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The racist scourge

Marcel Fürstenau / sms
August 22, 2013

The parliamentary inquiry into the botched NSU investigation has brought shocking details to light. Germany must reform its domestic spy agency and confront everyday racism, says DW's Marcel Fürstenau.

Marcel Fürstenau, Berlin, Photo: DW
Marcel FürstenauImage: DW

Despite being under intense observation by Germany's domestic intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, three far-right radicals disappeared off the radar without a trace at the end of the 1990s. While they were underground, a mysterious series of murders happened. Nine men of non-German background were murdered by bullets from the same weapon. In November 2011, police found the corpses of two of the three people thought to be responsible for the killing spree, who are thought to have killed themselves to avoid arrest. The alleged third member of their trio turned herself in to police after initially disappearing.

But it soon emerged that, throughout the decade, investigators into the murders suspected that the victims, nine men of Turkish and Greek heritage, were part of an organized crime ring. The suspicions also spread to include the victims' families. Investigators looked for mafia, drugs, and money laundering leads. A racist motive for the murders hardly entered the investigators' minds and anyone who mentioned it as a possibility wasn't taken seriously. With a mindset like this among the investigators, it must have been easy for the alleged far-right extremists to carry on killing people across Germany without anyone finding them.

No NSU insiders among police

When the trio of terrorists, who have become known by the name they chose for themselves, the National Socialist Underground (NSU), were finally discovered, it was more of an accident than the result of detective work, and many Germans were appalled that the group could go undetected for so long. The fact that politicians established a parliamentary inquiry at the beginning of 2012 that included all the country's major political parties was encouraging as well as necessary.

What the inquiry found is as clear as it is distressing: the country's security agencies failed spectacularly. It is to the credit of the parliamentary committee that the causes for the agencies' failures were uncovered - after one-and-a-half years of investigation.

But it says a lot about the intelligence agencies, and the politicians on the committee, that the parliamentary investigation also hit a brick wall while examining documents and questioning witnesses. When questions go unanswered because security agencies say they need to protect informants, or relevant files are destroyed, it raises the question of whether a deliberate cover-up was inevitable.

That makes it relatively comforting that parliamentarians from all parties in the Bundestag could unanimously agree that the NSU did not have insiders in the police or intelligence agencies.

Clear words

Still, it is important we listen to the chair of the committee, who said the NSU murder spree was a "historically unprecedented failure by the public authorities." Even more important is that the committee offered politicians - and the German public at large - some lessons to be learned from the disastrous NSU investigation.

The first steps have already been taken. There is now a database of far-right extremism and a center for defense against terrorist crimes, including those motivated by racism.

But the Office for the Protection of the Constitution itself also needs to be fundamentally reformed. And it is up to the German people to make sure this demand - made by the parliamentary committee - becomes a reality. The politicians must not be allowed to shirk their duties. The intelligence agency deserved the severity of the criticism leveled at it and should be thankful that a demand by the Left party to abolish it completely would not have enough votes to pass through the Bundestag.

Daily racism exists everywhere

But as well as implementing these reforms, Germany also has to come to terms with daily racism. More than anything, that requires people to recognize that it is widespread in society and cannot be brushed off as a marginal problem. Studies have shown for many years that discrimination occurs not only in public offices, but also in schools, in sports clubs, and at work places.

Time constraints meant that the parliamentary committee could only deal with this issue in a cursory manner. But its good intentions were evident in the many requests for suggestions it made to experts. The German government's ombudswoman for relatives of NSU victims, Barbara John, was a guest at the start and end of the investigation and her criticisms and ideas flowed into the final report.

The media's role

When the new Bundestag convenes after the national election on September 22, representatives will hopefully realize that they need to give right-wing extremism and racism their attention. A new parliamentary investigation is not necessary to do that, but a commission of inquiry where parliamentarians and experts meet to discuss this multifaceted topic would be a possibility.

It would also send a positive signal if the next German government provided long-term financing to projects fighting right-wing extremism. Finally, we in the media need to be sure that we do not spread racial clichés or strengthen stereotypes. It was, after all, journalists who dubbed these racist hate-crimes the "kebab murders."

Marcel Fürstenau is a senior reporter covering German politics at DW's Berlin bureau.

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