The Magazine

Germany’s Not So New Extremists

The police, belatedly, solve a series of racist murders.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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"It seems . . . that we are in fact dealing with a new form of right-wing extremist terrorism,” German interior minister Hans-Peter Friedrich announced last month, following the revelation that a trio of neo-Nazis from Jena had been responsible for the murder of nine “foreigners” in Germany, as well as a police officer. But the only thing new about the case is the fact that it is now​—​no thanks to German authorities​—​finally solved. The first of what came to be known in Germany as the “kebab murders” dates back to the year 2000. The last murder attributed to the trio​—​that of policewoman Michèle Kiesewetter​—​occurred in April 2007.

Photo of Germans

Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt, Uwe Mundlos, 1998

Moreover, the three neo-Nazis​—​Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Böhnhardt, and Uwe Mundlos​—​first came to the attention of law enforcement in the mid-1990s. They were then budding members of a well-known regional neo-Nazi organization in their native Thuringia: the Thüringer Heimatschutz or the “Thuringian Homeland Defense.” They began their careers in racist crime with an anti-Semitic prank, when Böhnhardt, then a teenager, hung a mannequin with a Star of David painted on it from a highway overpass in April 1996. By January 1998, the three friends were wanted by the police on suspicion of preparing a bomb attack. Four detonation-ready pipe-bombs had been found in a garage rented by Zschäpe.

Somehow the trio managed to evade arrest at the time and remain at large for nearly 14 years while committing 10 gangland-style murders and, it would seem, detonating a bomb packed with nails on a busy commercial strip in a Turkish immigrant neighborhood in Cologne. (Miraculously, no one was killed in that Cologne attack; 22 people were injured, 4 seriously.) More troubling, there are numerous indications that Zschäpe, Böhnhardt, and Mundlos had contacts with Germany’s domestic intelligence services and may even have been informants for those services.

The trio began their reign of terror on September 9, 2000. On that day, the Turkish-born florist Enver Simsek was shot eight times in Nuremberg. Over the next six years, the trio​—​perhaps with the aid of accomplices​—​would execute another seven “Turkish” shop owners and employees across Germany, as well as a Greek shop owner whom they appear either to have mistaken for a Turk or regarded as equivalent for their purposes. The last victim of the gang, Halit Yozgat, was in fact born in Germany and was a German citizen. Yozgat was shot twice in the head at his Internet café in Kassel in April 2006.

It is common in Germany to describe people as foreigners according to their ethnic origins, regardless of whether they were born in Germany or how long they have lived there. The practice is by no means limited to the “extreme right.” It is grounded in German law, which continues to distinguish between “ethnic Germans” (deutsche Volkszugehörige) and other, so to say, “non-German” German citizens. 

As the largest immigrant community, Turkish immigrants and their families have long borne the brunt of racist and xenophobic violence in Germany. Attacks on German residents of Turkish origin in the 1990s included the infamous arson attacks on Turkish family homes in Mölln and Solingen. Eight people were killed in these attacks, including five girls aged 4 to 14. Another 23 people were injured.

Turkish family homes in Germany continued to go up in flames at an alarming rate in the intervening years. No matter how suspicious the circumstances, German authorities almost invariably claimed either to be able to “rule out” criminal causes or, at any rate, to have no evidence of racist motives. The causes of the fires have typically been left undetermined.

This is the case, for instance, of the February 2008 fire in an apartment building in Ludwigshafen that took the lives of 9 people, all of Turkish origin. Another 60 people were injured. As in the cases of Mölln and Solingen, all of the dead were women or girls. Two young girls who survived reported seeing an intruder setting fire to a baby carriage in the entryway. Distinctive Nazi SS runes found spraypainted on the building were dismissed by investigators as merely coincidental​—​so too was the fact that the same building had been attacked with Molotov cocktails two years earlier.

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