07.22.2016
  • Germany

Searching for Justice

How a neo-Nazi campaign of terror was ignored by German police.

Thirty-eight-year-old Enver Şimşek ran a large flower distribution center in southern Germany. On one particular day in the late summer of 2000, he found himself working at a small flower shop on a busy street near the edge of Nuremberg, sitting in for a worker on vacation. After setting up the shop, the practicing Muslim paused to recite a morning prayer, withdrawing to the back of his white delivery van labelled “Blumen Şimşek” to do so.

Suddenly, two men in bicycling outfits approach the van by foot, throw open its doors, and open fire on Enver, before slamming them shut and disappearing on bicycles stashed nearby.

Eventually, waiting customers begin to wonder what happened to the flower shop’s attendant and call the police, who promptly discover Enver, still clinging to life in the back of the van, shot eight times in the head and torso. Enver Şimşek would die from his injuries two days later on September 11, 2000, leaving behind a wife and two children aged thirteen and fourteen.

Şimşek was the first victim of a series of murders and bombing attacks that puzzled German authorities for eleven years, not least because potential racist or political motives were systematically ignored, despite the fact that nine of the ten murders were carried out with the same Česká 83 pistol and the first nine victims were all of Turkish or Kurdish backgrounds, with the exception of one Greek small businessman.

On June 13, 2001, forty-nine-year-old Nuremberg tailor Abdurrahim Özüdoğru would meet a similar fate, as would grocer Süleyman Taşköprü (thirty-one years old) in Hamburg on June 27 and Munich shop owner Habil Kılıç (thirty-eight years old) on August 29. All three were murdered, shot in the head with a Česká 83.

Following a noticeable two-and-a-half-year pause, the Česká 83 reemerged in the coastal city of Rostock on February 25, 2004, implicated in the murder of twenty-five-year-old döner kebab seller Mehmet Turgut. The same pistol would go on to kill İsmail Yaşar (fifty years old) on June 9, 2005 — Nuremberg’s third victim.

Only six days later, forty-one-year-old locksmith co-owner Theodoros Boulgarides would die in Munich. On April 4, 2006, thirty-nine-year old Mehmet Kubaşık would be shot in Dortmund, and only two days later a twenty-one-year-old internet café proprietor named Halit Yozgat would be gunned down in Kassel.

For the victims’ families, the shock of their murders was followed by years of gut-wrenching investigations as suspects in their loved ones’ deaths by German police. The list of clichés and ethnic stereotypes deployed by authorities in their investigation spoke volumes about the attitudes harbored by police towards Turkish immigrants in Germany.

Police suspected the murderers were related to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) protection rackets, the Turkish mafia, private debts, gambling addictions, tax dodging and, most often, jealousy and marital disagreements.

Enver Şimşek’s wife Adile was shown a picture of a “blonde German woman” by police, telling her it was her murdered husband’s secret lover with whom he had conceived two children. By doing so, the police hoped to compel Adile, whom they suspected of killing her husband in a fit of jealousy, to admit to the crime. Only much later would the family learn that the story had been a fabrication.

None of the officials tasked with the investigation considered racist motives as a potential factor, although multiple individuals interviewed by authorities expressed concerns that a violent racist was on the loose, hunting immigrants. Witness statements from more than one of the murders described two men on bicycles, but police largely ignored this fact as well.

When asked why police neglected to pursue links to Nazism or the bicyclists, then-chief investigator of the Munich murder commission and popular author Josef Wilfling responded, “Have you ever seen a Nazi on a bike?”

Police in Nuremberg went so far as to open up a fake döner kebab shop to lure the Turkish mafia into collecting protection money. In one instance, police even flew in a psychic from Iran who claimed to be in contact with the victims. Authorities were determined to investigate every possible lead, or at least every lead that confirmed their prejudices about the Turkish and Kurdish immigrant communities.

The media, supposedly a democratic society’s fourth estate responsible for holding the government to account, accepted the police’s racist assumptions uncritically and began referring to the series of killings as the “Döner Murders”. This stereotypical narrative dominated public perception of the case.

Despite pleas for help from victims like Envir Şimşek’s nineteen-year-old daughter Semiya, few outside of the Turkish and Kurdish communities listened. The two-thousand-strong demonstrations held in Kassel and Dortmund a month after the deaths of Mehmet Kubaşık and Halit Yozgat under the slogan “No Tenth Victim” remained almost exclusively Turkish events.

Indicative of the state’s attitude at the time, a position paper drafted by the Baden-Württemberg State Office of Criminal Investigations in January 2007 stated: “Given that killing human beings is considered highly taboo within our cultural space, we can safely assume that the perpetrator is, in terms of his behavioral system, located far outside our local system of values and norms.”

