The German terror group “National Socialist Underground“ is unprecedented – radical right terrorism is not
A marathon trial in Germany has come to an end. On 11 July 2018, more than five years after the trial had begun, the higher regional court in Munich handed down the sentences against five members and supporters of the German radical right terror group “National Socialist Underground” (NSU). Beate Zschäpe, the main defendant, received a life sentence; she was found guilty of ten murders, in complicity with Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who had died in an apparent murder-suicide pact in 2011.
The judges made a finding of “particular severity of guilt,” which means that her chances of parole after 15 years are very limited. Ralf Wohlleben, a main supporter of the group, received ten years for complicity in murder. Holger Gerlach was sentenced to three years in prison, André Eminger to two and a half years. Both were convicted for supporting a terrorist organization. They provided the group with identities and logistical support. Carsten S. got three years (youth custody); together with Wohlleben, he supplied the terrorist group with the murder weapon. S. made a substantial confession at the beginning of the trial.
The public reactions to this verdict were characterized by harsh critique of the lenient sentence against André Eminger, a crucial supporter of the NSU who never renounced the radical right scene. Furthermore, thousands of protesters nationwide demanded to continue the investigation of the NSU case. Relatives of the victims said that the verdicts brought them little closure with so many unresolved questions remaining, such as the support network of the NSU or state failures during the investigations.
The court wasted a historic opportunity, journalist Annette Rammelsberger argued; it failed to spotlight the significance of the trial for society concerning state deficiencies or the protection of democracy. One of the joint attorneys for the victims, Mehmet Daimagüler, commented that the sentences were harsh at one expected point (Zschäpe), too harsh at an unexpected one (Carsten S.) and too lenient at several unexpected points. He particularly criticized the sentences against Wohlleben and Eminger. However, the verdicts are not final yet. The Federal Prosecution Office appealed the verdict against Eminger, while all defendants appealed their verdicts.
Missing The History Of Radical Right Terrorism Means Also Missing The Victims´ Stories
In the years-long public debate about the NSU, one topic was almost never discussed: the long tradition of radical right terrorism in (West) Germany that reaches back to the 1970s. Although experts and activists frequently point toward this fact, the public had almost forgotten about such devastating as the radical right-motivated Oktoberfest bombing in Munich in 1980 that killed 13 people and left more than 200 wounded, or the anti-Semitic assassination of the Jewish publisher Shlomo Lewin and his partner Frieda Poeschke in Erlangen in the same year.
Recovering the history of radical right terrorism from the official historical record is potentially far-reaching in its benefits. The knowledge about this part of German history could provide explanations of the radicalization process that the NSU members went through and identification of their role models with regard to ideology and modus operandi. Furthermore, the stories of the victims have, until today, no place in German history books, be it the five children and teenagers who died during the Oktoberfest attack or the two young Vietnamese refugees Ngoc Nguyên and Anh Lân Dô who were murdered in an arson attack in Hamburg in 1980.
Law Enforcement Against Radical Right Terrorists – A Blind Spot
A historical perspective on radical right terrorism in (West) Germany can also reveal how law enforcement authorities responded to it. The lack of historical analysis is a blind spot in public debates and academics so far. By contrast, the criminal prosecution and trials against left-wing terrorist groups in the 1970s like the “Rote Armee Fraktion” (Red Army Faction, RAF) have been broadly analyzed.
- However, examples abound of criminal proceedings against radical right terrorists since the 1970s:
The first large trial against right-wing terrorists took place in 1979: A group around the notorious neo-Nazi Michael Kühnen was charged of having committed thefts and (bank) robberies in Northern Germany in 1977/78. While Kühnen was acquitted of being the ringleader of this terrorist organization, five other men were sentenced to long prison terms, ranging from seven to eleven years.
- Other examples reveal a similar tendency: Members of the Otte Group (one planned and one realized bomb attack in Hannover in 1977/78 causing physical damage) received sentences of between two years and nine months and six years. This verdict also included those members who supported the group by supplying the explosives.
- Two main perpetrators of the Deutsche Aktionsgruppen who killed two Vietnamese refugees in an arson attack in Hamburg in 1980 received life sentences. Radical right functionary Manfred Roeder, who was the leader of this group but did not personally participate in the attacks, got 13 years.
- The members of the Hepp/Kexel Group who were responsible for several bomb attacks against U.S. soldiers deployed in West Germany in 1982 – leaving several victims severely wounded – were sentenced to prison terms of between five and 14 years.
- The neo-Nazi Martin Wiese, convicted of planning a terrorist attack against the Jewish Centre Munich in 2003, was sentenced to seven years, and his accomplices to terms of between two years and three months and five years and nine months.
- One of the last verdicts against a radical right terrorist group – the Freital Group in Dresden (Saxony) – was delivered in March 2018: Seven men and one woman built a terrorist organization that committed attacks against immigrants and political enemies. The two ringleaders were sentenced to nine and a half and ten years, respectively – terms at the upper legal limit. The six other defendants received sentences of between four and eight years. This verdict was an important sign, the media wrote in the aftermath.
All of these examples across 40 years have one feature in common: almost all defendants, even those who did not personally participate in the attacks but were supporters, received sentences that were longer than those given to André Eminger and Holger Gerlach. This was also the case when the assaults claimed no lives or caused no injuries. Some groups, such as the Wiese Group, were even stopped in the planning stage. However, there were also examples of radical right terrorist violence where the alleged perpetrators astonishingly were acquitted even though evidence of their guilt was overwhelming.
These findings, though, do not lead to the conclusion that we experience a rigorous criminal prosecution against radical right offenders in Germany. On the contrary, when it comes to neo-Nazi violence in general (such as arson attacks, assaults, or riots), law enforcement often works slowly and hesitantly. If the cases are tried, the sentences do not always exhaust the full range of punishment available to the court. That holds particularly true when the violence is not recognized as politically motivated.
This observation reveals an ambiguity in dealing with radical right violence in Germany. A consistent and decisive handling of this challenge by the prosecuting authorities is far off.
Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher at Faculty of Social Science and Cultural Studies in University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf, Germany. Her profile can be found here:
©Barbara Manthe. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
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