The Anti-Semitic Murder Germany Forgot

An analysis of 1980 murder of Shlomo Lewin and Frieda Poeschke reveals that it was disgracefully handled both by the police and the public.

Erlangen, Germany, 08/30/2017 © lonndubh / Shutterstock

On the evening of December, 19, 1980, a double homicide was committed in the German city of Erlangen: A stranger shot and killed the Jewish publisher Shlomo Lewin and his life companion, Frieda Poeschke, in their private home. Lewin had been a former chairman of the Jewish community in Nuremberg. Frieda Poeschke was the widow of the former senior mayor of the city of Erlangen.

When police entered the crime scene, they quickly concluded that this had not been a robbery but an execution. The most significant piece of evidence was a pair of lady’s sunglasses left at the crime scene. Aside from that minor detail, the police were completely in the dark, also concerning the motives for the crime. In February 1981, the investigation stalled. A special commission had questioned a thousand witnesses and tracked some 240 clues. However, the owner of the sunglasses had not been identified despite the fact that the glasses had been produced by a very small company and were a special design.

It is remarkable that, following the crime, newspaper headlines were dominated by mainly negative speculation about Shlomo Lewin. Very soon after the murder, the press spread the idea that Lewin had been killed by a Palestinian because he was an agent of the Israeli intelligence, the Mossad. This information was completely unfounded and disconfirmed shortly afterward. Nevertheless, the investigators showed an increased interest in finding out about the victim’s extraordinary connections. Police also spread the rumor, that Lewin held a high rank in the Israeli army during his time there. Although the rumor was quickly dismissed, the press continued to discuss it in a negative way.

Fatal Effect

These are only some examples from the extensive guesswork on Lewin’s personality that was mainly derived from his identity as a Jew. It is important to look not only at what was written about the victims, but also what was not, since the press coverage was more or less characterized by a lack of positive information. Lewin’s achievements could scarcely be found in the media reports — for example the fact that he was decorated with the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz). Frieda Poeschke was hardly mentioned aside of some basic information.

That attitude fits into the direction the investigations were conducted in the following weeks. The police and the prosecutor investigated in a one-sided way, concentrating on a personal motive since Lewin was considered to be an “ambivalent character” and had come to be suspected to have caused financial irregularities within the Jewish community in Erlangen. The journalist Ulrich Chaussy, who did research on the double homicide, pointed out that questioning the moral integrity of Lewin had a fatal effect: It undermined solidarity with the victim and diminished a desire for justice.

In February 1981, the owner of the sunglasses was finally identified: Franziska B., the life companion of Karl-Heinz Hoffmann, the leader of the Wehrsportgruppe Hoffmann (Hoffmann Paramilitary Sports Group), a paramilitary neo-Nazi organization with ties to the right-wing terrorist milieu in Western Europe. The group had been banned a year ago, in January 1980.

In retrospect, the sunglasses should have been more than easy to track. Only a few of them had been produced, and Hoffmann and B. had been neighbors with the company for several years. In June 1981, both were arrested for conspiracy to murder. The investigators suspected them of having initiated the crime that was then carried out by a close confidant of Hoffmann, Uwe Behrendt. In 1979, Behrendt had moved in with Hoffmann and B., at Schloss Ermreuth, only 15 kilometers away from Erlangen. On December 19, 1980, Behrendt dressed up in a wig and the sunglasses, which were left at the crime scene. After he had killed Lewin and Poeschke, he returned to Ermreuth, where he immediately confessed to Hoffmann. Hoffmann gave him money and a ticket to flee abroad. Behrendt left the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) for West Germany, and later moved onto Lebanon, never to return. It appears he killed himself in September 1981.

Political Climate

Although we still don’t know much about the background of the crime today, there are two hints why Lewin was chosen by his murderer. In 1977, Lewin had spoken out against the Hoffmann Group in an article that was published by an Italian magazine. In March 1979, Hoffmann wrote an article in his magazine, Kommando, where he made references to Shlomo Lewin. Therefore, Lewin was known to the Hoffmann group and probably chosen by Behrendt as a representative of the Jewish community as well as a political opponent.

The proceeding against Hoffmann and B. began in 1984, and became a trial without a murderer or murder weapon. The defendants were accused of conspiracy to murder, but not of having committed the crime. In the summer of 1986, the court acquitted Hoffmann and B. of the murder charge. Uwe Behrendt was considered to have acted alone. B. was set free, Hoffmann sentenced to nine and a half years of prison for other offences.

To understand why the case was handled in this manner it is important to point out the political climate of that time. The early 1980s in particular saw highly polarized debates on right-wing terrorism. This might be a reason for the subsequent disregard for the homicide. An analysis of the murder case reveals that it was disgracefully handled both by the police and the public. The criminal investigations were sloppy and unambitious; furthermore, we observe a rush to close the case quickly and a clear hesitancy to talk about political motives. The defamatory press campaigns against the victims followed these investigations and had a fatal impact on public sympathy.

Later on, the case was almost forgotten — it has neither become general knowledge in Germany, nor did it lead to a collective rallying to the victims’ side. Also, the assassination was not addressed in the analysis of later right-wing terrorist crimes, especially the National Socialist Underground murders of the early 2000s. Compared with the remembrance of the victims killed by the left-wing Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, the assassination never became part of the official historical narrative. This fits into a general silencing that concerns the victims of right-wing terrorist attacks in the former FRG.

Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher at University of Applied Sciences in 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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