Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thomas Meaney & Saskia Schäfer - The neo-Nazi murder trial revealing Germany's darkest secrets

The only known survivor of a far-right group accused of a series of racist killings is now on trial. But the case has put the nation itself in the dock.. With patience and an almost languid sense of impunity, Zschäpe and the two Uwes allegedly conducted the longest, and most intricate, political killing spree in postwar German history.

During their decade on the run, Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos worked odd jobs and in shops that sold Nazi paraphernalia under the counter. At the trial, Zschäpe has been accused of helping the two men supplement their income with a series of bank robberies, which the three friends carried out together in a number of towns in Thuringia and Mecklenburg-West-Pomerania between 1999 and 2011. Sometimes they entered wearing gorilla masks, sometimes masks from the movie Scream. Their trusted escape method was allegedly to ride bicycles to a nearby rented van, in which they waited until the search for them had ended. The German police managed to link the robberies to each other, but not to Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos.

The three fugitives showed few signs of concern about their possible capture. They used fake IDs and rented their apartment under aliases, but took few precautions beyond that. Neighbours fed their cats when they were away, and it appears that friends visited each week when they were home, sometimes bringing their children. With patience and an almost languid sense of impunity, Zschäpe and the two Uwes allegedly conducted the longest, and most intricate, political killing spree in postwar German history. 

When we visited the Munich courtroom earlier this year, all eyes were trained on Zschäpe, who stared at her laptop and seemed more worried about running out of the crate of coconut water she had brought to the trial than anything that might happen there. With her neat long hair and signature trouser-suit, she appeared deeply at ease, smiling like a professional model for a brief press photo session, before she settled back among the lawyers, from whom she is almost indistinguishable.
In the press and visitors’ spectator booth, set behind glass above the courtroom, conspiracy-theorists, bloggers, newspaper reporters, and law students studying the trial all sit together – alongside a few loyal Zschäpe groupies. (The most notorious of Zschäpe’s fans, Anders Breivik, the extreme-rightwing Norwegian terrorist, sent her a letter of solidarity from prison in 2012.)...

The prosecution has decided to treat Zschäpe’s case strictly as a murder trial. She is essentially charged with being the last surviving member of the group of three who are assumed to be responsible for the killings. The task of the trial, in this view, is simply to clarify whether – and to what degree – she was involved with the killings. There has been little effort on the part of the investigators and prosecutors to determine whether other rightwing extremists were involved. When one considers the level of local knowledge required to carry out these murders in several different German states – the detailed knowledge of getaway routes at the various crime scenes, the massive stockpile of weapons, the professionally forged fake IDs, not to mention the cost of these operations – the question of how the NSU could have operated without the support of a much larger network of sympathisers is unavoidable. Yet the prosecution appears at pains not to address this question.

Still, despite its slow-moving procedures and its limited scope, the proceedings have provided a succession of strange revelations about the workings of the German state intelligence agency, known as the BfV, which have led to allegations that elements within the agency either turned a blind eye to the NSU murders or supported the group’s aims.

In summer 2013, Andreas Temme, the BfV agent who was inside Halit Yozgat’s internet cafe in Kassel when Yozgat was murdered, testified that he did not hear the silenced shots, nor did he notice the sprinkles of blood on the counter where he placed his payment in coins when he left. Spectators of the Munich trial agree that one of the most searing moments of the trial came when Yozgat’s father described how he found his dying son. It was impossible, he said, that Temme could have left the cafe without seeing the dead body behind the counter. “Why did you kill my son? What did he do to you?” he shouted at Zschäpe and Wohlleben in the courtroom….

Zschäpe’s trial is the most significant courtroom showdown in Germany since the trial of the Baader-Meinhof gang – a radical-left terrorist group also known as the Red Army Faction, who targeted US military installations, conservative media outlets and German corporations in the 1970s. Both cases go to the heart of Germany’s identity in postwar Europe. In the Baader-Meinhof case, the question was whether German youth were willing to be integrated into western capitalism, and whether the German state would lapse back into a form of authoritarianism. In the Zschäpe trial, it is a question of how far Germany really is from becoming a nation of immigrants and how far the values of tolerance have penetrated society.

“The Red Army Faction wanted to bring down the German state,” said Hajo Funke. “The difference this time is that the National Socialist Underground got some help from part of the state.” The head of the BfV, Heinz Fromm, resigned in 2012 while facing public pressure over the mishandling of the NSU investigation, but he never mentioned the reason for stepping down, nor has the BfV admitted any improprieties. Instead, BfV officials have strenuously guarded their sources and intelligence from both the normal police and from a special federal commission that was established in 2012 to probe lapses in the NSU investigation. But critics of the federal commission allege that it has also failed to dig deeper into the inconsistencies in the case. “The Federal Examination Commission has chosen not to question the claim that the NSU was confined to three people,” said Bilgin Ayata….

The BfV has long been regarded as right-leaning: it was founded after the second world war by the Americans, who welcomed Nazis and former Gestapo members into its ranks. Its mission was to spy on and root out the KPD, as the German communist party was known, as well as members of the Social Democratic party. The first head of the organisation, Otto John, defected to East Germany in 1954, citing the overwhelming number of Nazis in the organisation. His successor was Hubert Schrübbers, a former member of the SS. Under Schrübbers’ supervision, the German communist party was finally banned in 1956, based on allegedly incriminating materials turned up by the BfV. Major German political parties – such as the Left party and the Greens – have long called for the abolition of the BfV.

For now, neither police nor trial investigators have the right to subpoena BfV documents that may contain vital evidence about the NSU killings. There are still many mysteries about the true extent of the seven-year killing spree – most notably the circumstances of the final murder, of the police officer Michèle Kiesewetter, which did not fit the pattern of the others. The prosecution has accused Mundlos and Böhnhardt of attacking two police officers on duty in the town of Heilbronn in April 2007: Kiesewetter, age 22, was killed instantly; her duty-partner survived but has no memory of the attack.

A nightly news report about the murder scene appears at the end of the Pink Panther video, and traces of Kiesewetter’s DNA were found among the charred remains of the Zwickau apartment that Zschäpe set on fire. But a different type of gun was used for Kiesewetter’s murder, and witnesses at the scene describe more than two people running away from the scene with blood on their clothes. Local police have declared these witnesses unreliable, and stated that only Mundlos and Böhnhardt were involved in the murder. But their reason for killing a police officer remains unknown, and the possible presence of others at the crime scene has further stoked fears that the NSU was not an organisation of only three people.

“For the commissions and for the trial, the [size of the] NSU is a fait accompli,” Ayata said. “They ignore the questions that nag at the migrant communities in Germany: Are they still here? Are they still killing?”At a public commemoration of the victims of the NSU murders at the Konzerthaus Berlin in 2012, Angela Merkel asked for forgiveness on behalf of the investigators who had insisted that the victims were entangled in the Turkish mafia. “As chancellor, I will do everything I can to clear up the murders and uncover the accomplices and supporters, and bring all of the perpetrators to justice,” she said. But her government is hesitant to probe more deeply into the more troubling elements of the case, and of the rightwing extremist scene that continues to flourish in Germany.

There is a telling contrast between the laxness of Zschäpe’s trial and the professionalism of the concurrent prosecution of the so-called “last” Nazi, Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard. Hanning’s trial was swiftly wrapped up in four months, and he was sentenced to five years in prison for “facilitating slaughter” at the extermination camp. It seems that Germany may be more comfortable trying former Nazis than current ones. More than three years into Zschäpe’s trial, the panel of judges now seems bored; they take frequent recesses and appear to have lost interest in key witnesses…. Read more: