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Opinion: NSU murders: We can't look the other way

Sarah Judith Hofmann / dbApril 8, 2016

The NSU neo-Nazi terrorist trial barely makes the headlines anymore. A German TV miniseries on their alleged murders also met with little interest. DW's Sarah Hofmann wonders if Germans even want the case to be solved.

Scene from film on NSU murders Copyright picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold
Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold

It's embarrassing. German public TV tackled one of the most relevant topics of our times, and no one seemed to care much.

The ratings for the mini-series "Mitten in Deutschland: NSU" (In the middle of Germany: NSU), a three-part film on a series of murders allegedly committed by the self-styled National Socialist Underground (NSU) over 10 years, were poorer than for any of the thrillers, dramas or comedies usually aired by the public broadcaster ARD at 8:15 p.m. - that's prime time TV in Germany. Not even three million viewers watched any one of the three parts.

It seemed as if Germans would rather be lulled by shallow romance films than take a hard look at how a far-right group of criminals managed to kill 10 people in broad daylight without being caught.

Why did people shy away?

For German TV standards, the films were unusually brash. One could impossibly watch them slouched on the couch with a beer and pretzels - particularly part 1 ("The perpetrators") and part 2 ("The victims").

Sarah Hofmann Copyright DW/P.Henriksen
DW's Sarah HofmannImage: DW/P.Henriksen

The very first scene packs a punch. It shows Turkish flower salesman Enver Simsek plucking flowers at his small roadside mobile flower stand in September 2000. Simsek then rolls out a prayer rug in his van while a camper pulls up behind him. Anyone who has read anything about the murders knows that Simsek is about to die. Instead of actually showing this, the scene radically cuts to black and the words "Today is not the end of days" appear.

Only then did the film go on to tell the story of the NSU trio Uwe Mundlos, Uwe Böhnhardt and Beate Zschäpe. Christian Schwochow directed part 1, and he took chances with the camera work, cut and sound, juggling with what one would normally expect to see - unusual for a German TV production.

In the heart of Germany

The acting was great in all three parts, from Anna Maria Mühe as Beate Zschäpe to Sylvester Groth in the role of an investigator.

In part 2, Almila Bagriacik played Semiya Simsek, the daughter of the first NSU murder victim. She convincingly portrayed the woman in a way that usually only documentaries can.

The second part is clearly the most intense of the films, due perhaps to the fact that it was based on Semiya Simsek's memories, and offers viewers a close look at victims that were often given short shrift in media coverage. It hurt to see how the police suspect the Simsek family after Enver Simsek's death, to watch how police officers resort to questionable interrogation methods, how the family was emotionally abused.

Scene from film on NSU murders Copyright picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold
Part 1 seeks answers to the question: What drove the NSU trio?Image: picture alliance/dpa/S. Rabold

It was embarrassing to watch the films as a German.

Didn't we think we had learned a lesson from our past? "Never again" would there be a Holocaust, no more National Socialism, no more racism. It's a mantra we repeat, and rightfully so, every year. But faced with the NSU crimes, we must admit: We looked the other way.

How else can we explain that it took investigators so long to match the murders to the far-right scene? That terms like "Döner murders" were used by serious publications? That even today, politicians still justify themselves with evidence indicating the crimes were connected to a Turkish criminal scene? That's what Günther Beckstein, who was Bavarian Interior Minister at the time, claimed in a talk show after part 2 was broadcast.

Why is it that to this very day, we still do not know much about the involvement of the informants from the neo-Nazi scene working for the German intelligence service?

No verdict on Zschäpe yet

These are the questions the films asked, in particular in part 3, ("The investigators"). At the same time, this was the part that most clearly highlighted the miniseries' main problem, apart from feeble dialogue: It combined fictional characters and events with scenes based on fact. Much remained speculative.

Obviously, a feature film has every right to do so. But this is a special case, as the Munich trial of Beate Zschäpe is still ongoing. Gisela Friedrichsen, court reporter for "Der Spiegel," argues the films interfere with ongoing proceedings and that they ignore the presumption of innocence that even the likes of Beate Zschäpe are due.

Scene from film on NSU murders Copyright picture-alliance/dpa/BR/Wiedemann & Berg Television GmbH & Co. KG/Stefan Erhard
Part 3, on the investigation, was the weakest part of the miniseries, as it all remains speculativeImage: picture-alliance/dpa/BR/Wiedemann & Berg Television GmbH & Co. KG/Stefan Erhard

Meanwhile, the trial drags on as the defendants do their very best not to contribute to clarifying events while ensuring that the public loses interest after ever more delays and adjournments.

Perhaps the films were aired too soon.

Fiction has an impact

Movies can help people come to terms with historic injustices - the 1978 US "Holocaust" miniseries has proven so. The film was broadcast a year later in West Germany, and mesmerized 10 to 15 million viewers. For the first time, the wider public discussed the Nazis' crimes.

Today, the series is regarded as a milestone in the history of German remembrance. It is even accredited with being the reason why the Bundestag lifted the statute of limitations on murder in 1979.

"Holocaust" was broadcast more than 30 years after the end of WWII. We can only hope that Germany will not wait that long before coming to terms with the NSU murders.