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Total failure

Marcel Fürstenau /aiMay 17, 2013

A German parliamentary committee spent 15 months looking into how authorities failed in their investigation of a neo-Nazi killing spree. The final verdict says police and intelligence "totally underestimated" the threat.

The parliamentary committee (photo: Stephanie Pilick/dpa pixel)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Authorities have for years underestimated right-wing terrorism. That is the upshot of a parliamentary committee investigation into Germany's NSU neo-Nazi terror cell. The terror group is believed to be responsible for 10 murders and several bomb attacks and bank robberies.

The members of the committee even went one step futher, calling it a "total failure" of state authorities. The harsh verdict, however, is anything but a surprise. There was a lot of evidence indicating that the police and intelligence services had made numerous mistakes in their investigations and only by chance found out about the NSU in 2011.

Although the trial of Beate Zschäpe, the only surviving member of the NSU trio, plus some of her supporters, has just begun in Munich, the parliamentary committee had been working on its investigation since 2012, wrapping up the collecting of evidence on Thursday (16.5.2013). At their 72nd session they questioned members of the domestic intelligence services, which had been heavily criticized in connection with the NSU cases. The committee also asked for advice from experts and analysts hoping to hear not only about the mistakes of the past but also to learn a lesson for the future.

Victims' relatives are grateful

Among the expert witnesses was the government's ombudswoman for the victims' relatives, Barbara John. She said the 11 members of the committee had done a good job and praised their work as a highlight of the NSU investigations. She explicitly pointed out that the victims'' families were very grateful for their efforts.

Defendant Beate Zschaepe (Photo by Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
Zschäpe, so far, has refused to speak in courtImage: Getty Images

As co-plaintiffs in an ancillary lawsuit, relatives of the victims have experienced how drawn-out the legal process around the NSU murders can be. They find it especially difficult that Beate Zschäpe still refuses to talk. Whether, in the end, she will be convicted for murder remains uncertain.

"Prejudice and yes-men"

Barbara John suggested establishing a central office for victims of right-wing violence to show that the German authorities had learned from their past mistakes. The former immigration commissioner of the city of Berlin also suggested setting up a foundation where NSU victims' relatives could join the work. She also proposed an office to report police mistakes, as well as decentralized consultation offices to deal with right-wing extremism. The failure of the authorities, in her view, was the result of "prejudice and yes-men." "It would be good if we had an early warning system," John said, summarizing her suggestions.

Britta Schellenberg of the Munich Center for Applied Policy Research (CAP) said that what was missing from the fight against right-wing extremism was a "coherent over-arching concept" from the authorities. There were individual measures, but money was mostly granted only once something had happened. Schellenberg told the committee that initiatives against neo-Nazis should be funded continuously. Although there were certain hotspots, "right-wing violence can be everywhere," she stressed. 

The victims' perspective

Unlike other European countries, Germany focuses more on the perpetrators, rather than on the victims' perspective and protecting them from discrimination. Pointing to the many victims, not only of the NSU, she spoke of "exorbitantly violent and innovative right-wing extremism."

Protesters with a banner with the photos of the 10 NSU victims (photo: DW/M. Fürstenau)
Nine of the 10 NSU victims had an immigrant backgroundImage: DW/M. Fürstenau

Bernd Wagner, another expert consulted by the committee, works with the project 'Exit Deutschland' that tries to help neo-Nazis get out of their scene. Wagner accused the authorities of having missed the development of the right-wing scene. Since 1987 he has been an expert in the field and says that officials always had somewhat belittled the threat coming from the right. The domestic intelligence service always claimed it was keeping an eye on neo-Nazis, but in fact failed to do so. He suggested that organizations, like the one he's working for, often had a much better insight than the authorities into what was happening on the ground. 

Institutional racism?

Criminologist Günther Schicht also criticized the police work. While it had gotten better over the last 20 years, he said, there was still a lot to be desired in the lower ranks of the police. He said there was evidence of latent racism in the police. There was, however, no real study or data on that, he added. Despite a lot of training and coaching, the problem of right-wing terrorism still had not reached everyone in the police department, he noted.

The analyses and suggestions from experts fit into the overall picture the committee has gotten over the past 15 months. The head of the group, Sebastian Edathy, accused the authorities of being "biased and blind" in their investigations into the xenophobic serial murders. His damning assessment was that the flawed investigations "had not been worthy" of a state priding itself on the rule of law.

In the comming months, the parliamentary committee will compile a comprehensive report about its findings. In early September, just weeks before national elections, the German parliament is then slated to debate the report.

There is one point, however, that parliamentarians already agree on: Germany's security apparatus needs to be reformed. The committee has already prepared a paper with draft proposals