This treatment went on for years. The friends and family of the victims would finally learn the true identity of their murderers in 2011, albeit not as a result of effective police work, but through the self-incrimination of the murderers themselves.

A motor home in the Thuringian city of Eisenach burst into flames on November 4, 2011. Inside, the charred remains of two bodies were found, both of which had clearly suffered violent deaths before the fire.

Hours later, two hundred kilometers away in Zwickau, Saxony, another apartment exploded and burned to the ground. Over the following days, Germany would be rocked by a series of scandals and revelations.

Four days later, a woman named Beate Zschäpe turned herself in for the apartment explosion. Police announced that the corpses inside — Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt — were her onetime comrades in a neo-Nazi terrorist cell named the National Socialist Underground.

The NSU was responsible for nine racially motivated murders, the killing of one police officer, and the severe injury of another between 1998 and 2011. The group also committed at least three bombing attacks, including detonating a nail bomb on a busy street in Cologne on June 9, 2004, and robbed at least fifteen banks and businesses.

Before turning herself in, Zschäpe distributed a series of bizarre and disturbing propaganda videos claiming responsibility for the killings to media, government institutions, and even leftist and antifascist organizations on November 4.

The White Supremacist Web

The life stories of Beate Zschäpe (now forty years old) and the deceased Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt have been pored over in the course of the investigation. Adolescents when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the three grew up in the East German city of Jena at a time when the old German Democratic Republic (GDR) authorities were compromised and powerless, but no new authority had emerged to fill the vacuum.

This fed into a wave of racist violence across Germany, albeit primarily in the former East, in the early 1990s, culminating in racist pogroms in Hoyerswerda (Saxony) and Rostock-Lichtenhagen (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) for which few participants were ever punished. The government would ultimately respond to the racist street mob by rewriting the constitution to significantly curtail asylum and immigration rights, giving many participants the impression that their violence had helped to enforce the “will of the people.”

The young Nazis from Jena would radicalize over the coming decade, taking inspiration from American far-right groups and keenly reading the classic American Nazi tract The Turner Diaries, which almost everyone implicated in the trial had a PDF copy of on their computer.

Like Timothy McVeigh and The Order before them, these German Nazis were drawn to the book’s call for “leaderless resistance,” random violence against perceived racial enemies, and an underground, outlaw existence. British neo-Nazi David Copeland, responsible for a devastating nail bomb attack in London in 1999, had likewise been inspired by the Diaries; the NSU’s own nail bombing in 2004 may quite possibly have been inspired by Copeland.

Another American import, the Ku Klux Klan, also played a role in the development of neo-Nazi structures in post-reunification Germany. In the early 1990s, KKK hardliner Dennis W. Mahon went on a speaking tour across Germany to recruit young Germans for his “race war,” and would meet Ian Stuart Donaldsen, the founder of Blood & Honour, in Saarland.

Suspiciously, several key witnesses of the KKK’s influence on far-right terror networks in Germany have died under mysterious circumstances, such as KKK police informant Thomas Richter, aka “Corelli,” whose death in April 2014 from “hyperglycemia” remains shrouded in suspicion to this day.

The role of KKK members within the Baden-Württemberg police also remains unclear. For example, the commander on duty at the time of the attempted assassination of police officers Michèlle Keisewetter and Martin Arnold was, as it turns out, a KKK member. Additionally, incontrovertible evidence shows that FBI agents were in immediate proximity to the scene of the crime.

We know this information because the trial has focused extensively on the five defendants — Beate Zschäpe and four men accused of “aiding and abetting a murder” and “supporting a terrorist association” — and their history.

But the NSU was not confined to these individuals; they had hundreds of behind-the-scenes supporters and enjoyed a high level of contact with the state. This contact has meanwhile become the biggest scandal in the history of the postwar German intelligence services.

Limited Justice

The precise extent of state involvement remains unclear to this day. Authorities implicated in the NSU affair (police, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the foreign intelligence service, military counter-intelligence, etc.) have conducted an unprecedented cover-up, obstructing the investigative work of eleven parliamentary commissions on both federal and state levels and the NSU trial itself, currently being held at the Munich higher court (one level below Germany’s supreme court).

Against much available evidence, the federal prosecutor still claims that the NSU was an “isolated” three-person cell, only supported by a handful of accomplices — a version of events that is hardly supported by the available evidence and widely regarded as false. Many of the NSU’s crimes required detailed knowledge of the locality in which they were committed, and could not have occurred without extensive outside help.

NSU-Watch, an independent website that publishes critical reporting on the trial, estimates that dozens, if not hundreds, of sympathizers and even accomplices, many of them linked to the Blood & Honour and Hammerskin neo-Nazi networks, provided the group with money, weapons, shelter, and escape routes over the years.

