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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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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.

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