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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"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.

A recent series of 11 fires in five years in family homes in the western German town of Völklingen (population 40,000) received similar treatment from the authorities. The residents, as the Saarbrücker Zeitung put it, were “Italians, black Africans, Algerians, but, above all, Turks.” In this case, police have acknowledged that the fires were deliberately set. Three houses were torched on the same day in 2007. The house of Recep Ünsal and his family was set on fire, then rebuilt, and then set on fire again. Though the area is a well-known hotbed of neo-Nazi activity, police again refused to acknowledge any evidence of xenophobic motives. Instead, they cast suspicion on the residents, opening an ultimately fruitless investigation of Recep Ünsal and even tapping his phone.

As the murders of “foreign” shopkeepers and employees piled up during the last decade, the crimes came to be known as the Dönermorde​—​the “kebab murders”​—​an allusion to döner kebabs, a Turkish specialty and a popular fast food in Germany. The designation is itself indicative of the prejudice to which persons of Turkish origin are commonly subjected in Germany. Only two of the victims in fact worked at kebab stands.

All the murders displayed the same gangland-style modus operandi and a common murder weapon was used. If German authorities did not recognize that they were confronted by xenophobic terror, it was only because they averted their gaze and insisted on entertaining every hypothesis but the most obvious one. Thus a recent review of the cases in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes:

The victims are kiosk-owners, run kebab stands or work at locksmiths. They are all shot in broad daylight and the same weapon is always involved: a Czech “Ceská,” 7.65 caliber, Type 83. Otherwise, the police are not able to establish any other connection among the murders. The scenes of the crimes are strewn all across Germany. Up to 60 officers assigned to the “special unit Bosphorus” [Soko Bosporus] investigate in the organized crime milieu, there are speculations about protection money, money laundering, human trafficking, and a possible involvement of the Turkish drug mafia. But the country’s longest and most mysterious series of murders remains unsolved.

But the other relevant “connection” was quite obviously the ethnic origins of the victims​—​as the very name given to “special unit Bosphorus” indicates. If the Frankfurter Allgemeine report is to be believed, it simply never occurred to the police to look for the killers in Germany’s closely monitored and virulently xenophobic neo-Nazi milieu.

Showing remarkable docility, the German media typically played along with the pretense that the murder series was somehow “mysterious” and that investigators had “no clue” about motives. Just how taboo it was even to bring up the possibility of racist or xenophobic motives can be gauged by Kassel police officer Helmut Wetzel’s painfully diffident observations in a radio interview with German public broadcaster ARD in 2010, some four years after Yozgat’s murder:

My theory, my very personal theory, I must emphasize​—​it is always a bit risky going public with such a personal theory​—​but I believe that the perpetrator is someone who sought out the victims according to their ethnicity and milieu. This is to say, he does not see the individual victim, but he sees here someone from a southern country [einen Südländer], a Turk in a Turkish shop.

Like so many other prima facie racist crimes in Germany, the murders might have remained unsolved, were it not for the blundering of the perpetrators in an unrelated affair. Since 2007, the neo-Nazi trio appear to have wrapped up their murder spree and moved on to a less ideologically driven form of crime: namely, bank robbery.

On the morning of November 4, Böhnhardt and Mundlos, wearing a ski mask and gorilla mask respectively, robbed a bank in the small eastern German town of Eisenach. After making an initial getaway on bicycles, the two men packed the bikes into a rented camper and prepared to drive out of town. A police dragnet appears, however, to have cut off their escape routes. According to investigators, as police moved in on the vehicle around noon, Mundlos shot his younger colleague, then set fire to the camper and turned his weapon on himself. The two men’s corpses would be recovered from the burnt-out shell of the vehicle.

Around three hours later, a second fire broke out in a rented apartment in a semi-detached house in Zwickau some 100 miles away. The apartment was the residence of Zschäpe, Böhnhardt, and Mundlos. The three neo-Nazis, who allegedly “disappeared” in 1998 and whom German police reportedly suspected had left the country, were in fact living less than an hour’s drive from their hometown of Jena. After leaving her cats with a neighbor, Zschäpe appears to have set fire to the apartment and fled. She would turn herself in to the police in Jena a few days later.

