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The first victim was killed in September 2000, the 10th in April 2007. German authorities long suspected the mafia. When the culprits and motives came to light in late 2011, it sent shockwaves across the country.
Eisenach, November 4, 2011: a bank robbery. Two men escaped on bicycles, with a loot of 70,000 euros ($92,000). The police received valuable clues from vigilant witnesses. Only two hours after the robbery, police officers approached a suspicious caravan, which suddenly went up in flames. In the wreck, officers found the bodies of two men who had committed suicide: neo-Nazis Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, who had lived in hiding since the late 1990s.
At that moment, nobody could imagine the scope of the criminal case at hand. More questions arose when, in the same afternoon, a house burned in Zwickau after an explosion.
It was the house where the two right-wing bank robbers had lived together with a woman named Beate Zschäpe. Among the pieces of evidence found by crime scene specialists was the gun with which policewoman Michele Kiesewetter was shot dead in Heilbronn in April 2007.
Video claimed responsibility
The investigators also discovered a macabre video in the ruins, in which the makers claimed responsibility for the series of killings that started in September 2000 and left 10 people dead: the policewoman and nine men with a immigrant background.
The video was the first clue in uncovering of a series of killings that had left German authorities exasperated for years. They suddenly realized that the murders of eight small business owners of Turkish origin and one Greek man were committed by a terror trio which called itself the National Socialist Underground, or NSU.
Expressing the view of many Germans, the country's president at the time, Christian Wulff, condemned the crimes and described his horror at hearing the news.
"People in our country, living among us, were made victims of deadly hate and right-wing violence. I'm shocked and share the indignation felt by people in Germany," he said days after the NSU was uncovered. "We commemorate the dead and will hopefully now share the suffering with their many relatives."
'Döner murders' and other verbal slips
It was now clear that the motive was xenophobia, contemptuous racism. For a long time, German criminal prosecution had been following false leads. They had assumed that the mysterious series of killings were acts of revenge in the Turkish dominated mafia milieu.
German media also followed that assumption. For years, reports used the tasteless and thoughtless term "döner murders" when reporting on the cases, in a reference to a Turkish dish popular with Germans. Further proof as to which lead the authorities were focusing on was the name of an unsuccessful investigation team, the special commission "Bosphorus."
Against the background of what really happened, Wulff asked pressing questions: Had Germany given justice to the victims and their families? Shouldn't authorities have suspected a right-wing background much earlier? Were right-wing extremists sufficiently monitored? And, most importantly: "Have we possibly allowed ourselves to be misguided by prejudice? How can we make sure that the state assumes its protective function in all areas of society?"
One and a half years on, those questions have still not been conclusively answered. The number of inconsistencies is simply too high – especially with regard to security authorities.
The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) had knowledge of the suspected NSU culprits since the 1990s. Despite intense monitoring, that lead was lost – the reason remains unclear. This failure of the domestic security service is now the topic of investigation in several parliamentary committees on both the national and state level. Heinz Fromm, the president of the BfV, resigned in the summer of 2012 after news broke that important files had been destroyed in his agency – allegedly without his knowledge.
Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised that the unrelenting investigation will continue. At the national memorial service in Berlin in February 2012, Merkel told the relatives and friends of the victims that she felt embarrassed and sad in light of the terrible murders.
She said it was "disturbing" that for years the authorities almost exclusively searched for the culprits in the circle of the victims' families, friends and acquaintances. "I would like to apologize to you for that," Merkel told the victims' relatives who attended the ceremony.
The relatives' grief
Semiya Simsek, the daughter of the first NSU victim Enver Simsek, has said she couldn't help but ask herself whether Germany was still her home. "Yes" was her answer, she said, despite all that had happened. "But how can I be sure of that, if there are people who don't want me here and who become murderers just because my parents come from a different country?" Simsek has documented her inner struggle in a book, with the telling title "Schmerzliche Heimat" ("Painful Homeland").
Simsek's appeal at the memorial service in Berlin still rings in many people's ears: "It's up to the police, the judiciary, and every single one of us." She and the others had lost their relatives, she said. "Let's all work to make sure that it won't happen to more families!" she pleaded.
There have been some signs of true compassion. Barbara John has been appointed by the German government as an advocate to look after the relatives' needs. She used to be in charge of migration affairs in Berlin. Her job now consists of more than emotional assistance; it's also about the families' material claims, such as victims' pensions.
All in all, John is unsatisfied with the measures implemented and the lessons learnt since the NSU was uncovered. Together with the chairman of the Turkish Community of Germany, Kenan Kolat, she has criticized the security authorities' "life of their own." According to them, what's now necessary is a change of mentality in Germany. Kolat speaks of growing racism in Germany and has called for the dissolution of the BfV. "It's a threat to the democratic state of law in Germany," Kolat said.
As far as criminal prosecution is concerned, the crucial phase is now beginning, with the opening of the trial against the main suspect, Beate Zschäpe, at the Higher Regional Court (OLG) in Munich. Zschäpe turned herself in a few days after the NSU was uncovered.
Along with Zschäpe, a founding member of the group, four suspected collaborators and accomplices will stand trial at the OLG. The prosecution has charged them with having formed a terrorist group.
Discussion of NPD ban drags on
One of the suspects, Ralf Wohlleben, is a well-known figure in Germany's neo-Nazi milieu. He used to be an official with Germany's far-right "national-democratic party", the NPD, and had good connections with the suspected NSU murderers.
Some observers say the NPD, an openly right-wing extremist party, is the political arm of the violent neo-Nazi milieu. Whether personal connections with NSU members are enough to ban the NPD is a question that has been controversially discussed among experts. Only the Federal Constitutional Court can officially ban the party.
In late 2012, the Bundesrat, Germany's Upper House of Parliament that represents the 16 federal states, filed an application for a ban. If the trial against the NPD were to be successful it would have to prove the party's "aggressive-combative" attitude towards the democratic state of law.
Germany's ministers for domestic affairs on the national and state level have collected incriminating material against the NPD for a year, which in their eyes is evidence for the party's anti-constitutional attitudes. Skeptics, among them the German chancellor, have little hope that the trial against the party founded in 1964 will be successful this time around.
The first attempt to ban the party failed in 2003 because of the high number of agents (V-Leute) that the BfV had placed in the NPD's top levels. This time around, the ministers for domestic affairs insist that evidence is being collected without the help of dubious informers.
Turkish journalists get access after all
Observers expect a second attempt to ban the NPD at some point in the future. But so far, Germany's Constitutional Court has not made a decision. At the moment, all eyes are on the upcoming NSU trial in Munich.
After initially excluding some foreign journalists from the trial in a pre-court debacle, Turkish journalists will now be able to attend after all. They benefited from a successful constitutional complaint on April 12 that had been filed by a Turkish newspaper against the controversial accreditation procedure at the regional court in Munich, which led to an allocation of seats to mainly national media outlets.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle is among those who welcomed the decision by the German Constitutional Court. While the independence of courts was of utmost importance, he said, at the same time it had to be acknowledged "that this trial will influence and in some regions even shape the image that Germany has in the world," a view shared by many Germans.