Why would right-wing terrorists decide not to claim responsibility for their crimes?
In Germany, there has been an ongoing public debate as to whether radical-right terrorists take responsibility for their crimes, particularly after the radical-right terrorist group Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund (the National Socialist Underground, NSU) was uncovered. This group did not claim credit for its attacks before 2011, when its existence was revealed.
Security forces like the police and the domestic intelligence services often assumed from insights into the communication strategies of left-wing terrorism that a terrorist attack requires a communicative act claiming responsibility. Since this was not the case with the NSU attacks, authorities concluded before 2011 that there could be no political basis for the crimes committed against minorities, suspected minorities and a German policewoman between 2000 and 2007, in what became known as the Česká murders. Other observers, particularly NGOs and critical journalists, argued that right-wing terrorists would (almost) never write letters of responsibility.
This take is only partially true. Generally, it can be stated that most radical-right terrorist groups in Germany do not declare responsibility for their crimes, but there were exceptions. For example, the Deutsche Aktionsgruppen (German Action Groups), which committed several attacks in 1980, claimed credit for its crimes via phone calls and letters to the media, even though they were neither detailed nor well elaborated. Therefore, ever since the group carried out its first attack, the public was aware that there was a neo-Nazi group called Deutsche Aktionsgruppen that committed terrorist attacks.
Other actors, such as the Hepp/Kexel Group (1982) and the NSU (1998-2011) serve as example for radical-right terrorist organizations that deliberately did not claim responsibility for their deeds. Besides these two, there are many other examples of groups or lone actors who did not admit their perpetration: the Otte Group and the Kühnen/Schulte/Wegener Group in the late 1970s; those responsible for the Oktoberfest bombing in 1980; the murderer of the Jewish publisher Shlomo Lewin and his partner Frieda Poeschke in 1980; as well as numerous attacks on immigrant homes in the early 1990s.
In the cases of the Hepp/Kexel Group and the NSU, both the police and the general public made false assumptions with regard to the background of the attacks. While the bombings carried out by the Hepp/Kexel Group against US Army personnel deployed in West Germany were thought to be left-wing terrorist attacks committed by the Red Army Faction (RAF), the NSU murders and bombings were misattributed to conflicts within differing factions inside the Turkish community.
Why, then, would right-wing terrorists decide not to claim responsibility for their crimes and miss the chance to transmit their messages to a wider audience? First, practical aspects should be considered. The leaders of the Hepp/Kexel Group took the view that letters or pamphlets always involved the risk of leading prosecutors on the right track. If the investigators initiated an active search for the actual perpetrators, the terrorists would probably soon be detected. This assumption may also apply to the NSU, since a significant bonus for terrorists in hiding was that the police never seriously investigated within the radical-right scene.
Assuming that terrorism is a communication strategy, following Peter Waldmanns’ analysis, a second aspect needs to be taken into account. One primary goal of terrorism — to produce a state of fear through the use of violence — is fulfilled when the victim group is intimidated. This was the case both with the attacks carried out by the Hepp/Kexel Group and the NSU, which managed to unsettle the target groups (US military personnel in the former case and the Turkish community in the latter). Furthermore, in the eyes of the terrorists, the attacks should speak for themselves. The NSU produced a DVD in which a text panel was shown, reading: “The National Socialist Underground is a network of comrades with the principle — deeds instead of words.” According to this logic, the attacks themselves, rather than letters, give a hint of the underlying motive.
A third aspect deserves attention. The terrorists may have intended to leave the police and general public ignorant of their true motives. It was a strategy by West German right-wing terrorists to blame the left for their attacks in the 1970s and 1980s. This was also the case in Italy, where numerous radical-right motivated attacks were committed in order to blame the communists, the idea being to win the population over to the far-right cause through a so-called “strategy of tension.”
For example, members of the Otte Group posted a letter after a bomb attack in Hannover in 1977, in which the RAF allegedly took responsibility for the bombing. The Hepp/Kexel Group did the same. When German authorities suspected left-wing terrorists of the attacks, Odfried Hepp, one of the leaders of the group, even considered encouraging this with a fake letter of confession. It was, in the eyes of the terrorists, not necessary to enlighten the public about the truth. This strategy might also have been pursued by the NSU. It is a matter of fact that the group was well informed about the police investigations into the Turkish community. For example, it collected newspaper clippings about the Česká murder series.
Therefore, it is fair to state that the terrorists not only tolerated the lack of knowledge about the background of their deeds, but may even have approved of it. The fact that the victims of the attacks were victimized for a second time through the police investigations must have been welcomed by this racist group.
The NSU might have been inspired by the racist American novels The Turner Diaries and The Hunter. These books point to a supposed necessity for a “race war” sparked by terrorist attacks. The white population is expected to join this war on the side of the racists and bring the conflict to an end. Political involvement is implied to be nonessential and sometimes even counterproductive. In the 1990s and 2000s, the violent German neo-Nazi scene not only translated and disseminated the novels, but also regarded them as a welcome inspiration for their strategies. The NSU’s strategy of killing citizens and planting bombs without leaving any indication that this was a politically motivated crime strikingly resembles the discussed conceptions of starting a “race war,” albeit in a covert and indirect fashion.
Dr Barbara Manthe is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Researcher in the Faculty of Social Science and Cultural Studies, University of Applied Sciences, Düsseldorf, Germany. Her profile can be found here:
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