Worse, the further back into the group’s history one looks, the deeper the ties between the far right and the state become. In the mid-1990s, state informant Tino Brandt directed large amounts of money from the domestic intelligence services into the Thuringian far-right scene, helping to establish the Thüringer Heimatschutz, the group that would incubate Zschäpe, Mundlos, and Böhnhardt’s terrorist ambitions before founding the NSU in 1998.

In fact, the expansion and consolidation of far-right networks in Thuringia would have been impossible without the active participation of the domestic intelligence services. Tino Brandt alone received over 100,000 during his time as an informant, in addition to technical equipment (cell phones, computers, cars, etc.) and other expenses (hotels, transportation).

Independent researchers have concluded that the broader Nazi scene in which the NSU was rooted was packed with state informants, who regularly forwarded details of the terrorist trio’s activities onto domestic intelligence.

Most recently, it emerged in early 2016 that another informant on the Office for the Protection of the Constitution’s payroll named Ralf Marchner, codename “Primus,” employed Uwe Mundlos in his Zwickau construction firm from 2000–1, and possibly hired Zschäpe to work in one of the popular neo-Nazi hangouts he owned as well.

Two scenarios seem plausible: either Marchner failed to inform his police contact of these developments, calling the reliability of the entire informant system into question, or the state was well aware of these activities and chose not to intervene, so as to avoid “disturbing” the terrorist cell before gathering sufficient evidence.

The murders were already underway when Mundlos began working for Marschner’s firm, which also had locations in Munich and Nuremberg, where three of the killings had occurred. Even more alarmingly, Marschner is only one of twenty-four known informants working in the east German Nazi scene, although many suspect that up to forty informants are involved in total.

One of the most bizarre inconsistencies of the NSU affair revolves around the role of state agent Andreas Temme. Temme was in Halit Yozgat’s internet café during his murder in April 2006 and behaved suspiciously afterwards. It remains unclear, even after dozens of interrogations, what exactly happened in Kassel and whether or not Temme had been aware of the deed beforehand, or perhaps even been involved.

In a phone call with a colleague recorded a week after the murder while Temme was already under investigation, a voice can be heard saying “I tell everybody, if I know that something like that is going to happen, please don’t go there!”

This sentence can only mean that Temme or his office knew about Yozgat’s murder before it occurred. Then interior minister for the state of Hesse and current minister-president Volker Bouffier intervened to suspend the investigation and prevent the interrogation of informants from the Nazi scene — “in the interests of the Hessian state.”

For family and friends of the victims, but also for the trial’s defendants, the extent of the state’s involvement in nurturing right-wing terrorists, and its shared responsibility for the NSU’s deeds — whether by tolerating, facilitating or even encouraging them — remains the central question of the investigation.

Unfortunately, it is also the question that has yet to be answered, despite Angela Merkel praising authorities’ “spotless investigation” at the central memorial service for NSU victims on February 23, 2012.

In reality, the authorities she praised conducted a major cover-up operation just days after the NSU’s existence came to light. On November 11, 2011, a high-ranking official from the Office for the Protection of the Constitution shredded numerous incriminating documents to protect his office and the identities of his “sources” (that is, informants).

Following his example, various regional offices and other state institutions with links to the NSU began doing the same, destroying almost four hundred documents and files in total. A former vice president of the office, testifying in front of a parliamentary commission on the matter, stated categorically: “No state secrets that undermine the government’s ability to act may be allowed to become public.”

The domestic intelligence services have thus far managed to emerge from the scandal relatively unscathed, while the Office for the Protection of the Constitution itself could not have asked for a better fundraiser: the agency has more staff, more money, and more authority than ever before, although every reason exists to believe that it was implicated in both the murders as well as the bombing attacks. At the very least, the office knew about the attacks in advance and did nothing to prevent them.

After roughly three hundred days of the trial, the victims and their families have given up hope that the the Munich higher court will shed light on what exactly happened in the NSU affair. Neither the trial nor the numerous parliamentary commissions convened to investigate it will uncover the truth.

Aware of this fact, many of those affected by the NSU murders have come together to establish a tribunal “against the Federal Republic of Germany” in order to attract more public attention, uncover the truth, and hopefully achieve a modicum of justice — and most importantly, to scandalize the state’s involvement in the affair.

The Munich court’s verdict, expected in early 2017, will by no means mark the end of the NSU in German public life, nor of right-wing terror in general. In fact, the Federal Criminal Police Office issued a warning concerning the growth of new right-wing terrorist groups earlier this year.

In light of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have crossed Germany’s borders since last year, the shoddy investigation into the NSU’s activities also has implications outside of the concrete bunker in which the trial is being held.

Ultimately, other neo-Nazi and far-right groups will be encouraged by the state’s cover-up and its decision to protect the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of racist terror, and may decide to emulate their idols in the future.