Germany’s Neo-Nazi Trial: The Banality of Evil Has a New Face

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Joerg Koch / Getty Images

Defendant Beate Zschäpe enters court with law-enforcement officers on the first day of trial in Munich on May 6, 2013

When Beate Zschäpe arrived at Munich’s Upper Regional Court on Tuesday, wearing a plain gray suit, her calm appearance contrasted with what some commentators are calling one of the most important trials in Germany’s postwar history. The 38-year-old stands accused of being a member of a neo-Nazi cell responsible for a series of racially motivated murders across the country. Her first appearance the week before prompted one German newspaper to editorialize that “Evil has a face. An ordinary face.”

The case, which finally commenced this month after many delays, features 600 witnesses, 49 lawyers representing 71 joint plaintiffs and a bill of indictment against Zschäpe — who if convicted could be sentenced to life in prison — that runs nearly 500 pages. With more than 80 days allocated for the trial, which German legal experts say could drag on till 2014, Zschäpe and right-wing extremism will be sure to be under the media spotlight in Germany for a while. Three days into the trial, the defense lawyers have already begun arguing for it to be stopped on the basis that the case has been prejudged as a result of the government paying out compensation to the families of the victims.

The trial is the culmination of the search for the perpetrators of a seven-year killing spree that took place between 2000 and 2007 across Germany. Ten people were murdered during the spree, eight of whom were of Turkish descent. A ninth victim was of Greek descent; the final victim a German policewoman.

(MORE: Germany’s Angst: A Country’s Culture Bumps Up Against Its Nazi Past)

German police got a break in their investigation in November 2011 when the bodies of Uwe Böhnhardt and Uwe Mundlos, two members of the self-styled National Socialist Underground (NSU) movement, were found in the eastern city of Eisenach. They had apparently committed suicide following a bank robbery. Zschäpe, the alleged co-founder and comrade of the two bank robbers, turned herself in to authorities saying, “I’m the one you are looking for,” after setting fire to a house in the city of Zwickau where the two men had lived. Police gathered evidence from the burned-down flat linking the group to the murders — including a video in which the then little-known NSU claimed responsibility for nine of the killings (bar that of the police officer). The video features the cartoon character the Pink Panther, interlaced with clips of the bloodied victims, taking viewers on a “tour of Germany.”

That Zschäpe and her alleged co-conspirators were supposedly able to carry out these killings for so long with impunity has raised some serious soul-searching in the country that this year marked the 68th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust. “The truth is a punch in the face,” wrote the tabloid Bild as the case finally went to trial 13 years after the first murder of flower seller Enver Simsek. “The crimes of the Nazi serial killers have torn us out of our self-satisfaction.”

In February last year, Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly apologized at a public funeral in Berlin in honor of the victims for her country’s “shame.” Inquiries into the alleged failings of the security services and police have been held both locally and nationally, a parliamentary committee report has already returned an interim judgment that the NSU investigation was a “peerless failure.” The head of the domestic intelligence service, Heinz Fromm, resigned in July after an official from the Interior Ministry testified to a parliamentary committee that the head of a department in Fromm’s organization, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, had shredded documents containing possible evidence about the NSU cell that had originated from paid right-wing informers.

Much has been made by German politicians, and both German and Turkish media, of the question of blindness to xenophobia and right-wing extremism in Germany — a potentially explosive issue given the country’s history. In an interview in November, Wolfgang Thierse, the deputy speaker of the Bundestag, Germany’s Parliament, posed the question as to whether the mistakes by the security services betrayed their blindness to right-wing extremism: “Was it bad blindness or harmless blindness? There is a constant anxiety among Germans because of our terrible Nazi history.”

(MORE: 70 Years Later, German Prosecutors to Hold Nazi Death-Camp Guards to Account)

For many of the more than 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany — its largest minority — that blindness to xenophobia, whether intentional or otherwise, has been a painful reminder of their outsider status in Germany. The Associated Press uncovered an internal police report from the southern state of Baden-Württemberg from 2007 that asserted that the killers could not have come from Western Europe because “in our culture, the killing of human beings is a grave taboo.” Even the German media dubbed the crimes the döner murders.

“It’s quite sad that the Turkish community, some of whom are third-generation Germans, are still called ausländer — foreigners,” says David Crossland, a correspondent for Spiegel Online. “Until the day when Turks living here are seen as Germans, we won’t get to grips with the problem.” The murders have also tested relations between Turkey and Germany: the trial was delayed earlier this year over an uproar from Turkish media over no accreditation being allocated to Turkish newspapers for the trial (a matter that has now been redressed). Ankara will certainly be paying close attention to how justice is administered in Munich.

The question of how popular extreme right-wing ideology is in Germany is difficult to establish. Preliminary official estimates from the Interior Ministry for right-wing crimes in 2012 suggest that there was a 4% rise from the year before. Though federal government estimates say 63 people have been killed by far-right extremists since reunification, two German newspapers, Der Tagesspiegel and Die Zeit, suggested this year that that number is closer to 152. The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political think tank that has published reports into far-right attitudes since 2010, found that the number of people with right-wing extremist attitudes in states in what was once East Germany, home to Zschäpe and the two dead NSU members, rose from 10.5% in 2011 to 15.8% in 2012. The authors of the foundation’s latest report warn that these views are more prevalent among young people and that there is a “new generation of right-wing extremism” forming in parts of the country.

Tensions over immigration have emerged in other European countries in recent years — in Greece, for example, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party won their first seats in the Greek Parliament the May elections — but Crossland argues that Germany needs to hold itself to a different standard than other European countries: “This is where the Holocaust happened. [Germany] has to have zero tolerance to neo-Nazis.”

Some newspaper editorials have expressed doubt that the trial of Zschäpe and the four other defendants accused of aiding and abetting the murders may not ultimately have much impact on reducing extremism in Germany and increasing racial tolerance. “It has put the spotlight on neo-Nazism, but it is not going to tell people much more than they already know. The victims are going to be disappointed,” says Crossland. Germans, he believes, tend to see right-wing extremism as a distant concern: “The truth is the Germans, ethnic Germans, don’t feel threatened by the far right. Germany won’t really be shaken by the problem of the right wing until something like the Boston bombings happen.”

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23 comments
MujdatAkkay
MujdatAkkay

I was in Germany on more than one occasion. I remember for example in Cologne hearing everybody speak Turkish on the streets and in shopping centers. When I lived in America I wanted to speak English I wanted be one of them and it is completely different in Germany. Turks there shop at Turkish stores, speak Turkish and generally do not try to integrate. Killing of people is evil but we are screaming over 300thousand Syrians here in Turkey I can not imagine 3 million Syrians that will not integrate. That is the situation in Germany. If you can not integrate go back to Turkey and live there instead of living in Germany as if you are in Turkey. When in Rome do as the Romans do. It's that simple.

frizztext
frizztext

"The banality of evil", a terminus of the philosopher Hannah Arendt referred to the Third Reich, actually becomes quite true here as well. Though not millions of people were killed as in Nazi Germany during WW II: but the modern neo-Nazi attacks undermine more and more cities in Germany. There are probably many "banal" followers: police covering facts, intelligence agencies removing files, judges performing callous, tactless, arrogant towards the international press...

http://flickrcomments.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/hannah-arendt-a-female-philosopher/

1984chugs
1984chugs

As a white male of Slavic descent I found when visiting Berlin the local population to be extremely racist. Married to Asian woman I wandered around Berlin where literally people would stop and stare at us (like invasion of the body snatchers). Constantly people of ages and types would stop and stare, especially middle age women.

I know racism is everywhere but I have never been so uncomfortable and angry. Did you people learn after your country was destroyed that racism isn't the way?

The hatred and dislike was so thick I could have cut it with a knife. After learning that the rest of German is very conservative, more so then Berlin, it is of no surprise that these criminals were allowed to kill and rob their way across Germany.

1984chugs
1984chugs

As a white male of Slavic descent I found when visiting Berlin the local population to be extremely racist. Married to Asian woman I wandered around Berlin where literally people would stop and stare at us (like invasion of the body snatchers).

I know racism is everywhere but I have never been so uncomfortable and angry. Did you people learn after your country was destroyed that racism isn't the way?

The hatred and dislike was so thick I could have cut it with a knife.

seniorarubia
seniorarubia

@TIME @TIMEWorld stupid american Journalismus! She's not an evil. Its American&German Secret service. 100% not this little women. Stupid!

SinnFrei
SinnFrei

"For many of the more than 3 million ethnic Turks living in Germany — its largest minority — that blindness to xenophobia, whether intentional or otherwise, has been a painful reminder of their outsider status in Germany."

BS. Let's talk again when you have 3 millons Turks in your country that mostly do not want to integrate themselves.

ChiefBisongEta1
ChiefBisongEta1

@TIME @TIMEWorld There has always been something evil in the Germans before and after Hitler/the Nazis. Ask those in their former colonies.

spondog
spondog

note to republicans. THERE RIGHT WING EXTREMISTS. just like you. you have very much in common with these people. so when you here them saying liberal Nazi this and that just know that there trying to deflect what they are on to there rivals. the truth is and always has been you are the Nazi party of America.

teacherdude
teacherdude

@brianwhelanhack Apart from the deaths, the other scandal has been police attitude to victims' families, most were suspected of killings

SinnFrei
SinnFrei

@ChiefBisongEta1 @TIME @TIMEWorld Hi, greetings from the land of evil. Komm uns doch mal besuchen..:-)

RxPharmo1289
RxPharmo1289

First of all, your comment has absolutely nothing to do with this article. Second of all, as a moderate-leaning Republican, I can already strongly discredit anything you have to say simply on the basis of your abysmal grammar. Liberals need to understand that not all Republicans are RIGHT WING EXTREMISTS.

The only Nazi I am is a grammar Nazi. You need to go back to school, learn proper grammar, and educate yourself before you make yourself look like an idiot.

spondog
spondog

@trusslerm @TIME @TIMEWorld  let me guess it's left wing? yea sure hitler and Mussolini were liberals. they were right wing. there ain't no such thing as a liberal Nazi or fascist. when we do go against these groups it's because we have no tolerance for intolerance big difference.

teacherdude
teacherdude

@brianwhelanhack DW TV has had a coupe of in depth TV programs on the case. There's were I got most of my info from.