NSU trial offers glimpse into extremist milieu | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.09.2014
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NSU trial offers glimpse into extremist milieu

The Thuringian neo-Nazi and former intelligence service informer Tino Brandt discusses his past double life as he testifies at the trial centering on the NSU Terror group. What exactly went on back then remains unclear.

Tino Brandt's best days are long gone. In the mid-1990s he was one of the leading lights of the emergent far-right scene in the German state of Thuringia. Back then he was acquainted with the presumed murderers who made up the National Socialist Underground (NSU); they were part of his circle.

Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos and Beate Zschäpe are believed to have been motivated by racism to murder ten people of predominantly foreign origin between 2000 and 2007. Zschäpe is now the main defendant in the murder trial currently being heard by the Higher Regional Court (OLG) in Munich. Her two companions committed suicide after they blew their own cover in November 2011.

All those involved in the trial are expecting Brandt's appearance in the witness box to provide insights into the milieu in which the trio of alleged murderers were involved before they went into hiding in the late 1990s. But they are also hoping it will provide clues about the period that followed, when the NSU is believed to have selected and mercilessly gunned down its victims.

One year after the first murder, perpetrated on the Nuremberg florist Enver Simsek in September 2000, Brandt was exposed as an informant for the Thuringian intelligence services. He has been branded a traitor by the far-right scene ever since. The 39-year-old has already given evidence to this effect when he first took the stand in the NSU trial in mid-July.

Hoping for exoneration

This time around, both Zschäpe's court-appointed lawyer and the lawyers of the four alleged NSU helpers who stand accused of complicity to murder will have an opportunity to question the witness more extensively. Wolfgang Stahl, who along with Anja Sturm and Wolfgang Heer is defending Zschäpe, is particularly interested in Brandt's dubious career with the intelligence service. Why did he became an informant in the first place, Stahl wants to know. The answer, unsatisfactory from the defense attorney's point of view, is that things "unfortunately developed that way" in 1994.

Zschäpe pictured with her back to her lawyers

Wolfgang Stahl (l.), Anja Sturm and Wolfgang Heer (r.) are defending Beate Zschäpe (back).

Stahl's strategy is clearly aimed at extracting information from the witness that will exonerate his client. For this it might be helpful if the NSU trial were able to scotch the image of the intelligence services helping to rebuild the far-right scene in Thuringia. It's an impression that has already been reinforced by the federal and local NSU investigation commissions. And Brandt's statements at the NSU trial sound like confirmation.

Photos from a neo-Nazi march

The intelligence services obliged him not to reveal his role as an informant to the far-right scene, the police or the judiciary, says Brandt. He states that he put the money he received for his services as an informant towards supporting political work in the right-wing scene. As examples, Brandt cites the distribution of propaganda stickers and covering the outstanding debts of members of the right-wing extremist party - the NPD - who got into financial difficulty.

At the start of the cross-examination the presiding judge, Manfred Götzl, presents the witness with several photos of events organized by the right-wing scene. Among them are pictures of a so-called Rudolf Hess commemorative march. Hess was Adolf Hitler's deputy: the last Nazi war criminal left in prison, he took his own life in 1987. "Here I recognize myself, Uwe Mundlos and Beate," says Brandt. The photo is from 1996 or 1997; he says he's no longer exactly sure.

Well-versed in right-wing ideology

At Zschäpe's lawyers' request, Brandt describes the 39-year old as a person who, although well-versed in right-wing ideology, did not push herself to the fore. At political rallies she "never stood in front of the crowd and held speeches," says Brandt. But she wasn't a "wallflower," either; and he adds that, unlike her companions Böhnhardt and Mundlos, Zschäpe was always dressed "nicely," in "civilian clothes." She didn't correspond to the cliché of the blonde skinhead girlfriend.

NSU Trio

The so-called NSU trio: Uwe Mundlos, Beate Zschäpe and Uwe Böhnhardt

Brandt's portrayal of the accused fits the picture the public has been able to make of her during the NSU trial so far: that of a confident woman who definitely didn't allow herself to be treated as a compliant "girlie" by the men around her in the right-wing milieu. This characterization is hardly likely to work in Zschäpe's favor: It fits better with the prosecution's appraisal of her. Their case is that Zschäpe was the one who covered for Böhnhardt and Mundlos as they traveled about the country murdering people, maintaining their bourgeois façade in the apartment they shared in Zwickau. This was where they lived for the longest period of time, without raising the suspicions of either neighbors or the authorities.

"We wanted to be members of parliament"

Tino Brandt claims that he had no further contact with his old comrades after the trio went into hiding. Relations with Ralf Wohlleben, a former NPD official who is also on trial in Munich as an accessory to murder, were, according to Brandt, "completely messed up" after he was exposed as an informer. Wohlleben's lawyer, Olaf Klemke, wants to know whether Brandt ever discussed the use of violence with his client. Not that he can recall, answers Brandt. Back then, in the 1990s, they decided to go down the "political route," and joined the NPD. "We wanted to be members of parliament," he says.

At the end of the day, no one has much reason to be satisfied with the witness' answers. When the presiding judge presses the question of who he still had contact with, Brandt cites his poor memory for names. "The intelligence services used to complain about it even back then," the shifty witness jokes. His cross-examination is set to continue this week.

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