschutz; however, it is not to be expected that the trial will be able to afford that.
Verdict to be expected in 2018
The yearlong trial is drawing to a close. Prosecutors and the joint plaintiff representatives have delivered their closing arguments. The closing arguments by the defending lawyers will probably start in April. The Public Prosecutor General of the Federal Court of Justice has demanded a life sentence and subsequent preventive detention for Beate Zschäpe. The other defendants face three to twelve years of prison. The verdict is to be expected in the second half of this year. But whatever the outcome, questions are sure to persist about the influence and contacts of the NSU in contemporary Germany.
Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and Principal Investigator on the government-funded project, “Right-wing Terrorism in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1970-1990” at the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf. See her profile at:
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