In the ashes, investigators discovered the 7.65 caliber Ceská used in the murders. They are also reported to have discovered DVDs containing a video in which a so-called National Socialist Underground (NSU)​—​apparently consisting of Zschäpe, Böhnhardt, and Mundlos​—​takes credit for the nine döner murders, as well as for the 2004 bombing in Cologne’s Keupstrasse. Despite the fact that the street is so well known as a Turkish commercial center that it is commonly referred to as “Little Istanbul,” the Keupstrasse bombing represents yet another major “unsolved” crime with respect to which German police had previously claimed to have “no clue” of xenophobic motives. The video also contains an image of the murdered policewoman, Michèle Kiesewetter. Excerpts from the NSU video that have been broadcast or posted online combine animated images from a Pink Panther cartoon and pictures of the group’s victims​—​including grisly crime scene photos that appear to have been taken by the perpetrators themselves.

According to initial reports, the NSU had been planning to distribute the video to a list of recipients. Some copies of the video had in fact already been sent, although it is not clear when. This could explain how the newsweekly Der Spiegel obtained a copy. One of the copies was addressed to the regional offices in Saxony of the post-Communist PDS or Party of Democratic Socialism. The party​—​which is today known simply as Die Linke or “The Left”​—​abandoned the name PDS in 2007, just a couple of months after the murder of Kiesewetter. The address on the package was also no longer current. This suggests the videos were prepared for sending already in 2007, presumably shortly after the Kiesewetter murder.

Another interesting discovery in the ruins of the Zwickau apartment was what the German media have described as “legal illegal” identity papers. The German parliamentarian and security expert Hans-Peter Uhl explained to the tabloid Bild that “normally the only people to receive such papers are covert investigators who work for an intelligence agency and are handled by an intelligence agency.” This is to say that one or more of the neo-Nazi trio appear to have been informants of the German domestic intelligence service known as the “Office for the Protection of the Constitution” or Verfassungsschutz. (There is both a federal Verfassungschutz office and regional offices in several German states.)

In 2001, it was revealed that Tino Brandt, the leader of the Thuringian Homeland Defense, was a Verfassungsschutz informant. Brandt is reported to have received around 200,000 Deutschmarks​—​or nearly $140,000​—​for his services. According to Bild, despite public denials, security officials have privately confirmed that Beate Zschäpe continued to have contact with Verfassungsschutz informants​—​including Tino Brandt​—​after she allegedly “disappeared” in 1998. The Leipziger Volkszeitung reports that investigators have evidence she may herself have been serving as an “occasional” informant right up until this year.

Moreover, it is known that a Verfassungsschutz officer​—​not a mere informant​—​was present in Halit Yozgat’s Internet café in Kassel when Yozgat was shot to death in 2006. This was discovered weeks after the crime by police investigators examining the hard drives of the computers in Yozgat’s shop.

The intelligence officer​—​who in German media reports has been identified only as “Andreas T.”​—​left the Internet café after the murder without notifying the police. He would subsequently be suspended from his job at the regional office of the Verfassungsschutz in the German state of Hesse and transferred to a new government job with the district administration of Kassel. According to news reports, he continues to be employed by the district administration of Kassel​—​this despite the fact that, as it turns out, Andreas T. is himself a Nazi sympathizer.

Indeed, Andreas T. was so open about his politics that in his hometown of Hofgeismar he was known as “Little Adolf.” There is now additional reason to believe that the German intelligence officer could have been implicated in the murders. According to a report in Bild, while working for the Verfassungsschutz Andreas T. was the official “handler” of an informant with connections to the Thuringian Homeland Defense.

Whatever the significance of the connections between the neo-Nazi trio and German domestic intelligence, one thing is already clear: The wave of racist and, above all, anti-Turkish violence that afflicted Germany in the 1990s in fact continued unabated in the new century. It would appear that political pressure to spare Germany’s “good reputation” (as a recent report on German news channel N24 put it) led both the authorities and virtually all of the German media to avoid the obvious.

It remains to be seen whether, after the dramatic self-outing of the “National Socialist Underground,” the German establishment will deal more candidly and effectively with Germany’s by no means “new” problem of neo-Nazi terror. It will be a sure sign that Germany is not dealing more frankly with the problem if investigators​—​after refusing to see racist motives in racist crimes for over a decade​—​now attempt to pin their entire backlog of “unsolved” cases on the trio of Nazis from Jena.

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers