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

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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.

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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.”

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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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