Three months after a far-right terrorist cell was uncovered in Germany, the country has held a memorial service for the victims of neo-Nazi violence. It's one of the steps Berlin has taken to fight racism.
There has never been an event on a similar scale in Germany. Some 1,200 people gathered Thursday for a memorial ceremony at the Berlin Concert House for the 10 victims of neo-Nazi murders that occurred in Germany between 2000 and 2007. Eight of the victims had Turkish roots, another was Greek and one German.
The shock in Germany is profound, partially because security authorities suspected the alleged perpetrators of being far-right extremists. In addition to taking steps to uncover violent extremists and improve security protocols, the state has gone as far as publicly apologizing for the authorities' failure to prevent the murders and taken measures to support the victims' families.
The Bundestag, the lower house of German parliament expressed its "grief, dismay and concern" shortly after the series of murders was uncovered in November.
"We are ashamed that security officials were not able to uncover and prevent the crimes planned and committed over a number of years," said Norbert Lammert, the Bundestag president.
Germany's five main political parties also issued a shared statement saying, "We are deeply ashamed that following the horrible crimes of the National-Socialist regime, such far-right ideology can still leave behind a bloody trail of unimaginable murders."
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said the murders were not just attacks on individuals but aimed at democracy itself. He said it was up to government to ensure the perpetrators and their accomplices were punished and to dry out the "ideological swamp" at the heart of such crimes.
In December, a center to defend against right-wing extremism opened. The center brings together police and security officials from all of Germany's 16 states as well as federal officers. A database of violent, far-wing extremists was also established in January.
The German government's integration secretary, Maria Böhmer, said victims needed to be given back their dignity. Ali Ertan Toprak of the Alevi Community in Germany, said in November that despite all the concern and grief, it was important to emphasize that Germany is one society. "No one can take away from us that we belong to this country and that we are also German," he said.
After a meeting with Böhmer, Hilmi Kaya Turan of the Turkish Community in Germany, said that racism and xenophobia have too long been taboo topics in Germany. Indignation is not enough, he said calling instead for a political process that would examine how racism could be stopped in Germany.
The now former German President Christian Wulff also met with victims' relatives in November. After receiving the Leo-Baeck-Prize from Germany's Central Council of Jews, he asked in his acceptance speech: "Has our country done justice to the victims and their families? Are the leaders of the far-right under sufficient observation?"
A parliamentary commission of inquiry and a state and federal commission have been established to root out the causes and the people responsible for not uncovering the terrorist group that gave itself the name "National-Socialist Underground" (NSU). Two of the suspected perperatrators, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, took their own lives when they were about to get caught by police. A third suspect, Beate Zschäpe, is thought to have been involved in the murder spree. Other suspects have also been taken into custody for questioning.
Fighting racism in Germany
Considerable work remains for authorities some three months after the murder series was discovered. Religious groups, youth, sports and cultural organizations meet regularly and share their experiences in developing projects to fight racism and far-right extremism with a new information center founded by Family Minister Kristina Schröder.
The project has received the support of the head of the Central Council for Muslims in Germany, Aiman Mazyek. "Attacks by right-wing extremists on Muslims or Christians, on mosques or synagogues are attacks on our free democratic society," Mazyek said, adding that Muslims in Germany hitherto had not been considered equal partners in fighting right-wing extremism.
Friedrich said he felt there had not been enough empathy for the victims of neo-Nazi violence or enough compassion for their families. Chancellor Angela Merkel will speak at the memorial on Thursday, as will the daughters of two of the victims.
But the ceremony should not be seen as putting an end to the need to address far-right extremism in Germany, Barbara John, ombudswoman for the families of victims of neo-Nazi terrorism, told the Protestant epd news agency. She said more needed to be done to institute long-term policy and societal changes.