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German cops' failures investigating the NSU

July 11, 2018

After five years, the verdicts in the trials of members of the National Socialist Underground are to be handed down. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's promised clarification efforts have not become reality.

NSU trial
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel

The first victim of the serial murders died on September 11, 2000, the last on April 6, 2006. Eight of the victims were men of Turkish heritage; one was from Greece. They were all shot with the same gun. The investigators initially assumed, without evidence, that the killings must have involved drugs — sometimes they even accused relatives of taking part in the murders. Racism was quickly ruled out as motive.

When police officer Michele Kiesewetter was shot in Heilbronn on April 25, 2007, in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, no connection to the other murders was made. It wasn't until four and a half years later that police pieced the events together, almost accidently — and following yet another crime.

The bodies of Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos were found in a burned-out motorhome after a failed bank robbery in Eisenach on November 4, 2011. They had apparently taken their lives to escape arrest. The fact that the men were members of a right-wing group called the National Socialist Underground (NSU), and were behind the serial murders became known after a video was sent to several media outlets a short time later. Multiple pieces of evidence were discovered by police in the rubble of a residential building in Zwickau that had exploded on the day of the robbery. The detonation was presumably triggered by Beate Zschäpe, who had joined up with Böhnhardt and Mundlos in January 1998. Zschäpe turned herself in to police on November 8, 2011.

In addition to the 10 murders already blamed on the NSU, prosecutors would eventually charge the group with two bomb attacks in Cologne that left more than 20 people injured and 15 robberies.

Not 'doing everything'

Zschäpe and four NSU supporters went on trial for the crimes in Munich's higher regional court on May 6, 2013. Prosecutors have demanded a life sentence for Zschäpe and prison terms of three to 12 years for the four people accused of being accessories.

An early release would be ruled out should presiding judge Manfred Götzl's tribunal sentence Zschäpe to life. But, whatever sentence is imposed, survivors and relatives of the victims have already delivered their verdict on German authorities' investigation of the NSU's crimes.

"We are doing everything to solve the murders, uncover the accomplices and individuals behind these crimes, and bring all perpetrators to justice," Chancellor Angela Merkel said on February 23, 2012, at a ceremony to commemorate the people hurt and killed by the NSU.

However, with the trial finally coming to a close over six years later, many questions remain unanswered, said Antonia von der Behrens, a Berlin lawyer representing one of Mehmet Kubasik's sons. Her client will likely never find out why his father was murdered in Dortmund in 2006. Victims' families believe that Zschäpe could shed light on why their relatives were targeted. But she claims to always have heard about the murders only after the fact — an assertion that von der Behrens does not buy.

Lawyers, activists and relatives believe that the NSU had far more accomplices than are being tried in Munich. For many years, Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the BfV, had placed numerous informants at events where NSU members or their supporters were present. However, by official request, the informants have only been allowed to give limited testimony — or none at all — as witnesses in the trial. The same has applied to agents of the BfV.

In December, von der Behrens said the BfV and the equivalent local-level agencies in relevant states "have systematically thwarted and made impossible the investigation of the 10 murders, 43 attempted murders and 15 robberies."

Investigative shortcomings

Even after several parliamentary committees of inquiry, many questions about the NSU remain unanswered. Clemens Binninger was a member of one Bundestag committee of inquiry. He also doubts the theory that only three people — Zschäpe, Böhnhardt and Mundlos — belonged to the terror group.

"Within the trio, did the two men commit all these crimes alone, without leaving a trace anywhere?" asked Binninger, who has since resigned from the Bundestag.

A former police officer, Binninger wonders what the NSU's "determining impulse" was when selecting victims and locations. The murders were carried out across Germany: Rostock and Hamburg in the north, Dortmund in the west, Kassel in the center and Nuremberg, Munich and Heilbronn in the south.

Survivors and the relatives of the people killed are disillusioned, von der Behrens said. She also said that police allegations that the victims or their families had been involved in drug trafficking or gang crime amount to institutional racism, especially considering the lack of political will to clarify the extent of the BfV's own role in the NSU's killings.

With her promise of a relentless official effort to solve the crimes six years ago, Chancellor Merkel had raised the hopes of survivors and the relatives of the people killed. However, the state's failures have had few repercussions. Heinz Fromm, then the president of the BfV, voluntarily resigned in 2012 after it became known that files related to the NSU had been destroyed shortly after the group's existence became public. Any remaining BfV files on the NSU have been redacted or remain under lock and key. Some others were destroyed, even after the investigation had begun.

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Marcel Fürstenau
Marcel Fürstenau Berlin author and reporter on current politics and society.